Who would you not represent?

Tobacco, adultery and gun-toting dentists are some of the things PR agencies are regularly asked to represent. Miranda Ward asked several agencies how they deal with potentially questionable clients, and how that might impact upon their agency brand.

At the end of last month full-service crisis and issue management specialist J Austins & Associates took on American dentist Walter Palmer, the man who killed Cecil the lion, as a client, ending the relationship 24 hours later stating they had only been asked by another firm to help distribute the dentist’s statement to the global media.

Walter Palmer is a pretty spicy brief for an agency to take on, but what happens when a PR agency is wary of taking on a client?



Edelman Australia chief operating officer Matthew Gain said the agency has a global ethics committee which the agency uses to determine if it should or should not work with some clients.

“Globally we have an ethics committee and that ethics committee will review anything that falls in that ‘should we be working with those people or not?’” he said.

Gain provided the example of blood diamonds, explaining there is a lot of diamond producers that do the right thing so it’s not fair to say the agency cannot work with diamonds because of the blood diamond issue.

“The ethics committee looks into that – what is the piece of business, how are they doing it, what area are they in, what is the issue they’re asking us to work on and is it appropriate that we are representing them,” he said.

However the independent agency does have a blacklist: tobacco brands, gun manufacturers and political parties.

“I understand globally we don’t work with cigarette companies, we don’t work with people who make firearms, we don’t work with political parties,” Gain said.

“Not every company deserves PR representation, it’s not like legal representation. There’s decisions we definitely make.”



For Weber Shandwick there is a more fluid structure with the option to work on different brands and clients is put to the agency’s staff, with managing director Ava Lawler saying she would never ask her staff to work on a client they weren’t comfortable with.

“It’s important to us that we’re doing work we’re proud of and our people are passionate and excited to do,” Lawler said.

“The parameters that we’ve put in place for all the clients we work with is to ensure we have a team of people on board that are committed to the brand and to the client.

“From our perspective that means I would always give our people the choice, I would never put an individual into a situation where they needed to work on a brand or industry which they personally didn’t support.”

Lawler said that is the “best way to approach it” as it makes it very “human based” and ensures the agency cares about their people.

“If we were approached by an organisation that was sensitive or people might have an issue with it, I would put the call out to the people to see how they feel about it,” she said.

“The choice is within our hands here locally in terms of the types of clients we would support. I personally wouldn’t want to work on a tobacco company.”



James Wright, the managing director of Red Agency, takes a similar approach to Lawler, putting the client to his senior team and asking them how they feel about working with them.

“There’s a lot of grey area with various clients,” he said.

“I’ve worked with brands that have had a genuine desire to change the way they operate, provided how genuine they are we might work with them.

I wouldn’t work for anyone that I felt I had to justify to my children,” he added.

Lawler said if the agency does its “due diligence” before accepting a client appointment any backlash against the agency would be minimised.

“The important thing is to do your due diligence beforehand and make sure there is the appropriate level of commitment within the organisation to support the brand,” she said.

“The key is if you have been appointed by an organisation to protect their organisation and to help manage an issue that commitment should be followed through.

“It would be quite irregular to make a commitment to an organisation or an individual and then backtrack once it starts to become uncomfortable.”

Lawler’s comments were echoed by Edelman’s Gain who said “there must be a reason” why the agency would work with a client which is beyond being paid.

“If that’s the basis you’re starting from that there is an ethical decision that’s made around if we should work with them, when asked why you are working with them, there should be a basis for the response,” he said.

While it is lucky when an agency and a client’s interests and beliefs align it is not imperative, Wright said.

“As long as providing it isn’t hurting someone or fundamentally out of step with how we think as an agency then sure we’ve worked with clients that individually we might not 100 per cent agree with, but provided it’s not something that’s damaging society or the earth that’s fair enough,” he said.



Poem co-founder and director Matt Holmes agrees that an agency, or an individual at an agency, doesn’t have to agree with everything a client represents.

“But both parties would be better off if so than working on a piece of business where there are no common values and little alignment of your views and that of most of your other clients,” he said.

Holmes cited research conducted in 2013 in the US which showed that 90 per cent of US consumers are likely to switch brands to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality.

“While a 2012 Edelman research states that 69 per cent of Australian consumers think it’s ok for brands to support good causes and make money at the same time,” he said.

“Therefore, our gut instinct tells us that our preference to work with brands that believe in attempting to make a difference, have a value set, that treat their customers as people rather than targets will only prove positive for own consciences but also for business.  It’s about being more human.”

Holmes said the agency, which only launched two months ago, does not have an “official black list of clients”.

“I’ve never worked anywhere where there is a defined protocol for the new business enquiry from a company that could be perceived as being unethical,” he said.

“I think you instinctively know whether it’s a brand that you are comfortable with though. Rob [Lowe, Poem co-founder] and I have both fielded new business calls from Ashley Madison at previous agencies for example and immediately knew it wasn’t something that felt right to pursue.

Ashley Madison“There have been situations when team members have requested not to work on an account and I think that’s a personal decision and something that is perfectly acceptable in most cases and easily managed.”

When quizzed on if something like Ashley Madison approached the agency looking for representation Red Agency’s Wright said: “We’d take a yardstick on the appetite within the agency to be able to want to go after that.”

It is something that goes both ways, Wright said.

“A few years ago we wanted to do a high profile campaign, which we did do in support for gay marriage,” he said.

“From the other side of that we thought that was 100 per cent the right thing to do but we did do a litmus test of the feeling within the agency to ensure we were doing the right thing as we appreciate some people have other opinions.”

For Weber-Shandwick when looking at a piece of new business the agency assesses it against three criteria after first “ensuring there is a good enough understanding of the discipline of communications in order for the organisation to support effective communications”.

“We would typically look at a client’s strategic value to the agency, what is the ability for us to do some interesting valuable work that our people would enjoy that might stretch our skillset or our campaign experience further, financial value and motivational value, will our people enjoy it,” Lawler said.

For Edelman Gain said the agency has “quite a complex new business process” on both a local and global level.

“There’s a database where new business opportunities are heralded that escalates globally. So it’s not just a local market decision, it pings globally and the ethics committee would look at it,” he said.

But while it is important to ensure an agency’s staff feel comfortable with the work it is doing “we don’t want to get too anal with that” said Wright, as “people will then only work on the stuff they want to work on and that won’t help you move your business forward”.

  • Miranda Ward is public relations and publishing editor for Mumbrella

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