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March 31, 2011

Whitewashing Despots: Do Dictators Deserve PR Representation? — Op-Ed

PRSA had an op-ed published March 31, 2011, in Authored by Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, chair of PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, the opinion piece examines whether it is ethical for public relations firms to represent dictators.

Whitewashing Despots: Do Dictators Deserve PR Representation?
Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA
Published: March 31, 2011

Can a public relations professional represent a dictator or an authoritarian government and remain ethically sound? It’s the age-old question: Do all clients and organizations deserve representation in the court of public opinion, as long as their behavior is legal?
That’s the essence of an issue boiling over in the London media and among certain NGOs who are concerned that PR firms are, in their view, whitewashing the bad behavior of bad people. Gideon Spanier of the The London Evening Standard writes, “Critics claim that London has turned into the global capital of reputation laundering.” Spanier also quotes Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, as saying, “No amount of media harassment or sensationalism is going to stop me representing clients that have a legitimate right to tell their story.”
The controversy offers an opportunity for public-relations practitioners to do some soul searching about the clients or employers they choose to represent. Is anyone off limits? Does everyone have the right to representation in the court of public opinion, just as the accused have a right to legal representation in a court of law?
If these London PR professionals were members of the Public Relations Society of America, would representation of despots put them at odds with the PRSA Code of Ethics? Are American practitioners ethically bound to avoid despots, dictators and other disreputable types? Or to put it more directly, does Muammar Gaddafi deserve professional PR counsel?
There are several sections of the PRSA Code of Ethics that address this. My read is that it would be difficult — but possible — for a PR professional to be an ethical practitioner while representing dictators or authoritarian regimes.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

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