In a column Kevin McCauley wrote the other day he hit on a question that many in our business have wrestled with over the years. Should a PR firm represent a client that is adverse to American interests?
After all, we are not lawyers. More often we are high-priced couriers, strategizing how best to deliver client’s messages to the media and other publics.
In this case, the client is Russia, represented by Ketchum, but the same question could be asked by most international PR firms which have toiled on behalf of foreign accounts or governments.
Right now, the U.S. and its European allies are at odds over how to approach the Ukraine situation; also, many of our allies have not stood shoulder-to-shoulder when U.S. troops fired shots in anger in various actions.
So the question “to represent or not to represent" could also be asked of US PR firms that include on their rosters our reluctant allies because they also differ with our government on issues.
For PR agencies to say they represent only the tourist or business interests of a totalitarian government, as firms have said in the past, is Saturday Night Live material.
But I believe Ketchum when it says, as McCauley wrote, “We are not advising the Russian Federation on foreign policy, including the current situation in Ukraine.” (If only PR people were so powerful.)
Only a few months ago Ketchum gained a New York Times by-line article for Putin, which caused a sensation in our business and the media. Placing an op-ed expresses the views of a client. That’s a far cry from having influence on the foreign policy of a client.
It’s too easy for critics of Ketchum to suggest that they resign the account because of the Ukraine situation. Thus far no Americans have been hurt by the Putin action. But many American’s would be hurt if a PR firm would automatically resign an account when it conflicts with the US policy of the moment. If PR firms did so,
Americans would be hurt: the staffers who would be terminated and their families. Are those in our business who are so vocal in their condemnation of firms that represent certain interests that they disagree with willing to help pay the bills for those left jobless because accounts are resigned?
American PR firms should not represent governments that harm US citizens. But for decades, American companies have harmed and killed millions of Americans by doing environmental damage to our rivers and forests, by manufacturing faulty consumer and medical products, by promoting unhealthy foods, tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, by pricing medicines out of the reach of those needing it, by fighting government regulations of Wall Street, despite the damage it has done to the U.S. economy, and by decimating our manufacturing base, causing massive unemployment in the US and hiring low cost labor in foreign countries.
Should PR firms refuse to work for those American companies that have done so much harm to Americans, as many major corporations have? If they did there would be no PR business.
So until the U. government declares Russia or any other government that we disagree with an enemy, and US firms refuse to represent corporate clients whose polcies have harmed millions of Americans, let’s not be so quick to condem agencies for the clients that they represent. It’s too easy to be judgmental when you are the person who will not be affected.
Those who vocally condemn PR firms from doing business with Russia are in a Groundhog Day-like Cold War time warp. The US and Russia cooperate on important issues – the fight against terrorism, the removal of poison gas from Syria and on economic policies. Many of our closest Cold War and present day allies are major trading partners with Russia and, like totalitarian China, US businesses look at Russia as an expanding market for our products. While both are despotic governments, Putin’s Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is not averse to doing business with the West. That is not to suggest that the U.S. and its allies should not impose strict sanctions on Russia.
As Clarence Darrow said, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom.” And that also applies to PR firms choice of clients.
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Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a contributor to PR publications, consults on projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org