Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Controversies over Social Issues Causing Firms to Re-Examine Policies: Growing Activism, Greater Press Scrutiny Pose New Internal and External Dilemmas

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Controversies over Social Issues Causing Firms to Re-Examine Policies: Growing Activism, Greater Press Scrutiny Pose New Internal and External Dilemmas

Article excerpt

Controversies over social issues causing firms to re-examine policies

Whether or not they personally agree with Hill and Knowlton's decision to represent the Catholic bishops in antiabortion efforts, public relations executives interviewed recently by PRJ continue to strongly support the First Amendment-based right to free expression of any legal product or service--and the right of firms to aid in that expression.

What many say, however, us that the situation has dramatized the power of social issues to generate internal and external controversy, and has caused them re-examine their own policies regarding the process of accepting clients and employees' involvement in such decisions. even if firms choose not to accept the most obviously controversial clients, they say, growing public activism about the environment, health-related matters and a multiplying number of other social issues may make it increasingly difficult for them to avoid potentially divisive situations.

H&K's decision to take on the antiabortion assignment illustrates the furor these types of issues can generate. Many of the firm's 1,850 employees publicly criticized the decision; two resigned. H&K also lost at least one client due to the controversy. The furor also generated a great deal of criticism from the press. Some firm leaders have expressed concern that critical letters andopinion pieces in major publications may be undermining the image of public relations (See "Has the field's image been affected?" page 12).

In response to this media criticism, H&K President Robert L. Dilenschneider, in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times, wrote: "The firm's decision requires no defense. No group in our socirty should be denied the right to free expression under the First Amendment or be prevented from seeking advice on how best to exercise that right."

Over the years, some firms have chosen to work for controversial clients such as tobacco companies. Others have established specific policies--such as Burson-Marsteller's policy of not taking religious or political candidates--to minimize the potential for internal polarization. But whatever their policies, the standard understanding at firms has been that staff member are not penalized for deciding not to work on accounts that they find objectionable.

What's controversial?

Now, however, the list of accounts that conceivably could be objected to by employees and/or draw unfavorable press coverage is growing rapidly. Liquor promotions and advertising, relatively unchallenged during the '60s and '70s, have come under increasing fire from activist groups. Foreign government, companies that have divisions or investments in countries with unpopular governments, and virtually any company whose products could impact the environment--that is, most companies--are potentially controversial clients.

"We had one person who didn't want to work on a soluble plastics account," says Elias Buchwald, B-M vice president. "Another didn't want to work on an account where the client was involved with nuclear reactors. In this 'green' period, with everyone so concerned about environmental issues, there is potential or similar concerns with a lot of accounts."

"I think we're going to see more and more of this type of thing in the future," agrees Ronald Watt, APR, president and CEOof Cleveland-based Watt, Roop & Co. "I think the '90s will be a time when firms are faced with the option of either handling these hot accounts or not handling them."

But, given that so many products and organizations are potentially controversial, some question whether firms can always identify which ones might pose problems, as well as whether it's economically feasible to do so.

And, in addition to internal concerns, firms that do take on controversial subjects or specialize in helping organizations deal with or avoid crises are finding that the press is increasingly interested in reporting about their work "behind the scenes. …

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