Learning to Say No – The Role of Ethics in PR

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I think one of the most rewarding and perhaps unique things about working in public relations is that we are manufacturers of ideas. We start with a problem to be solved, a challenge to be met and we make a plan around it.  We manufacture an event, a story, we put people together, we organise stuff and we make it happen.  Out of absolutely nothing, we create something and these ‘somethings’ can make a real difference in the world.  Sometimes they are the start of something that lasts a long time, it evolves, it grows and it stays real.

It kind of goes back to the old PR textbook that says PR is about changing people’s perceptions.  An old boss of mine used to say PR was “doing good and telling people about it.”  I liked that description – succinct and positive.  But so often what we do is also making something good that was bad and that can be challenging.

That’s where ethics comes into play.  When you work in a consultancy, it can be hard to say no. The first time I did say no was when I was asked to launch a 6 star retreat on a Caribbean Island.

I was working in London for a travel PR Company at the time.  It was Thursday afternoon in the middle of a freezing winter.  I was looking forward to the weekend snuggling up in front of the fire with a movie.

My boss put down the telephone.  “Go home and pack your bags – we’re off to the Caribbean for the weekend.”

My initial thoughts were about my lovely relaxing weekend at home, now disappearing into a puff of smoke.  Replaced by work.

I guess you can get a bit blasé when you travel a lot for work.  It was however a great opportunity – we had been chasing this piece of business for a while and to be invited to come for a meet and greet was a great opportunity to finally score the gig.

The next night we boarded the flight for the island.  My boss, happy to be escaping the freezing winter and excited about the prospect of winning the business, was in an exuberant mood. 

The client met us at the airport and seemed very relaxed.  We hopped into the car and sped off to the hotel.  A quick scrub up and we were off for dinner at a nearby restaurant to meet the Minister for Tourism.

The restaurant was stunning.  The evening was so warm and balmy.  It felt amazing to have left the harsh English winter and be standing in cool cotton clothes on a beautiful pier that stretched out across azure sparkling water – on a Friday night.

I remember breathing a deep sigh of wonder at my amazing life.  How lucky I felt to have landed such a great job and to be travelling the world at short notice. 

The Minister joined us and told us about the problems on the island, how it had been devastated by a hurricane and how poverty was becoming an ever-increasing problem.  The island needed the employment and income opportunities that this new hotel complex was going to bring.

The hotel was being built by a group of Chinese investors and was to be a grand palace of beauty and indulgence with the aim of attracting Asian tourists to the island.

The concept was bold and I saw the benefits it would bring to the community.  It could really offer something of value.

I trotted back to my hotel room clutching the developer’s proposal and the environmental report.  I stayed up well into the night reading the report cover to cover.

Turned out that the development had been slammed by the opposition and also by the department of environment for the disregard shown for the local flora and fauna. 

I questioned the client about the report and some of the issues it had raised, over breakfast the next morning. 

“The site appears to be a natural habitat for native wildlife including the species of deer (actually the national emblem, featured on the island’s flag and coinage).  What is the plan around re-locating the deer?”

The client mumbled a response but it was ill thought-out and unconvincing.

Doubts crept into my mind.

“What about the snakes that are also quite rare and unique to the island?”  I questioned.

“Oh they’ll be alright, they can swim,” was the response.

Back in my hotel room, I re-read the report.  The issues I had marked with a highlighter jumped out at me from the page.  Doubt crept in like a cold hand.  I looked out of the window.  Waving palm trees, a sparkling blue infinity pool framed by the beautiful white sandy beach beyond.  Such a stunning place, so beautiful, so untouched. 

I visualised how the island would look when the bull dozers came in, raking up the earth, scattering the wildlife, tipping the balance and then, down the track, hordes of Asian tourists.  It wasn’t anything I could be a part of. 

I was quiet on the plane home.  It had been a huge weekend.  It had been an adventure and my boss was chuffed because we’d scored the business.

I told him on Monday morning that I couldn’t work on the account.  I couldn’t have it on my conscience.  He, being the lovely chap he was, graciously understood and flicked it onto someone else in the agency.

Six months later, an environmentalist on the island shot and maimed the Minister for Tourism then shot and killed himself.  He was a nomad; he had lived on the land, minding his own business for years.  The developers had tried to move him on and he wasn’t for shifting.  The hotel was dividing the government and the people into two camps.  It was so controversial.  It made the press in the UK and our agency went into issues management mode.  We managed it of course and moved on.

The development never did get off the ground however.  Too many issues, some of which were financial back in China.

I didn’t look back.  I didn’t regret being true to myself, to my values and it was a real learning experience for me on trusting my gut instinct in business which wasn’t easy then, being young and wanting to impress.

These days, I have no qualms about turning down work that doesn’t sit well or feel right.  Luckily enough, I run my own show, so I get to choose but I would say to anyone starting out or just too scared to say, don’t be afraid to speak your truth and trust your intuition because it will guide you and if you are with the right team of people, you will be supported in your choice.