Really interesting article and comments.
Here are a few thoughts of mine.
Once a year, I deliver an ethics lecture at Richmond University (in the interests of transparency, I’m the External Examiner of their MA PR programme). And it always addresses this issue -and, incidentally, the common confusion between ethics and morality.
Every year, I ask the students if there are any clients or areas of work that they would find personally unpalatable; and any they think that *nobody* should touch. They always have a wide range of views on the first question -though interestingly, every year, more say that they wouldn’t work with alcohol brands than with tobacco ones. But very few of them ever say that even when they personally find a product indefensible, their aversion means they want nobody to work on it.
And that’s our view too. The PRCA has always been clear that so long as an activity is legal, those working in the PR and communications sphere on its behalf have the right -and we’d like to think duty- to be members of their professional body.
And we put that belief into action. Our members cover the whole spectrum of the industry. Our corporate in-house members include organisations that are directly opposed to one another -and in some cases, are opposed to the very existence of other member organisations’ area of business. Our agency members work on every side of pretty much every issue of importance -pro HS2 and anti HS2; in favour of more state expenditure, and against it; pro and anti-regulation on foodstuffs and alcohol; and yes, in favour of, and against, plain packaging on cigarettes.
There’s an incredibly wide range of work here. And there’s just one thing that unites them all -the all subscribe to our Code of Conduct. They all stand by the professionalism of their work. They are all accountable for what they do, to clients, colleagues, and indeed to the wider public. When people make the wrong call, we won’t hesitate to act, as we showed when we expelled Fuel PR and stripped its MD of her PRCA Fellowship.
So we don’t take a view on the worthiness or otherwise of a practitioner’s field of work. And quite frankly, how could we? Who is a suitable judge of which perfectly legal activities should be beyond the tolerance of a professional association? Who decides alcohol and fatty foods are ok, but cigarettes are beyond the pale? That working with the Government of one country with whom the UK has normal diplomatic relations is acceptable, but that the same work with another similar country is not? I don’t think that's my role; or the PRCA Board’s role; or that of our Professional Practices Committee either. And the same I’m sure holds true for the CIPR.
But here’s the caveat I always offer to Richmond students. At the PRCA, we shouldn’t, and we don’t judge you according to your clients or your company. That’s your decision. But your peers will. If you take on a particularly controversial client, be aware that some potential clients will find you more attractive; some less so. If you’re in house with a controversial employer, the same applies.
In an industry that becomes ever more transparent; where agencies rightly boast of who their clients are; where in-house practitioners detail in depth whom they work for and that they do on their publicly-available profiles, we all need to think hard about our career choices. And then to stand by those decisions, and the consequences of those decisions. But it’s simply not the role of membership bodies to make moral judgements on perfectly legal areas of activity: We’re not equipped to do so, and in my view, we’re not meant to do so either.
IS IT OK FOR PR PROFESSIONALS TO WORK FOR TOBACCO COMPANIES?