Confusing client ethics for PR ethics, and correla
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Holmes Report

Confusing client ethics for PR ethics, and correla

Paul Holmes

In a letter to the FT, PRSA chair and chief executive Rosanna Fiske repudiates the work done on behalf of the former Libyan government by a New York PR firm called Brown Lloyd James. She says that “the firm’s work to ‘improve American public opinion about the ruling families of Libya and Syria’ is distinctly against the ethical tenets of modern public relations.” In response, I’ll reiterate my long-held belief that it is possible to provide ethical PR counsel to unethical clients, and to provide unethical counsel to ethical clients. It’s the ethical content of the counsel that matters, not the identity of the client. I don’t know enough about what BLJ did for Libya to know whether its work was ethical or not, but I disagree with the premise of the PRSA’s response. Is it too much to ask that reporters remember that correlation is not causality? Teens who use Facebook and other social networking sites on a daily basis are three times as likely to drink alcohol, twice as likely to use marijuana, and five times more likely to smoke tobacco than teens who don't frequent the sites, according to a new survey. Not surprisingly, media outlets such as CBS—encouraged by sensationalistic quotes by the study’s author—have taken these findings as an excuse to ask: “Are social networking sites turning teens into substance abusers?” The answer, contrary to much of the media coverage, is perhaps. But there’s nothing in the findings reported here to suggest which side of the social networking-drug abuse equation is cause and which is effect. Yet another company—this one in the UK benefits testing business—seeks to silence its critics with a libel threat. Let’s be absolutely clear about this. If accusations like this have no substance, then companies should be happy to refute or debate them in an open forum. When companies turn to legal action to silence their critics, it is because they can’t refute them and fear debating with them. The fact that JC Penney was selling this “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework” T-shirt in the first place is just one more reason PR people should be involved in a wide range of business decisions: any moderately well-trained PR person could have predicted the angry protests and negative media coverage. But once the story broke, the company responded pretty swiftly. Apple continues to have problems with its supply chain, and while the pollution charges against Chinese manufacturers are not nearly as serious as the labor issues at the Foxconn “suicide factory” they do suggest that the technology company is either indifferent or incompetent when it comes to monitoring abuses in its supply chain. Congratulations for Forbes on having found a blogger whose message—“social media is bullshit”—will no doubt soothingly confirm the prejudices of the magazine’s core septuagenarian “get of my lawn” demographic. The Onion’s take on the new Apple CEO makes gentle fun of the assumption that everything will fall apart following the departure of the company’s media-appointed genius CEO.
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