The Honourable Mercenary Part 2: Do you have to believe to do be an effective PR advisor?

A journalist that I used to speak to, usually when he had a story that included my then clients’ ideological detractors tweeted this which caught my attention and got me thinking.

terry mac (2)

My response has led to me writing this blog

PB terry (2)

I’ve been told by a few people (not Terry) that they were appalled that anyone could be employed to be a mouthpiece for “x” or “y” because they were “the bad guys”. Anyone working with them was a wrongun (I paraphrase). I can broadly generalise, but this really came to the crunch when I was working for “THEM”.

Terry’s tweet engaged me and made me think a bit more about the vote I cast yesterday morning, and the assumption I’ve witnessed when interacting with committed political animals. That it’s either hard or wrong to work a certain sort of job and hold what appear to be diametrically opposed personal views.

On a different but connected level, there has been an ongoing discussion in some parts of the UK PR industry for some time about whether we should publicly embrace ethics and morality to demonstrate professionalism? The counter argument is that lawyers will service anyone so why should PRs not be able to do the same as they act in the court of public opinion?

One hears less of this in the post Bell Pottinger days as it was a favourite line of Tim Bell, however it is worth noting that some of the largest and significantly remunerated PR advisors in the UK are effectively ignoring this debate, either through silence, through ignoring either the CIPR / PRCA or by being members but pretty much ignoring some of the stipulations of membership.

Which leads me to the core question. Is it ethical to advise on PR / reputation for clients or employers where you do not share their beliefs?

As it happens, I know talented ex PR and communications advisors that left the industry due to this issue. They felt they could not gain popular support for projects that they could not themselves support. They had to believe in the cause to be truly committed, and to effectively advocate on its behalf.

To be very clear, I find this an entirely understandable, intellectually logical position and one that it is easy and correct to applaud.

However, it’s not one that has governed my career or those of a number of peers. There is a legitimate role for the outsider. I wrote a piece about my concept of being an honourable mercenary here:

I’m not talking about whether you think a consumer product is / not lifechanging and / or will enhance your performance with the potential sexual partner of your choice. I haven’t done that sort of work so couldn’t comment. I’m really focusing on reputation management and / or strategic communications.

What I do want to consider is advising people / companies / sovereigns that have fundamentally different philosophical, ethical and moral beliefs to your own. Again, restating the core question, “is it acceptable to work for “THEM” if you would also vote for a party that would see the fundamental defenestration of “THEM” from the UK?

One could for instance enjoy a successful career as an outsider in a community that he or she advises from the position of understanding / empathy of their harshest critics.

This creates multiple advantages:

1 – He / she can advise a client / in house leadership on what the opposition thinks far more effectively because the advisor in question is not trapped in the bubble. They don’t necessarily share the same societal and political preconceptions as their client / colleagues. Most importantly, it’s not their job to believe. It’s their job to be effective in reaching specific communications objectives linked to overall strategy.

2 – On the tactical side, it’s a hell of a lot easier engaging with external parties that are hostile if you can craft messaging that will resonate with them because you have a level of empathy and / or sympathy to their POV. You might also gain a little more credibility when engaging with them.

Were I as cynical as I like to suggest, my point might be “use a thief to catch a thief”.  As with all clichés or stereotypes, there is something in this. As my ex colleague and still friend Anastasia Ivanova used to say, “stereotypes save time”. If you want to engage effectively with a specific community, use a representative of that community, not someone that will be treated as “other”. One sees this in a lot of specific roles, for instance luxury sales. However, I think there’s a deeper level of consideration.

Since my earliest years in communications (when Wellington was campaigning in the Peninsula) I’ve always felt that a level of intellectual detachment is vital when engaging around contentious issues. In an ideal world, the communications advisor should be able to detach his or her own feelings from the matter in hand and take a purely objective view of the project and the various different audiences / publics that he or she is employed to influence.

One can make the argument – as I have above –  that either caring passionately about the project in hand, or having a strong understanding of the opposition will crate tactical optionality and efficacy. Both are potentially correct.

What I actually believe is the comms advisor should be able to retain intellectual and emotional objectivity. We should be able to tell the client / colleague how they are viewed by any constituency without any concern that our internal bias has influenced our judgment.

We have to be objective to do our jobs effectively. We have to be able to remove our own personal prejudices and operate with objectivity if we are to be as effective as possible.  We might not like who we work for. We might not agree with the POVs held by the communities that we are paid to influence. But the job has to be done.

Of course there will always be roles that are deeply morally challenging – it won’t matter who you are and where you’ve come from, you either will find a job at the very edge of your ability, or alternatively, you really should not be doing that job and maintain any pretence to professional pride. As with military mercenaries, there will be clients for whom working is beyond the Pale. You know you shouldn’t be doing it, and will be judged correctly for taking on the work. Hence my concept of the “honourable mercenary”

Honour is a strange concept. There’s no universally agreed definition. It is therefore very much a personal judgement, both for the advisor and the way they are viewed by wider audiences. I’ve turned down opportunities to work on projects that I felt I could not maintain a professional detachment, that might surprise some readers. I’ve also taken on roles that have led to criticism. THEM.

In conclusion, my view is that for whomever the communications advisor is working, they should attempt to maintain the objectivity of the honourable mercenary. The assumption that the client isn’t always right and might credibly be seen as the baddies.

We’ve signed on to do a job and we will do it as best we can, not because we necessarily care about the cause but because we are honest professionals. If you take someone’s money, you might as well do the job right.

Maybe I watched too many westerns as a kid – “Ride on / we deal in lead, friend.”

Maybe like Cyrano, I’ve practically lived chapter 13 of Don Quixote.