An article in Ethical Corporation magazine raises the issue of the impact of the supposed negative reputation of public relations agencies on their ability to provide counsel to clients on their responsibility programs.
In suggesting a negative impact, the article sets up something of a straw man argument (the author is with a specialist corporate sustainability communications agency) because, in fact, it quotes the Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumer Report that year after year:
"The majority of respondents want companies to spend more time and money telling them about their corporate responsibility activities. Over 70% say that more information about companies’ social, environmental and ethical behaviour would influence their buying decisions."
Frankly, whatever the author of the article feels about the ethical behaviour of some PR practitioners, as an industry we do a decent job of supporting companies in explaining their CR activities, and more companies could benefit from our counsel. (And I have never been turned down as a counsellor because of some perceived evil point of view or conduct on the part of my agency).
The more important -- and difficult -- inquiry is the duty public relations agencies have to identify and urge responsible conduct when they perceive a disconnect between public statements and demonstrated harmful actions. Is our job to assist clients to communicate what they want, or to identify the need to change a specific set of problematic behaviours before communicating? Since our role should be advising companies on their relationships with their publics (the definition of "public relations"), I tend to think we have an obligation at least to enter into debate with the client about what the public thinks about a specific "damaging" action, program, product or approach.
At H&K Canada we have a clause in our Code of Conduct which allows us -- individually at least -- to remove ourselves from a specific assignment "if it is in conflict with (our) own values or beliefs without compromising (our) current position or career opporunity at Hill & Knowlton." If you can reconcile a company's conduct with your own values and beliefs, after thorough analysis and assessment, then providing counsel on its CR activities becomes a whole lot less knotty.