Paul Holmes 17 Jan 2011 // 8:45AM GMT
Whenever public relations firms take on controversial clients, industry critics suggest that the very act of representing a country (or company, or group) with a less-than-spotless reputation is ethically dubious. The implication is that the firm will become an apologist for whatever questionable practices the client has been accused of. I’ve always found such criticism inane. For one thing, it would be a pretty sorry state of affairs if PR firms worked exclusively for clients with spotless reputations—not to mention a much smaller PR industry. But more to the point, that criticism misunderstands the primary role of public relations counselor, which is not to “spin” the client’s behavior but to influence it. So it is worth spotlighting this story from Mother Jones, which points out the resignation of Tunisia’s Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm just a week before the government stepped down—and the apparently principled reason for that decision. From the firm’s letter to the client: “It has been and remains our view that improving your nation's image in the United States or elsewhere can only be accomplished if the reputation sought is consistent with the facts on the ground. Recent events make it clear the Tunisian government is not inclined to heed our counsel regarding meaningful reforms…. “For these reasons, and because we are troubled by your government's apparent approach to important civil rights and civil liberties issues, Washington Media Group terminates its contract effective immediately.” In other words, we gave the only advice that would improve public perceptions of your regime: change your behavior. You failed to follow that advice. Therefore, there’s nothing more we can do for you. That’s good public relations advice, and good consultancy practice.