There's no question that we live in a divided time, when cultural concerns that are clear moral decisions for some are highly politicized issues of debate for others. When it comes to the countless reports of conditions at America's border control facilities, for example, some see egregious human rights violations while others see an epidemic of illegal immigration. Either way, the situation at our border is among the most controversial issues of our time.
Last week, the controversy reached a boiling point at PR agency Oglivy over the firm's rebranding work for for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest law enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Employees were made aware after Ogilvy was included on a list of contractors providing services to CBP, while social media soon suggested that the agency helped produce “state propaganda.”
As Wayfair staff walk off the job and tech employees ask moral questions directed squarely at their employers' role in immigration enforcement, employee pushback after discovering their brands are partnering with organizations like CBP or ICE is becoming commonplace.
Internal memos about brand controversies seldom make things better
In an an internal email meant to quell concerns, Oglivy global chairman and CEO John Seifert said that the firm's only work for CBP was around employee recruitment, and that their work has been misrepresented in the press, as first reported by Adweek. "The fact that our work was misrepresented in social media and some press is too often a reality with no easy answers," he wrote. Of course, it is a PR pro's job to have a robust social strategy that monitors brand sentiment and adjusts its communications strategies with respect to audience trends, and how vocal the noise is. To that end, Seifert's statement ignores the nuanced work undertaken by a whole industry of social media experts.
Two clients with opposing brand values
While a search of government contracts reveals that CBP seems to have spent an awful lot on only employee recruitment, the timing of these contracts further suggests Oglivy did not act in accordance with the sentiment of a large segment of its audience and employees. Last year's contract started just two weeks before MoveOn's massive Families Belong Together protests, and the CBP's family separation practice was still in full swing.
PRNEWS has also learned that, as the story of Oglivy's work with the CBP broke, its Mexico division is also winning awards for its work with clients like its Refugee Nation Olympic team and AeroMexico, whose primary advertising campaign criticizes President Trump's immigration policies. Here's a recent AeroMexico ad:
Should PR firms avoid clients with different values?
A spokesperson for Oglivy U.S. declined to comment on the potential conflicts between accounts specifically, but did point out that the CBP work was headed by Oglivy U.S., while the Aeromexico campaign was headed by Oglivy's Mexico and Bogota branches.
B. Lowe, director of social impact communications firm On Point Studios, sees Oglivy's work with CBP and Aeromexico as a double standard for "spinning border patrol in the U.S. and then making fun of it in Mexico."
"It shouldn't be a surprise for anyone providing crisis support to agencies running these camps to face a crisis themselves," says Lowe.
Some PR pros also believe that agency work should be authentic and align with core brand values, rather than play both sides of a divisive issue.
“Taking a contract with border patrol two weeks before the Families Belong Together protests last year should raise moral questions for Ogilvy," said Natalia Jaramillo, a Latina PR pro based in Miami. "But doing so at the same time it’s running Aeromexico and the refugee Olympic team public relations shows something deeper. It looks like a cynical play to profit off the outrageous abuses we’re witnessing at the border as well as the sentiment that we’re all one human community regardless of where we come from."
Do Oglivy's U.S. and Mexico branches share similar core values?
Whether talking about social strategies or SEO competency, we're time and again reminded that every branch of an organization must think like a PR pro, and in contrast, every PR pro must have a basic understanding of the roles that other teams play in client successes.
To that end, it certainly seems that Oglivy's U.S. and Mexico branches are not communicating around a shared mission, goal or system of values. Were that the case, the clear conflict in working with clients who share starkly oppositional views on this hot-button issue would have become immediately clear.