PR and communications veteran, Chris Whitehouse, offers his take on continuing ethical dilemmas faced by the industry.
New ethical challenges constantly emerge, and the comms sector needs to consider how best to navigate them.
For much of the last century, the tobacco industry was a huge revenue stream for the communications sector, from advertising to PR, from marketing to public affairs, big budgets were to be had.
Today, any agency would hopefully think twice before accepting an appointment to promote the image of a sector that has delivered so much death and misery to generations, for decades under a cloak of science denial and a hugely well-resourced misinformation campaign.
Given the lingering link with big tobacco’s darker ethical past, it’s worth considering where the line might be drawn today, what would be the equivalent today of a tobacco association – big bucks for dirty work, anyone?
Globally, Branding in Asia recently reported that the Hong Kong Tourism Board has appointed Klareco Communications (previously known as Bell Pottinger Asia before it split from the scandal-hit parent agency) to deliver a PR campaign in Indonesia. The Board is appointed and funded by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, whose administration has deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Over 10,000 people, by the government’s own accounting, have been arrested in Hong Kong since 2019 for exercising what they were guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997 would be freedom of speech, association, and protest, along with democratic processes.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman later described the Joint Declaration as a historical document, that “no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.”
This was later followed by the National Security Law which an independent UN-appointed group of human rights experts recently urged be repealed and that China refrain from applying it.
“Communications support for such questionable clients is not a neutral action; diverting attention from egregious human rights abuses is certainly not a neutral role.”
I have personal experience with the situation on the ground. My agency, Whitehouse Communications, has been named in a briefing by the Hong Kong police as a foreign agent, with whom arrestees had been ‘colluding ’, and we have been named in court papers as an agency responsible for criminal subversion for supporting the democratic creation in the Westminster Parliament of an All-Party Parliamentary Group [caucus] on Hong Kong.
Yet, comms companies are still willing to take the brief and budget to promote Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Edelman has recently bagged a huge contract to promote Saudi Arabia, despite its record of brutal capital punishment, repression of women, the use of torture, the murder, dismemberment, and dissolving of the body of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who challenged the official narrative of the Saudi autocracy. According to the NY Times, US president Joe Biden said he placed blame on the Crown Prince.
This has led people like PRWeek editor, James Halliwell to ask in a recent article about Edelman taking the client: “What’s the thinking behind the controversial move?”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the litany of war crimes it has demonstrably committed there, many on live TV, leads one to ask where is the line to be drawn?
As Richard Edelman recently wrote of this dark situation on the ground in Ukraine:
‘Geopolitics has become the new test for trust. We saw this with the allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the war between Ukraine and Russia has only reinforced it. The line between policy and geopolitics continues to become less clear and more difficult for business to navigate.’
Edelman’s article ends with calls upon the world to ‘pray for the people of Ukraine’ and he expresses hope that ‘actions by business’ can play a role in causing the madness to end before thousands more lives are lost.
Delivering actions to back up his words, in a market in which Edelman is known to have struggled in the past, and in stark contrast to its arrangements with Saudi Arabia, Edelman paused working with its Russian affiliate in March this year. Hopefully, the pause will last at least until the atrocities have ceased, rather than only until the public gaze has moved on.
Global consulting, strategy & communications firm, Teneo, appeared also to have swallowed its ethical principles in taking the Qatari Riyal following the controversial awarding of the World Cup to Qatar, which will host the games in November this year.
The country has long been charged with denying women’s rights and said to World Cup attendees that “public displays of affection in general, for homosexuals and non-homosexuals, are not part of our tradition”.
Are there still agencies representing the worst of the world?
Though research is sparse, the fair question to ask is which agencies are still working with organizations and countries with deeply troubling, ethically questionable behavior.
Which agencies are still working in Russia, cleaning up its reputation, and helping market its products to generate the Rubles to fund the war and its crushing of life and human rights? That research needs to be done, and I hope this article prompts a closer look.
Communications support for such questionable clients is not a neutral action; diverting attention from egregious human rights abuses is certainly not a neutral role. It is to be complicit in the evil, in the vice that is being perpetrated, and it is no role for an ethical communications agency.
There is a price to be paid for doing the right thing. At Whitehouse, we have turned down dodgy foreign governments who have sought to retain us. We have taken a conscious decision to do our best not to compromise our principles or the consciences of our team members.
As a company formed to help others with their communications strategies and the message they put out to the world, we realize that we too must do so based on principles in line with our convictions and beliefs. We encourage our peers working with, or contemplating working with, less than reputable clients, to follow the same approach.
Chris Whitehouse is the Founder of Whitehouse Communications, which has the pro-democracy campaign Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong as a client. He recently obtained an MA in Contemporary Ethics from Heythrop College.
Image: Headway, via Unsplash.