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Unethical Client: Does that Mean an Unethical You?

June 12, 2009

Earlier in the week, I asked my PR crew this question:  “If your client is unethical, are you?”

I received great feedback and some rather interesting comments. To me, ethics is black and white. You are either doing it right, or you’re doing it wrong.  David Mullen wrote a great post this week about admitting your mistakes to your client – and I couldn’t agree more. If you hide them, it will come back to bite you.  You lose trust, not only among your client(s) but with your boss and co-workers.

Everyone always talks about shades of grey – I truly believe that this doesn’t apply to ethics.  If you are in PR, there is a good chance that you are also a member of the Public Relations Society of America. As PRSA members, we abide by a Code of Ethics, which you can find here.

A point was brought up that one shouldn’t take on a client if they are unethical. I posed this question: What if that client was AIG five years ago? The likelihood that you had information disclosed that they were heading down a bad financial path is slim to none. You would know of their public image, and since it is a rather large company, would probably take them on. Sure, if you can tell off the bat that they are bad news, don’t go for it. But many times, first impressions and first meetings can be looked at as a job interview: both parties are always on their best behavior. Your research will consist of news articles, their Web site and maybe testimonials. The news articles might give you more hints to what they are like, but sometimes they don’t. I can use the debt settlement industry for this – many companies claim to be great and come off in the news that way, but are actually doing extremely shady things.  Other companies in the industry are not like that, but they have to deal with the industry stereotype. Portrayls through stories aren’t always the most accurate.

Now, I haven’t handled contracts, so I couldn’t tell you what to do if you had a client who suddenly became unethical. My reasoning is that you could drop them at anytime, but I also think you need to meet with them first to figure out what is going on. Addressing the problem is always better than ignoring it, and some people are just naive and don’t realize what they are doing. Is that likely? No, most people know what they are doing is bad. It’s how they choose to dig out of that hole that matters.

So if your client is unethical, you are representing something unethical – so by proxy, so are you. Ethics are about the practices they portray – not about the brand or the industry.  How are they getting to the end result?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Kasey Skala permalink
    June 12, 2009 12:37 pm

    No one can argue that ethics are extremely important. No one wants a shady client/co-worker. In the end, they do more harm than good. However, outside of the “typical common sense” ethics – honesty, integrity, etc – each person is a different case. Take the tobacco industry, for example. I know some folks & agencies that wouldn’t take on the tobacco industry because of the industry. Some won’t take on pornography, alcohol, gambling – you get the point.

    So if I have a client who’s in the adult entertainment industry, does that make me unethical or a bad PR person? There are a lot of negative aspects of adult entertainment and some would call the industry unethical, but me personally, I don’t think I would automatically say I would never handle a client in this industry.

    I understand where you are coming from, but I wouldn’t say the agencies that currently handle AIG or any of the other troubled financial institutions are unethical simply by association. Our job is to ensure the public has accurate information about the company. Our job as PR pros isn’t to manage employees. It’s our job to do our due diligence and if we know the client is being deceitful, then yes, if we continued working with the client we’d be unethical. I think part of this is common sense and getting a firm understanding of your client. However, my job isn’t to be an auditor.

  2. June 12, 2009 12:41 pm

    Great comment, Kasey.

    I think for those industries, it’s a personal choice. I know a hotel chain that decided not to offer porn to any guests – I don’t remember which one – but this was a hot topic in my PR Ethics class my senior year of college.

    Honestly, everyone is different in how they view ethics. I can sometimes be viewed as naive because I say that it is always black and white.

    I don’t think that representing the adult entertainment industry will make you unethical or a bad PR person – it just depends on what your mission is as an agency. It all depends on what they present, offer, etc. It’s a decision that is up to the person.

    I used AIG as an example because I don’t appreciate them spending big bucks on a large PR agency when a smaller one would do just as well, for less money. I look at how Ford is handling their PR right now as a great example of what should be done.

    All in all, great points across the board – and ones that I considered a lot when writing the post.

