(I originally wrote this for PR Week magazine.)
An honorable tradition among lawyers is representing defendants whom they strongly suspect to be guilty, especially people with little or no ability to pay for their defense.
When the overwhelming power of the state is brought to bear against an individual whose freedom or even life may be at stake, we need an adversarial system – however flawed it often can be – to help protect the innocent.
The PR profession has its own justification for representing parties whose behavior, by almost any definition, warrants widespread contempt. Everyone has a right to push his or her own story, the logic goes, and expert help is a necessary part of the system.
Is this really true anymore, assuming it ever was? Not in the Digital Age.
I’m not talking here about the closer calls, where a client’s positive characteristics and deeds are many and transgressions are the smallest exceptions, or where the facts invite a serious debate over a nuanced public issue. Nor am I talking about the cases where a relatively small minority of opinion is on one side, but you can still make an honest case. No, this is about the truly bad clients whose records deserve deep contempt or who peddle hoaxes – the kind of clients that opinion-making organizations take on for purely mercenary reasons.
For them, it’s open season on truth. So we have pros who promote the virtues of a fear-ridden, impoverished nation run by a murderous kleptocrat. They concoct a fantasyland campaign for a company that mistreats workers, the environment, and shareholders while a compliant board of directors tosses loot to executives in amounts that would make Marie Antoinette blush. They torture language, obfuscating reality or denying it outright, deliberately trying to con the press and public.
Defending the indefensible, they generate fat fees. And they tell themselves and peers that they’re helping create a robust public debate, or just doing their jobs.
In the age of ever-more-giant mass media, images were made and unmade mostly via the press and advertising. Such justifications for doing the bad guys’ bidding, while still arguable, weren’t entirely ridiculous.
Today and especially tomorrow, anyone can tell a story, unmediated. In that media-sphere, the old rationalizations hold a lot less water.
So what am I arguing for? Naively, no doubt, I’m suggesting that PR folks decline some business.
Say no to the dictators and their apologists. Say no to the sleaziest CEOs and their minions. Say no to the piracy of candid discourse. Say no to the actors – corporate, political, whatever – who behave as though honor is a tactic, not a principle.
Tell them all that they can do their own imagery. They can use the Internet, buy advertising, and try to fool people without your help. Now they have access to global media in their own right. Let them use it.
I don’t know of any PR code of ethics that obliges disrespect for truth. Say yes to the value of liking the person you see in the mirror.