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Question 151: May a public affairs firm serve a government that mistreats its citizens?

Located in Washington, D.C., our firm helps clients deal with the U.S. government and the public. We provide information, facilitate contacts, lobby, arrange mail handling, manage advertising campaigns, organize press conferences, and so forth. Among our clients are American and foreign businesses, nonprofit organizations, various associations, and governments. Our governmental accounts—two foreign governments, three U.S. cities, and one state—have been among the most lucrative. Recently another foreign government’s representative, whom I’ll call Mr. Que, approached us to look into our services. Not only human rights organizations but U.S. officials consider this government one of the world’s worst in the treatment of its own people. My four partners and I have no doubt it condones and even foments gross and widespread violations of fundamental human rights.

Que talked freely about his government’s problems with the U.S. government and the American public. His government’s “public persona,” Que said, is bad, and this has adversely affected tourism, outside investment, trade, and so forth. Some public officials and the more “enlightened” members of his country’s upper class (including, of course, Que himself), deplore the policies and practices Americans find so repugnant and wish to change them. But even he and his like-minded compatriots regard the typical American reaction as excessive and think it largely due to lack of sympathy for a nation so different in culture and traditions.

Drawing on past experience, my colleagues and I offered many examples of services we could supply, but we proposed no definite plan. At the end of the session, Que asked us to draw up a comprehensive plan and agreed to pay us at our usual rate for doing so, with the understanding that the payment would be credited against future services if his government accepted our plan and engaged us. We agreed, and Que at once gave us a substantial deposit.

Two of my partners feel we cannot afford to pass up this account and strongly favor developing a comprehensive plan to improve the government’s “public persona”—that is, its image. One of them, while not proposing that we violate our policy not to lie on behalf of clients, argues that this government is being tried and condemned in the court of public opinion, and is entitled to our services, much as common criminals are entitled to the services of a lawyer to make the best possible case for them. Another partner thinks our involvement with this government is a mistake that will hurt us in the long run; he urges that we renege on our agreement and return the deposit. Between the two extremes, another partner and I think that, while some caution is necessary in our own interests, we should prepare and undertake to implement a limited plan—limited in that it would entirely pass over the government’s abhorrent practices and bad image, and focus instead on the nation’s underlying good features, with a view to helping it in specific areas like tourism and foreign economic relationships.

What do you think of these three options?


This question concerns cooperation in governmental abuses. The questioner’s firm may not seek to improve Mr. Que’s government’s image; that would betray the firm’s professional responsibility and involve grave dishonesty. If the firm provides even limited service, it will materially cooperate with the government’s abuses; this material cooperation might be morally excluded, especially inasmuch as it could well be unfair to that nation’s citizens. But if limited service is not morally excluded, it could have several good effects. The firm might realize many of the benefits of providing limited service to the government without actually doing so by offering to serve one or more privately owned businesses or nongovernmental organizations in Que’s country.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I believe most decent people in your profession try to forestall moral problems by working exclusively for organizations or individuals whose purposes and programs they judge morally acceptable. Having taken this precaution, however, they tend to regard themselves primarily as advocates for those they represent. When the employer or client makes a decision, the public relations adviser usually does not question its morality. Like an attorney who considers that even the guilty deserve an effective defense, the adviser reasons: “The ethics of my profession both permits and requires me to make the best possible case for my employer or clients, even if I privately think what they are doing is wrong. It is not my job to second guess or criticize their policies and decisions, but to sell them to the media and the public.” Of course, any decent public relations person will draw the line at some point (only the morally corrupt will stop at nothing), and most try to avoid gross dishonesty, not just because it is morally repugnant but (a perhaps more compelling consideration for them) because it is more likely to hurt than help an employer’s or client’s long-term interests as well as their own. Still, serving clients’ interests within some moral limits seems to most people in your profession to exhaust their professional responsibilities.353