  3. June 12, 2009 1:47 pm

    I think there are ethical issues that are black and white and there are ethical issues that are shades of gray.

    The example in the comment above would be one of those in the shades of gray whose answer probably depends more on personal choices than a superior ethical stand. People could debate whether its ethical to represent a pornography business. There would probably be no debate, however, on whether or not you should represent a faction that murders people. It’s an extreme example, I know, but the point is that there can be both black and white and shades of gray.

    I found my college ethics class interesting because I had never considered the shades of gray before. Here’s one of the examples that sticks out in my mind still. Cheating isn’t right. But what if a law student cheats on a test so he can pass and achieve his dream of representing underrepresented people in our country – children, homeless, etc. If you lean toward the ethical framework of the ends justifying the means – within reason – then you could make the decision to cheat on that test and call it an ethical one.

    I’ll also toss this out on the table for discussion. If ethics were just black and white and we all are reasonably ethical people, why does PRSA need a code of ethics? 🙂

    • June 12, 2009 1:52 pm

      Could the shades of gray, then, be your personal choices?

      Life to me has shades of gray, but I’ve never been a big supporter of ethics having it. However, I can say that you guys are making me think outside of that mindset. I wonder if it really is all situational, and based on the person. I like your example because it proves that shades of gray can be personal choices. I think the ends justifying the means is another example, because it’s your personal choice.

      Why am I think of ‘My Name is Earl’ and his karma list right now?

      PRSA needs a Code because there are always going to be shady people. 🙂 Ethics [possibly] can be black and white, but people aren’t. (See, making me think outside the box again….)

  4. jaykeith permalink
    June 12, 2009 2:18 pm

    The obvious and most well used example of ethics is always “would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family.” David makes some good points and offers a similar example. The point it, ethics is really a point of view, not necessarily an arbitrary code or set of rules put together by an outside organization.

    It really comes down to whether or not you can sleep at night doing what others might consider “unethical things.” If you were to represent the pornography industry, I would argue that the vast majority of people would look at you with disdain, because that’s just “not right.” But is it “unethical?”….of course not. Again, ethics comes down to what someone’s point of view is. What might be ethical for one might be completely unethical for another. Stealing is one of those virtues that’s beaten into you when you’re little – it’s bad. But Robin Hood’s a swell guy because when he was robbing, well he was giving it all to the poor? Is he an unethical criminal? Depends on who you ask. Shades of grey is a very good way of looking at it.

    In PR, I think that there are a few tried and true rules that everyone should follow. You should be honest, factual, and transparent; and you should act in the best interests of your client within those boundaries. If your client asked you to lie and cover something up, and you had strong beliefs that that was wrong, but did it anyway, then you’re only compromising your own belief system. At the end of the day, all you have really is your own personal set of standards, codes, and ethics, and that’s what your friends, colleagues, and family judge you on. If you breach those things that everyone knows you stand for and hold dear, then that’s when you have probably done something you didn’t want to. You know what they say, character is what you show when no one else is looking.

    There are no unethical clients, if you ask me. Just what some people might perceive as being unethical. The tobacco industry is a fantastic example. It’s been known for years that they were targeting kids so they could hook them at an early age and have a consumer for life. If you asked me if that was unethical, I would unequivocally answer yes. But I know there are other people who would argue it’s not, and became very rich people representing them.

    If you were part of that campaign, and can look yourself in the mirror each day, then more power to you. Ethics, to me, is a state of mind.

  5. June 12, 2009 2:29 pm

    J – I really enjoyed your comment, because it hit on a lot of solid points.

    I don’t think a brand can be unethical – ie. the tobacco industry, porn industry, etc – but that their practices can be unethical. Would I work for those industries? No, but I would never look down on someone for doing so.

    Ethics come down to your personal choices – and your clients. Ethics should never be based on a brand name, but by what a person does, and what you perceive the effect to be.

