Hey PR professionals – thinking of representing a distressed brand? Six important things to consider before signing that retainer

Yesterday I offered some thoughts on the sociopathic nature of some public relations agencies. Once we learn that American firms are lipsticking brutal despots and states that support terrorism it’s legitimate to wonder if there is anyone on Earth that they wouldn’t represent. I just heard a story this morning about a flak who went so far as to take on the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. So if Syria, Libya, Bahrain and the most notorious purveyors of genocide since World War 2 aren’t out of bounds, you have to figure somebody in the industry would gladly sign up Kim Jong-Il, Hitler, Stalin and the Khan boys (Genghis and Agha) for the right amount of money.

Granted, these are extreme cases. I might have qualms about a firm that tries to pretty up a corporation with some anti-social political beliefs, but no, I don’t confuse Dillard’s with Pol Pot. Still, the whole issue does raise some interesting questions. Are there interests that should be shunned by all PR firms from now until the end of time? Can bad actors be redeemed? How can we tell the difference and how should we approach the possibility of representing a distressed brand (such as BP, or Rupert Murdoch, or perhaps an anti-democracy government entity)?

The answers: yes, yes, and read on.

The first thing to understand is that your brand is on the line. And while successes can be quite specific, disasters generalize. For instance, say you sign on to represent the local charitable outreach division of Acme Widgets. And you do a great job, promoting all kinds of positive programs that benefit the communities Acme serves. Then it’s revealed that Acme execs knowingly covered up data demonstrating that their next-generation widget technology causes pregnant women to miscarry. You may have some nice pictures from that Boys & Girls Club opening in Peoria, but what people are going to remember is the dead babies, which are hanging around your neck like so many albatrosses even though you never got anywhere near the company’s product promotion business. Seriously, do you think my mind will ever be able to unhitch Brown Lloyd James from the massacres in Hama?

We all know it, but let’s say it again: reputations can take years to create and seconds to destroy. This goes for your clients, and it goes for your firm’s brand, too. I’m not saying that you should only cherry pick the easiest and least challenged clients (I mean, I love a challenge and I’m idealistic enough to believe that I can effect change, given the chance), but I am saying – as I have suggested before – that I don’t think every client out there deserves professional representation.

Where do I draw the line? Well, genocidal governments are out, as are dictatorships that turn their armies on their own citizens. This seems too obvious to even need saying, but apparently it isn’t obvious to everyone. But that’s hardly a useful standard. What about Target? BP? Dillard’s? News Corp? Would I take them on as clients? How about Tiger Woods? Charlie Sheen? Anthony Weiner? The government of Saudi Arabia?

In some cases, maybe. But I’d make that decision according to a set of rigorous criteria, and I wouldn’t be even a little flexible on any of them. (A number of these are probably different ways of getting at the same core issue, but for evaluation purposes it’s helpful to call them out separately.) So here we go:

Six Criteria for Deciding Whether or Not to Represent a Distressed Brand

1: Has the potential client acknowledged wrongdoing?

Distressed brands are distressed for a reason. Whether it’s a government that has oppressed its dissidents or a corporation that got in hot water for lending support to political organizations that discriminate against the basic human and civil rights of American citizens, the first step to solving the problem is admitting that you have one.

If you take on a client that has not been forthcoming about its past mistakes, then you simply cannot be a part of a solution – you can’t help fix a problem that the client won’t admit it has. In this situation, you’re nothing more than a whitewasher. Here’s your pig and your makeup kit, and the better a job you do, the more you prevent real, productive change. You’re an enabler and a collaborator and when it all goes to hell – and it will – your reputation is going down with the ship, too.

2: Has the crime been paid for?

Perhaps the transgressions of the past were of a legal nature, or maybe they were merely socially repugnant. In any case, penance is required and the punishment must fit the crime. If a senior exec broke the law, then that exec must pay a penalty that the public will regard as just (because the public is the final arbiter of brand and image). So if there were financial shenanigans that destroyed the pensions of thousands of workers, for instance, and the guilty parties lawyered their way into a light fine and skated away, you need to walk. There’s just no way you can win.