This understanding of your profession apparently is shared by your partner who argues that Mr. Que’s government is entitled to your services, much as any criminal is entitled to the services of a lawyer. I believe that view is profoundly mistaken, and your partner’s talk of Que’s government being “tried and convicted in the court of public opinion” is a misleading metaphor. There is an essential disanalogy between the defense attorney and the public relations person. A criminal’s lawyer plays only one part in an adversarial system, while others play other parts. The prosecutor makes the best possible case against the defendant, the judge referees so that other participants proceed according to the rules, and so on. This structured system as a whole is meant to result in a judgment on the merits, based on sound interpretation of relevant law and on the truth about what was done and other relevant matters. Moreover, if defense attorneys properly play their part in the system, they are subject to various constraints that do not affect public relations advisers.

If defense attorneys were their clients’ advisers in communicating with others, they could not proceed as they do within the adversarial system of criminal law without being grossly immoral. Since the public relations adviser does not work in an adversarial system, an exclusive focus on the employer’s or client’s interests is certain to lead to the abuse of techniques of communication to manipulate the thinking and behavior of those addressed. Communication, however, ought not simply to aim at motivating others so that their opinions and behavior will facilitate or, at least, not impede the communicator’s purposes. It should instead be directed toward common understanding with those addressed as a basis for mutually advantageous cooperation in authentic community. Consequently, public relations people should commit themselves to serving not only their employers or clients but those they address, helping each side understand and respect the views and legitimate interests of the other. For this reason, public relations advisers should not serve employers and clients except insofar as the latter are prepared to be partners in genuine communication.354

Your colleague who proposed the analogy I have been criticizing might respond: “Working to bring about authentic communication would make sense in an ideal world. But the situation we work in, though not as structured as the legal system, is every bit as adversarial. The human rights organizations have indicted Que’s government; certain media representatives have played the role of prosecutor; and U.S. government officials are sitting in judgment. Que’s government is confronted by the real world, and we should serve as its advocate.” My answer: Perhaps the sole intention of the groups and individuals that criticized Que’s government has been to communicate the truth about its wrongdoing in order to stop or impede it. If so, though in a sense they have become adversaries of Que’s government, the legal analogy plainly remains unsound. Perhaps, though, those groups and individuals at least to some extent have assumed an inappropriate adversarial role. If so, they have wronged both Que’s government and the public. However, that wrong would not justify responding in kind, if for no other reason, then because that, too, would wrong the public.

Your account makes it clear that Que wants you to help improve the bad image his country has acquired due to its government’s unjust policies and activities. But since you and your partners agree that his government not only tolerates but foments grave violations of fundamental human rights, you could not do what he asks without striving to mislead the American public about what is going on in the country. That would be not only gravely dishonest but an utter betrayal of your professional responsibility. Consequently, you are right to exclude the option supported by two of your partners, including the one who argues that Que’s government is entitled to your services in defending it before American public opinion. You may not develop a comprehensive plan to improve that government’s image, no matter what consequences refusing might have for your firm.

By contrast, several ethical considerations support the position of your partner who thinks your involvement with Que’s government is a mistake and urges returning his deposit. A case also can be made for the option you favor: offering Que a limited plan. I do not find the information you supply sufficient to exclude either possibility, so I shall sketch out the cases for both. Taking into account everything you know and reflecting conscientiously, you may find the argument against your view convincing. If not and you judge both possibilities morally acceptable, you will have to discern between them (and perhaps others), and choose the option more consonant with the unique qualities of your firm considered as a whole.

