What Ethical Obligations Do PR Professionals Owe Clients’ Customers?

illustration of businessman leader lift balance ethical scale.

FTX’s collapse has led to millions of words spilled about business practices, financial regulations, corporate responsibility, and prison time. Everyone and everything with an FTX connection is being dragged down with founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried – investors, celebrity endorsers, regulators, politicians, and even everyday people.

The media hasn’t escaped scrutiny and criticism for giving SBF top-notch coverage over the last several years while allegedly failing to provide proper examination of his practices and the company’s legitimacy. Favorable stories ranging from SBF’s political views to his alleged business acumen and even his age – he’s just 30 years old – were all the rage.

But the media’s narrative-driving coverage doesn’t stand alone. SBF and FTX hired multiple public relations firms that undoubtedly drove significant coverage. And while PR firms can’t be expected to thoroughly audit every prospect, there are still lessons we can take from FTX’s collapse to act ethically, protect our reputations, and work with the best clients.

Always Remember the Clients’ End Customer

FTX’s investors lost their shirts, as did the crypto industry generally. This happens every time a company, industry, or wider economy take a downturn – somebody loses money. Those losses are often the known risks of investing (but not always, such as when average Americans lost money in 2008 due to unethical corporate practices that were backed by bad government policy).

PR professionals can provide a professional barrier between themselves and risky clients by always keeping the end consumer in mind. Does it seem like this product, service, or process will benefit the end consumer? A yellow flag should be raised if the answer seems to be “no” or “this is too good to be true.”

Watch for Competence and Integrity

Business failure can happen for many reasons. PR professionals can’t audit everyone, and even major scams like those of Elizabeth Holmes’ often sneak through proper safeguards. But when a prospect can’t seem to get its act together, PR professionals should ask whether the prospect simply needs time and a little helping hand – or if the organization doesn’t care about best practices and doing things the right, and ethical, way.

Ethics aren’t always about the ever-changing personal values about which people often disagree. They are mostly related to universal values like paying staff well, admitting and correcting mistakes, and not shafting customers. Yellow flags in this area are not just good for avoiding bad publicity; they’re also good for making sure to not get shafted yourself.

Does the Prospect (or Client) Fail your Basic Ethics/Beliefs Test?

This is the side of ethics and morality that has driven the business world bonkers for a decade. What personal values are held by the company owner and/or company employees that would make a prospect untenable?

For example, a pro-life PR pro probably wouldn’t take on Planned Parenthood as a client. But is a client who supports legalized abortion when the mother’s life is at risk also unacceptable?

Similarly, a firm owner who supports Black Lives Matter isn’t likely to accept a conservative gun group as a client. But what about someone like Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), who says he’s been treated poorly by law enforcement because of his race…but also believes that America isn’t racist, and that police are valuable to society’s well-being?

Only you can draw your own line in this case. Determine what lines can’t be crossed at all, and whether any lines can be crossed for the right sum of money.

And while those flags are different for everyone, keeping the three principles in mind will weed out many bad prospects:
  • Remember the end consumer.
  • Watch for competence and integrity (or lack thereof).
  • Determine how the prospect aligns with your basic beliefs/ethics.

Dustin Siggins is founder of Proven Media Solutions