    I have always viewed ethics as right or wrong because I don’t think finding a loophole is a good way to go about things. That’s what shades of gray was taught to me as – a way to validate a wrong action. Is that the best way to look at it? Of course not, but that is also what I was taught. I was also raised by a revolutionary who truly believed that ethics were black and white, and that no one should get away with something because of who they were – which can be seen in brands these days.

    You really made me think this morning – thanks for that!

  6. June 12, 2009 2:59 pm

    Great comments so far. The discussion on ethics is always fascinating. There concept on honesty and integrity is concrete, however the actual ‘nuts & bolts’ on honesty can be perceived in many ways.

  7. June 12, 2009 4:16 pm

    Lauren, great post and discussion! Here’s one perspective on ethics in business: http://www.ethicaledge.org/content.php?p=article_decision. I’m not spamming, it’s not my site. This essay’s point is just one practical way of looking at individual ethical decisions as well as the companies we represent. I think it supports your point.

  8. June 12, 2009 7:05 pm

    I would argue, by definition, ethics are always in a gray area for some of the reasons Kasey. Ethics are personal. What I believe is ethical for me might vary from what another felt was ethical for them. Ethical norms also exist in societies. An example from an international marketing course – if you are operating in a country where it is considered a normal business practice to offer inducements (known as bribes in the U.S.) to move goods through customs, is it unethical to do so? It’s a tough question – not at all black and white.

    The next time you are in your car think about whether or not it is unethical to knowingly break the law and go over 55MPH. Everyone will probably think about it differently. That’s what makes ethics difficult. Its personal.

  9. June 12, 2009 8:05 pm

    Our job as PR pros is to be counselors, and that includes counseling about steering our clients’ practices from wrong to right. Would I take on a potentially shady client? Maybe, if I thought they would be open to counsel and change and becoming accountable. If, over time, it became clear they just wanted to cover things up and/or spin things, and not take counsel about changing their ways or doing the right things, then I would definitely drop them like a hot potato. But if no good PR people ever try to take on iffy (grey area) clients and steer them in the right direction, then how will positive change ever come about?

    • June 12, 2009 8:07 pm

      Great point, Lara. Sometimes in this industry you have to take risks. I have to admit, I’m slightly naive because I’ve never been in the position to make the decision on a client or not. The only time I did was because of a personal decision I did, and I just chose not to work on the account. I was an AAE at the time.

  10. June 12, 2009 9:49 pm

    I think first you have to qualify what your specific set of ethics entails. For most of us it’s fairly consistent. But in the oft chance that we need to reserve judgment in lieu of actual facts we need to be prepared for that possibility as well.

    Remember you are hired by the CLIENT and they should be your first concern. However, recognize that some situations call for a little bit more maneuvering. I think you will mostly end up doing the right thing.

  11. June 12, 2009 10:31 pm

    Great discussion. But what if you are not talking about a client. What if you are the in-house PR pro, and your company decides to do something unethical? You strongly advise against it, but the Executive Director ignores your advice. Do you up and quit, knowing that they are going to go ahead and do this unethical thing anyway? And if you do quit, without your good advice, the company may make more unethical decisions?

    In my last job, the company received some money as a result of receiving a defective product. It turned out, that the shipper had sent the wrong product – one they had not ordered – and it was not defective after all. By rights, the company should have returned the money. But the exec. refused to give it up.

    What would you do?

    • June 16, 2009 1:04 pm

      Hi Nadine – I think that the decision should be a personal one – as that is what ethics is, your personal choices. I personally could not work for a company that did not return the money – but again, I am a person who goes back to a store if I am given too much change. Since it was a defective product that was actually shipped in error, the money should be returned and the correct product sent. Just my thought.

  12. June 16, 2009 12:47 pm

    I think in-house PR people have different challenges. If an agency or independent PR pro loses or rejects a client, they still have other clients. But these days, it’s difficult to walk out on a job. In this case, the PR guy left for another job, and a month later, I left without a job. Even a paycheck can’t compensate when you don’t respect your employer.

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