Feb 15, 2024 - Business

Does everyone deserves a PR rep? Communications experts are split

Illustration of an upside down microphone shaped like a question mark.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

While everyone deserves representation in a court of law, communications experts are split on whether everyone deserves PR representation.

Why it matters: Recent settlements have highlighted the risks associated with client work and the ethical dilemmas many agencies are forced to consider.

Driving the news: A subsidiary of PR giant Publicis Groupe has agreed to pay a $350 million settlement for its ad campaigns for Purdue Pharma that state prosecutors say drove demand for opioids like OxyContin during the drug crisis.

  • The settlement follows consulting firm McKinsey & Co.'s 2021 agreement to pay $573 million for its work with Purdue.

Some agency leaders have clear rules on who they will and won't represent— like those in the tobacco or gun industries.

  • "We pick our clients very carefully because you end up wearing them," says one longtime agency leader.
  • Others believe everyone deserves to have their story told, and some say it's their job to help companies transition or governments change for the better.

Zoom in: That is Edelman's response when questioned about its work with the Saudi government, which is well known for its involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and for locking up activists and rivals.

  • "We're very careful about our selection of clients," Edelman CEO Richard Edelman told Axios. "So why are we working for the Ministry of Culture of the Saudis, for instance? Because we actually believe that our work is helping transform that country and that we're part of the big change economically, socially, culturally."
  • "We believe that the government is taking its society in a direction that is positive and accepting of broader cultural influences," he added.
  • Of note, Edelman says the firm's work with foreign governments makes up less than 5% of its total revenue.

Reality check: Agency leaders have a business to run, and big-name clients with big reputational issues often mean even bigger retainers.

  • As firms grow and add more employees, it gets more difficult to turn away business, says Shira Fine, partner and head of strategic communications at Bryson Gillette.
  • "It becomes an even more important conversation as your firm grows, in order to make sure that you're not growing for growth's sake, but you're growing in a direction that supports the world that you want to live in."

Between the lines: The work itself isn't black and white. Much of it hinges on the intent of the client, which isn't always clear from the outset, say experts.

  • Take, for example, the demise of U.K. PR firm Bell Pottinger.
  • The firm — which was founded by former aide to Margaret Thatcher Tim Bell and was known for spinning on behalf of dictators, foreign regimes and scandalized celebrities — famously went bust in 2017 after it launched a social media campaign that incited racial division in South Africa.

Be smart: While PR membership organizations like PRSA, Page Society and PR Council have codes of ethics, they focus more on accuracy, truth and responsibility as opposed to hard and fast guardrails to which agencies should adhere.

  • In response, firms are left to make these calls on a case-by-case basis using due diligence and gut instinct.

The big picture: PR agencies aren't the only ones who grapple with these gray areas — but they are the only ones being paid to sway public opinion in favor of the client in question, which opens the firms up to greater legal and reputational risk.

  • Plus, it can also hinder a firm's ability to attract and retain talent — particularly millennial and Gen Z workers, roughly 90% of whom say they would quit their jobs due to a misalignment with company values.

What they're saying: "Employees are deciding what they're going to work on and what they're not. That's the barometer, because employees will vote with their feet," says PR Council president Kim Sample.

What to watch: Talent demands for value-driven work have created an opening for challenger firms that have less overhead and can afford to be more selective when it comes to who they will represent.

Go deeper ... Top PR talent defect from big agencies

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