Questions of ethics, conflict, and agency firings
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Holmes Report

Questions of ethics, conflict, and agency firings

Paul Holmes

Two very different stories involving ethics, conflict of interest, and clients firing their public affairs agencies. In the first, an employee of Ogilvy Public Relations gave a presentation to San Francisco-based Amazon Watch on “strategic communications for environmental defense and protection on human rights.” A sister agency, Ogilvy Government Relations, has been lobbying for Chevron—an oil company that is a major legal/public relations conflict with Amazon Watch and others—over the company’s activities in Ecuador and other Latin American markets. As a result, Chevron fired Ogilvy, citing what it called “a material conflict of interest with Ogilvy that “could not be resolved and made our relationship with them untenable.” I have to say, I find this puzzling. As far as I can determine, the Ogilvy employee Felipe Benitez said nothing specific about the Chevron case in the course of a presentation that focused primarily on strategic issues. Even leaving aside whatever “Chinese walls” there may be between Ogilvy PR and Ogilvy GR, it’s far from clear what “conflict” there is here—this looks like a temper tantrum by an overly-emotional client rather than a considered decision. (A really smart client might actually have encouraged Ogilvy in its constructive engagement with an NGO that is clearly one of the client’s key stakeholders.) In the second example, Stephanie Harnett, an employee of Mercury Public Affairs, which represents Wal-Mart in its application to obtain a building permit in Los Angeles, posed as a student reporter in order to infiltrate a closed press conference held by a pro-labor group opposed to the development. There’s no question that Harnett’s actions were unethical. Mercury told Gawker that her actions were “in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury” and that “Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision.” (The “senior associate” title at Harnett’s LinkedIn profile would raise questions about her seniority, but not about the immaturity of her decision). Mercury severed its relationship with Harnett; Wal-Mart severed its relationship with Mercury. Both decisions are sad, but understandable. The only observation I’ll make in this case is that many young people coming into our profession believe that this kind of behavior is the norm; that it is expected or at least tacitly condoned. I recall the CEO of a top 10 PR firm telling me that when his firm started asking prospective employees whether they would be prepared to lie to a reporter to advance a client’s cause, the majority said they would; they believed that was what the firm wanted to hear. That means every PR firm has an obligation to explain its ethical principles to all employees, explicitly and often.
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