Young people who are just starting out in their careers often ask me what it’s like to be in public relations. Like so many things in life, the answer depends on the specifics — of the client or employer, and of you, the PR practitioner.
In the fictional example of Aaron Eckhart’s character in Thank You for Smoking, for example, you pair a man without principles with an industry that no principled person can defend. Everybody’s happy.
For someone with a conscience doing Big Tobacco PR, however, public relations is undoubtedly a miserable occupation. You do it to pay the bills; there’s no higher purpose. Not only that, but since you do have a conscience and presumably care about the well-being of others, you are a hypocrite every time you open your mouth on the job.
The person with a conscience, believe it or not, does have many great career options in PR — despite the ethical failings of many PR practitioners.
You can represent a non-profit whose cause you believe in, for example. In my case, I prefer to work with startups that challenge the status quo — particularly those I consider to be disruptive innovators. I like to help them get their messages heard over the loud, relentless drone of Fortune 500 PR departments.
There are quite a few companies and industries I choose not to work for, because I disagree with what they do and/or how they do it. These include:
- tobacco companies;
- companies that make firearms;
- energy companies that deny man-made global warming;
- fast-food restaurateurs with unhealthy menus;
- Big Pharma; and
- companies or organizations that support any number of political viewpoints or causes I disagree with.
That doesn’t mean you have to agree with your client or employer in every instance; you’re representing them, not you, after all. (I discuss the importance of distinguishing our opinions from those of our PR clients here.)
I’ve occasionally called out people who I suspect are hypocrites, sellouts or real-life Aaron Eckharts on this blog. For example:
- Jody Clarke of the Competitive Enterprise Institute;
- the former PR team at FEMA;
- virtually every Hollywood publicist; and even
- a young healthcare ad rep for Google.
In fact, I offered that young ad rep, who had gratuitously bashed Michael Moore’s Sicko in a transparent bid to please her client base, the same advice I offer to those entering the PR profession: Be true to yourself — whoever you might be.
To paraphrase how I asked the ad rep to think about this issue:
If you were assigned by Google to build an ad campaign for Michael Moore’s movie distributor rather than the big pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, would you be willing to write the same blog post criticizing Sicko?
Would you refuse the Moore account because of your principled viewpoint that his film is unfair? Or would your personal convictions “adapt” to the client?
Even if you don’t have a strong opinion on the issue, don’t personally take your employer or client’s side simply because it’s convenient or in your financial interests to do so. This way, you retain who you are — your personal moral autonomy.
You don’t have to sell your principles to anyone to succeed in your career. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you that you do.
When I was younger and feeling my way in my career, I made plenty of mistakes — including many worse than the one I suspect you might have made here. It’s only by screwing up again and again that I’ve come to be able to offer whatever insight I have.
And if in your heart of hearts you truly believe that Michael Moore is being unfair to U.S healthcare companies, and that your advertising clients have the moral high ground, I’m sorry I used your post in my example.
[This post is a Media Orchard Classic.]