PR Firms: Doing Well, But Doing Good?

Can An Industry That Advocates for its Clients to Embrace 'Social Good' Practice What it Preaches?

It’s been a long-time pet peeve of mine to observe how many reputable firms in the PR industry will accept clients whose business or advocacy goals raise ethical questions. We’ve seen big oil companies retain PR agencies to publicly tout their social good chops, while at the same time fund politicians and astroturfing initiatives that gloss over their misdeeds or support policies that do just the opposite.

In recent years, corporations have embraced the mantra of doing good AND doing well. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #GretaThunberg all have struck resonant chords with companies the world over. Social good programs also happen to translate into better business, especially as younger generations increasingly demand that the purveyors of the goods and services they purchase have a social conscience.

The inimitable Prof. Galloway touches on this “zag” in the latest podcast episode of Pivot with Kara Swisher.

Interestingly, it is often left to the communications teams — internal and agency — to both conceive and implement social good strategies. Many PR firms, in fact, release studies that show the benefits of “doing the right thing,” while at the same time accept clients with questionable intentions.

Over the years, I’ve seen my share of such cases. Philip Morris USA, the tobacco division of Altria, was a lucrative client of Burson-Marsteller’s. To its credit, B-M had a policy that allowed its staff to decline working on that business if he/she desired. And Ketchum spent many years representing various facets of the Russian Government, also a very lucrative account. Then there are the Beltway firms that do all kinds of nefarious client work.

Yet, I never understood how a firm whose leadership consistently advocates for the benefits of social good programs, would seem to accept a client whose goals don’t.

“An organization’s commitment to social purpose matters more than ever to its customers, employees, and communities.” - Edelman on Social Impact

Don’t get me wrong. There isn’t an established agency in the world that would take on a client if it was being asked to purposely deceive or do something illegal. On the other hand, nearly all the “big” agencies have skeletons in their closet that they’d rather not talk about.

I just wonder in the current environment when we’re seeing an explosion in the number of agencies that have embraced social good as their underlying compass, how the world’s biggest agencies still believe they can have their cake and eat it too.

Here are several agencies whose leaders actually practice what they preach:

The big agencies will need to think long and hard about this paradigm shift if only to attract and retain the next generation of socially conscious practitioners.