One of the very first PR stunts – and still one of the most famous – was a promotion for Lucky Strike cigarettes. In 1928 Edward Bernays launched the “torches of freedom” campaign which encouraged women to show their liberation from the strictures imposed by a male-dominated society…by taking up smoking.
This simple, creative idea of using an “issue hijack” to re-brand cigarettes opened up a massively lucrative new revenue stream, but it also helped forge PR’s reputation as a cynical and unethical industry.
Some would argue that recent Bell Pottinger scandal shows that PR remains as amoral as it was in Bernay’s day, but we see it differently. The immediate, universal and damning reaction from other agencies and industry bodies demonstrated genuine distaste and disappointment, and this reflects entirely to the industry’s credit.
Any PR practitioner quickly learns the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s dictum about the impossibility of fooling all the people all the time. If agencies adopt unethical strategies, or choose to promote questionable companies or regimes, they will sooner or later get found out. The overwhelming majority of PR agencies work tirelessly to behave in the right way, and abide by industry or self-developed codes of conduct. It is the most rigorous form of self-policing because the biggest penalty for failing to act ethically is not a slap on the wrist, but cancelled contracts and lost revenue.
Yes, it’s true that cigarette companies, gambling operators and weapons manufacturers all use PR companies – and it’s equally true that all these companies are legal, licensed and expected to operate within the law. Few would question that these organisations should be denied representation.
More important, however, is the fact that the huge majority of PRs are not selling cluster bombs or cancer sticks, but rather deodorant, sports shoes and business software. They are not cynical, slippery, double-dealing misanthropes, but liberal and progressive men and women with a talent for communication and a passion for their specialist sector. We know, because we work with dozens of them every week!
By a strange equivalence, we recruiters are in exactly the same position as the PRs we work with. We rely on our reputation; if we behave unethically, we know that we won’t get the repeat, lifelong business on which we depend. Recruiters who behave badly – whether it’s approaching candidates who work for one of their agency clients, using misleading job adverts, or sending out CVs far and wide without telling the candidate – are doing themselves and their industry a great disservice.
The majority of recruiters, we hasten to say, do operate ethically; yet most PR professionals have a fund of stories about recruitment agencies using highly-questionable practices. Like PRs, we must strive to conduct ourselves honourably every day if we truly value our reputation.
Ethics – it really is the only way.