Is Everyone Entitled to PR?

Is Everyone Entitled to PR?

By Dick Martin

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martin1I worked at Western Electric back in the 1970s. It was a subsidiary of the AT&T monopoly, which was also its only customer. It was run by engineers, and I imagined that, under their white shirts and skinny ties, they wore T-shirts that read, “Real men don’t need PR.” They were, of course, all men in those days. And they saw something slightly effete in the notion of PR. By the 1980s, when the company faced real competition, they got over it. They were all honest executives, and I was proud to serve them and their successors for more than three decades.

Not all PR people are so lucky. Sometimes they have to ask themselves if they ought to be working for the people who request their help. Harold Burson, who I quoted here, has faced that question many times.

“I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public-relations representation,” he has said. “I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that counsel representation.

“On the other hand, I think that [in regards to] unpopular causes which are legitimate [and with] which I may not agree . . . I do not think it’s unethical for me to represent that client as long as I can do so in a way that my client is not compromised by my bias or disagreement.

“I think that I am an advocate for a client just as a lawyer is an advocate, that I am engaged to motivate individuals or groups to take a position or take an action that my client seeks to have taken. I think I should, however, as a public-relations professional, make the judgment on whether I represent such a client by asking myself the question, ‘Is what this client wants to do in the public interest?’

“And I think that is a factor that is very important [and] sometimes overlooked. The fact is, I believe that no action can be sustained or successful if, in the long run, it is not in the public interest.”

While existing codes of conduct published by the various professional associations dance around the issue, Burson puts the public interest at the center of ethical decisions in the practice of PR. You should make sure your PR people have the same attitude and that they advise you on the public-interest implications of your business decisions.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.