Against serving Que’s government is that any work you would do for it would contribute to its ongoing grave injustices. This involvement might well be very important, since it would reduce the pressure on the regime to behave less badly and help it remain in power, perhaps offsetting the force of world opinion that otherwise might be decisive. Moreover, merely to accept this government as a client would not only prevent you from bearing witness on behalf of its victims but would contribute to the semblance of respectability it desires—a semblance of respectability that might well lead other Americans to engage in more questionable or even plainly immoral cooperation with Que’s government. Perhaps even more important, since the account will be lucrative, you will be tempted to share, albeit reluctantly, at least some of the client’s wicked intentions—if not its intention to violate fundamental human rights, at least its intention to avoid paying the price that deserves. Finally, the preceding considerations all point to a final one. Serving this government might well be unfair to its victims. Could you have accepted Nazi Germany as a client in 1938 without being unfair to the people the Nazis were abusing and killing? If not, is Que’s government significantly less evil, or do other relevant factors distinguish the two cases?

You proposed the option of serving Que’s government within limits. In doing that, you could intend, not to support its wrongdoing, but to promote the nation’s common good. For no matter how bad the government is, the nation it badly rules has legitimate interests that need good service, which you might provide by dealing with the government in power. The limits should exclude not only dealing with the government’s bad image and abhorrent practices but promoting anything that directly contributes to its injustices—for example, trade in weapons of guerrilla warfare or implements of torture, foreign investment in enterprises that use slave labor, or tours to visit government approved houses of prostitution.

If your firm observes those limits and recommends nothing but strictly truthful communication, the possibilities of scandal and temptations to become more deeply involved in the wrongdoing would be minimized. And, of course, if your firm does not serve this government, another public relations firm probably will, and very likely without observing the morally necessary limits. Moreover, your help in promoting foreign investment, trade, and tourism could have some good effects. First, expansion in these areas would benefit many citizens of Que’s country, including, surely, some who are victims rather than perpetrators of the govern~ment’s injustices. Second, while your own business would be the first to profit, it would not be the only one. The activities of American citizens that your work would encourage presumably would be in their own interests and so, probably, beneficial to them and to others in the U.S. Third, increasing economic relationships with the U.S. might press Que’s government toward reforms that would further the nation’s common good by at least mitigating some of the government’s injustices. Fourth, in serving the government, you might be able to persuade its leaders that human rights violations are bad from a public relations standpoint and, therefore, not in their own interests. You might even persuade the client to institute real reforms that you could legitimately publicize. While reform motivated solely by self-interest does not make wicked people just, it does reduce the number of victims.

If you judge that you probably should avoid further involvement with Que’s government, your firm should give him no plan at all and should promptly return his deposit. I would not call doing that “reneging on the agreement.” Reneging connotes unfairness, and there is nothing unfair in breaking a promise one judges cannot be fulfilled without wrongdoing. Indeed, even if the only reason for withdrawing and returning the deposit were your partner’s pragmatic concern that involvement with Que’s government will hurt your business in the long run, I do not think it would be unfair to break this promise, provided you do so promptly.

If your firm undertakes to serve Que’s government on a limited basis, keep in view the potential good and bad effects of your service, and try to promote the former and minimize the latter insofar as you can.

Finally, perhaps your firm can realize many of the good aspects of providing limited service to Que’s government without actually involving itself with that bad regime. How? By refusing to serve Que’s government but at the same time offering to serve in suitably limited ways one or more privately owned businesses and/or other independent organizations in his country. Might Que even be willing to help you negotiate a contract with a consortium of such clients having legitimate interests in promoting investment, trade, and tourism by Americans? If you choose this option and succeed in carrying it out, you will be able to avoid dealing with his bad government while promoting his nation’s common good.

353. Thomas H. Bivins, “Public Relations, Professionalism, and the Public Interest,” Journal of Business Ethics, 12 (1993): 117–26, points out the inadequacy of the ethical standards of many who practice public relations. He holds that professional responsibility requires them to promote public debate of issues, but does not consider whether it requires them to facilitate cooperation based on genuine communication.

354. A significant contribution to the ethics of public relations thus conceived: Lee W. Baker, The Credibility Factor: Putting Ethics to Work in Public Relations (Homewood, Ill.: Business One Irwin, 1993). Baker stresses the value of credibility and shows that candor is needed to gain and retain it; he provides many examples of self-defeating manipulativeness.