As the world becomes increasingly transparent, professional service firms need to know more about their clients and their potential clients.
You may have read how the management consulting firm McKinsey took on an assignment with the South African government and the state-owned power company, Eskom. The story did NOT have a happy ending, tarring the McKinsey brand with corruption. The size of the contract — potential value of $700 million and change — caused McKinsey to miss the numerous warning signs fraught with peril.
Closer to our world, one of Ketchum’s largest clients for many years was the Russian government for whom Ketchum promoted what I would characterize as dubious practices. Finally, the pressure on Ketchum became so great that the company resigned the account.
Of course, the poster child for picking the wrong boy/girl at the dance is Bell Pottinger. Buoyed by the line from one of its founders, “morality is a job for priests, not PR men,” the firm took a gig in South Africa to fan racial tensions around a narrative that whites in South Africa were taking over at the expense of education and jobs for blacks. They even came up with slogan for the campaign, “white monopoly capital.” The assignment led the firm to bankruptcy. The New York Times wrote a feature on the debacle earlier this year with the perfect lead:
“If an autopsy could have been performed on Bell Pottinger, Britain’s most audacious public relations firm, the cause of death may have been summarized as “acute embarrassment.”
Years ago a startup called Ashley Madison — a dating service that facilitates marriage infidelity — approached our Asia Pacific team.
Our senior leaders in the region made the collective decision to take a pass on the opportunity because the company’s business proposition blatantly conflicted with our morality. Our staff didn’t want to work on an account that would have them sending out missives on how to cheat on your spouse.
Other situations are not so black and white.
What if a tobacco company approached us about promoting an IoT initiative for a philanthropic endeavor?
What if a semiconductor company approached us for help with a crisis involving one of its manufacturing plants polluting a river? The semi company claims it was a one-time accident, but a journalist calls the company a “serial polluter”?
When we come across this gray area, we do our best to figure out the truth and whether or not the client/prospect supports communicating the truth. We also do our best in making a judgment call on how the client/prospect conducts business.
The scenario with the semiconductor company actually happened. Before taking on the assignment, we required a visit to the site of the mishap, a step-by-step explanation of what happened and actions taken to ensure the same mistake didn’t occur again. To the company’s credit, they did exactly this, and we implemented the campaign to tell their side of the story. Some years later, there hasn’t been a repeat of pollution.
But here’s the reality. If the company wanted to deceive us, they could have. It’s not like we have the technical expertise or methodology to conduct a proper audit. At the same time, communication consultancies have a responsibility to try to figure out the truth. This way, you increase the probability of steering clear of cesspools.
Turning back the clock to March, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman landed in the U.S. for a two-week charm offensive anchored by a 26-minute interview on 60 Minutes. No doubt, a PR firm collected a tidy fee for helping the Crown Prince show the world that he’s not such a bad guy.
While the signs were there that this assignment falls in the murky quadrant — the war in Yemen, jailing adversaries in the Ritz, etc. — I suspect the message to the PR firm was one of reform, clearing the way to take on the engagement.
Fast forwarding to today, the PR companies with ties to the Saudi Arabia government now find themselves under scrutiny due to the killing of a journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Several have already ended their relationships with the Saudi government to distance themselves from the atrocity.
An error in judgment won’t crush a PR company.
It’s the inability to recognize the error judgment and take corrective action that dooms a firm. Ironically, the Bell Pottinger band has been put together under the name of Consulum, and it’s doing business with Saudi Arabia (of course).
Look, people aren’t perfect nor are companies and governments. The fact a new-business prospect has flaws isn’t a reason to dismiss the opportunity.
Again, that’s where the judgment comes in.