by Tom Buchanan - Founder
As the world reaches its tipping point on climate change – please don’t switch off – you may have seen that celebrities including actor Sir Michael Caine, comedian Amy Schumer and writer Naomi Klein have put their name to an open letter to the boss of Edelman, the giant US PR agency.
Our cohort of blameless celebrities, who clearly never travel by jet and eat only locally-grown organic vegetables, are arguing that as the world is now in peril from environmental catastrophe, Edelman has a moral duty to stop trying to scrub up the images of its fossil fuel clients.
Edelman, you see, acts for both ExxonMobil and Shell, as well as acting for other large firms who it could be argued are hardly squeaky clean when it comes to their environmental impact.
This leaves Edelman in a bit of bind. Can it shrug off letters like this, or does it admit that its signatories have a point? And could it afford to lose some of its largest fee-paying clients and still offer its staff well paid jobs and an interesting career ladder? I guess we’ll start to find out.
As a PR professional for almost 30 years, it’s tempting to subscribe to the Groucho Marx worldview, who famously said ‘Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others’.
But can PR agencies afford these days to take the Groucho Marx approach? I’d argue that a firm’s culture, which in my view should be the driving force of its commercial success, can only be properly established if it is ethically consistent. Some client handling staff might find it difficult to be asked to work, say, for both a defence contractor client while also advising an ethical investment fund. My staff who work for Renewi, one of Europe’s premier plastics recycling businesses, might have the same qualms if at the same time they were advising a plastics manufacturer.
The nub of the issue will be what the agency really stands for. Of course, as head of a smaller PR firm it’s easy to be ethically sound most of the time. The acid test for us will come when we grow bigger and the challenge will be to maintain this stance.
I’m under no illusions, there will be some difficult ethical decisions ahead. But we will not want to sacrifice our culture, which is a delicate construct that needs constant nurturing, just for the sake of a dollar. As Jack Reacher would say: ‘That’s for damn sure.’