Ethical PR – PRing PR

Should PRs have a moral obligation to help ethical businesses? This is a question I have found myself trying to answer for the last week or so.

Following my post ‘Primark Sweatshop PR Disaster’ there followed quite a stream of comments discussing the rights and wrongs of what Primark had done, and the PR implications following the TNS Knitwear-sweatshop scandal. One particular comment in particular hit a spectacularly pertinent note. Shauna Chapman of Quail By Mail, an ethical clothing company, made the point:

Every time Primark and the other sweatshop devils make a slip up it highlights proper ethical fashion. Emerging eco/ethical labels couldn’t afford this type of press otherwise as we’re not yet deserving–apparently.

And Shauna is so, so right. A small Internet startup, be it a clothes or computer games retailer, is always going to struggle to get noticed in the mainstream media when the larger high street brands have thousands of pounds to throw at advertising and PR, unless they are offering something truly unique.

Ethical clothing, or fairtrade companies for example, have an even tougher time because they are working with even smaller budgets and, until something drastic happens with shoppers’ characteristics, will not get the same amount of custom as their traditional competitors.

Should PR agencies then, have a moral obligation to help out these companies who are doing their bit to be as ethical as possible?

The PR industry gets a lot of stick for being immoral trying to dupe consumers, and there are a plethora of blogs that point out its failings.

Perhaps the CIPR could discuss with its members the possibility of doing some voluntary work for companies that are without PR represnetation who are providing a service on a small scale. This could be someone such as Quail by Mail, or perhaps an infant fair trade t-shirt manufacturer. The PR agency could do 2 hours a week of basic media out reach, funded perhaps by the CIPR or a partner organisation.

Now, there are going to be a few PRs who will think “Why should I spend my time helping out a small unheard of client who’s not paying very well?”. Er, human nature? Your conscience? But no, seriously. If the CIPR were to instigate an accredited award, perhaps that would act as a measure of how ethical your PR agency really is, instead of having the token green client, it would add some credibility to the proposal.

Do individual PR professionals have a duty to take their directors and say, ‘look, why don’t we give something back?’. Even better, why not do it on your own community, perhaps offer a helping hand to a loical charity or club that needs some PR to raise funds.

What do you think PR can do to make itself more ethical in this sense? Can PR find the time to do something akin to what I’ve suggested? I’d really appreciate your thoughts!


6 thoughts on “Ethical PR – PRing PR

  1. Interesting post! My agency has a client for which we do some work on a charitable basis – i.e. we don’t get paid for all of work but we do get paid for some of it. In return, they also give us tickets to certain events etc which we can use on a corporate entertaining basis. Therefore, perhaps if these companies could offer something of value to the PRs in return – i.e. not necessarily money – it could work?

    Does the CIPR have any money at the end of the day however to subsidise such work? I doubt it! And would some kind of recognition in the form of an award work? Probably not in the current climate and possibly only for the larger agencies who can afford their own PR which is essentially what this would be….

    We are all running businesses at the end of the day and I’m sure suppliers of such ethical companies do not feel the moral obligation to supply their goods at a reduced cost, however, PR certainly does need some good PR so it’s certainly worth considering.


  2. While I don’t think that PR companies need necessarily volunteer their services gratis to ethical companies, dividends of many kinds can be collected when such altruism takes place. With certain causes both near and dear to our hearts, our company has from time to time taken on off-grid pro bono work that not only assists charitable organizations in their efforts to raise awareness, but also makes us feel good. This is a win-win situation but is certainly not something that we advertised having done in order to gain good PR for ourselves.

    In today’s tough economic climate, a “trade” system like that which Melle has suggested, makes good sense. The client gets their PR needs taken care of and the agency receives something of value in return. With budgets constantly being constrained yet the potential payback from good PR incredibly high, I expect that we’ll see more and more compensation structures like this in the weeks and months ahead.

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  4. Hi this is a very interesting thought. I run an affordable ethical online fashion boutique and I totally understand Quail by Mail’s predicament…ethical businesses are often over looked in a PR sense as larger mainstream businesses can throw money at PR. I’m not sure there will ever be a case where PR is offered to companies just becasue they are ethical. I woud be the first one to jump at the chance of that but I think it’s just not possible

  5. Thanks for the comments Linda, Melle and Emily, it’s greatly appreciated :-)

    I agree that the PR industry will (probably) never offer free work, but i think they should look at doing ‘community’ projects if you like, helping causes in their local area on a pro bono basis – be that a kids charity or an ethical online retail boutique!

  6. Hi

    When I first set up my PR Agency 11 years ago, I wanted to work with clients whose values I shared whether they were in the private, public or not for profit sector. 11 years on, we are still going strong.

    We get to work with clients and on issues that we feel passionately about.

    Our team also enjoy being part of agency that gives back to the sectors in which we operate. We do this by adopting a charity of the year, each having four paid days a year that we can use to provide PR/marketing for the smaller charity of their choice, providing free training through the Media Trust, using fair trade, recycled products and public transport where possible.

    So the answer is, yes it is possible to run a PR agency which only works with clients whose ethical values you share, as long as the Agency is as interested in its social and environmental values, as it is, in being profitable.

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