An article in the Guardian last week and blog posted by Ethical Corporation Managing Director Toby Webb makes some very relevant points about the issue of supply chain responsibility for large multinationals who outsource communications services.  Webb writes:  “It will become untenable for big, sustainably-minded companies to continue to employ PR and lobbying firms, even (or particularly) on sustainability, who act for deeply unethical clients.” Supply chain responsibility has become the buzz word for many companies who are trying earnestly to embed their CSR policies.  Retailer Walmart has made colossal inroads in this area: it has developed an extensive and very comprehensive supplier score card that charts the chain status of over 100,000 different suppliers. Meanwhile sportswear brands Nike, Levis and Patagonia are hard at work on their own supply chains and dealing decisively with any inconsistencies. But what are they doing about the PR and advertising agencies they hire to tell their Corporate Responsibility stories and handle their communication needs?

As a communications company, Media Wise is selective about which companies it does business as we feel that their values do not align with ours.  Like Ethical Corporation, we believe the big agencies mentioned in the Guardian as being hands for hire for the world’s dictators with deep pockets should begin to think of their own values and ethics.

We believe there is an ethical line that shouldn’t be crossed by those in the PR/communications field. We should think twice about taking on well-paying clients with dubious and tainted reputations. But how far should we go? Will the ESG criteria trickle down to the service suppliers such as the PR firms? Or is taking on such clients a way of helping them improve by persuading them of better ways?

There are many subjective issues as there are arguments to be made for both sides. Still, in principle there is a line that should not be crossed.  Imagine a large PR agency in one part of the globe is working on behalf of an inhumane dictator to help him polish his image, while another office of that same PR network is helping a multinational with a pristine reputation to continue as a trailblazer in sustainability? Surely taking on one assignment would cancel out the credibility of the agency to do the job right with another client?

Sooner or later we communications professionals  will be forced to look at the provenance of our billing hours and start thinking ethically, just as our clients are. We suggest we all start sooner rather than later.

– Lizzie Lawrence.

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