In the case of Target, which donated $150K to an anti-gay organization, a move that directly contravened the company’s established community engagement program, you’d need to see a very public apology (by the person who made the decision) and repudiation of both the donation and the recipient organization. You should probably ask for the money back in a very public fashion. You need to see a sizable donation to an entity representing the offended constituency. And a self-imposed suspension (without pay) wouldn’t hurt, either.

If a potential client is unwilling to face the music, you have every reason to doubt its sincerity (as will the public that you’re trying to convince).

3: Are the culprits gone (or sufficiently chastened)?

A logical follow-on to #2, and again, the punishment has to fit the crime. If the head of the secret police who supervised the death squads still holds an official position, then we might suspect the government’s commitment to democratic reform. In a case that extreme, if he isn’t in prison for life or hiding in exile, we know what we need to know.

In a corporate environment (because let’s face it, not many people reading this are going to be working with murderous dictatorships) the question is what action is necessary to indicate the organization is serious about repairing its operation and image and, also, what type of action would key audiences accept as authentic?

4: Is there tangible evidence that things have changed?

Beyond atonement and accounting for specific individuals, how can you (or a member of the public) tell that the potential client is serious about setting the ship aright? Have there been meaningful changes to processes, procedures and programs? Could what happened before happen again? Do people within the organization behave in ways that are empirically different than they did before?

In other words, if you say “they’ve changed” and I say “prove it,” how will you respond? If you’re struggling with the answer, that probably means the entity isn’t there yet.

5: Are you a full partner in the strategic decision making process?

Some organizations treat their PR counselors as partners. They’re in the room, actively involved in the discussions as important decisions are deliberated and made. They are presumed to have insight beyond how to make the words sound pretty. In other cases communicators aren’t allowed in the same zip code as a decision – they sit in their cubicles and wait for the smart, important people to decide what needs doing and saying and then they go and do what they’re told.

If the organization is one of the latter, get out of the building now before something blows up and they need a scapegoat.

The senior team may be all kinds of brilliant. They may be at the point where every idea they come up with is a five-star winner. But if this is the case, they don’t need you. Meanwhile, you’re taking a chance in allying your firm with a distressed brand, and to do so without the ability to participate fully in decisions that will have potentially dramatic implications for your career is utter stupidity.

If they want a typist, let them hire one. But you’re an intelligent professional who can help them if they’ll work with you. Wish them the best on your way out the door.

6: Are you proud of the relationship (aka The Grandma Test)?

Sometimes we take on clients because we need the cash. We don’t love them all, nor do we respect them equally. But that’s what standards are all about, right? We do great work for all of our clients because we are professionals. When you’re pondering a distressed client, though, it’s important to adhere to the very highest standards and insist on uncompromising conduct – from the client and from yourself – because so much is at stake.

You probably have or had someone in your life who represented unflinching integrity, a person who evaluated others on a strict scale: it was either 100% or it was a failure. No excuses. The best was expected and demanded. Maybe it was a priest or rabbi or minister. Perhaps it was a teacher. A family member, even.

For me, this person was my grandmother. If I came up short she didn’t yell, she just let me know she was disappointed in me, and that was as bad as a flogging could possibly be.

So when you have considered your potential new client from all directions, when you have asked and answered the questions above, take one final step. Imagine telling Grandma that you’re representing Acme Widgets. When her eyes narrow, they way they do when something morally suspect slithers into the room, imagine explaining your decision. Does she consider it and tell you she’s proud of you for investing yourself in trying to clean up a dirty corner of the world, or does she shake her head quietly, muttering about the mess you’re making of your life?

In the end, it’s your business. Your career. Your reputation. And, if I might be a tad melodramatic for a second, your soul. It’s your reflection you have to look at in the mirror. All I can do is assure you that even if a given person or organization has a right to professional PR representation, they do not have a right to be represented by you.

If enough of us hold ourselves to a higher standard, and if enough of us are willing to call out those whose behavior embarrasses our industry (as Rosanna Fiske did in the commentary I linked in part one), perhaps we can eventually reach the point where we are more respected by the public at large because we have shown that we deserve that respect.

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