What Happens When a ...


The agency ends up in the New York Times with a bad look.

That’s what happened to Edelman last week. The NYT devoted 29 1/8th inches — I counted using the hardcopy version — to Edelman landing a private prisons company called The GEO Group and then deciding to not move forward with the client.

Why bail on what was likely a lucrative contract?

Based on input from several Edelman employees, the story detailed:

“Edelman reconsidered because of concerns that news of its relationship with the prison company would be leaked, leaving of the world’s leading public relations firms with a potential public relations crisis.”

The story went on to say that some employees asked to not be assigned to the GEO Group program. And perhaps most damning, an employee shared that at an all-hands meeting in which Edelman let the staff know about resigning the GEO Group project, executives “took the opportunity to basically shame us for ruining the work for the company because they couldn’t trust us not to leak it to the press.”

Seems fair to say that the Edelman brain trust was right about the leaking part.


Why Google is (almost) Everyone’s Friend

In today’s world order, professional services firms and especially PR companies need to consider the reaction of their staffs in pursuing potentially “wrong” clients. While I don’t know the chronology of the events that led to Edelman landing the business, certainly the largest PR firm on the planet would do its homework. To keep things simple, let’s say that Edelman plugged “The GEO Group” into Google news covering Jan. 1, 2018 thru Dec. 31, 2018. Here’s what Google would have served up for such a search on Page 1:


Google News search results page for GEO Group


You don’t exactly need the data scientists to scan this information and conclude the company might be ethically challenged. At the very least, it should have prompted a deeper look at both the prospect and how staff would respond.

Arun Sudhamana at the Holmes Report also covered this issue on Friday, addressing The GEO Group as well as Cambridge Analytica.

And I wrote about challenges of aligning staff values with client realities last year, republishing the piece below:



The Ethics of PR Consultancies in “Choosing” Clients

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.


Protesters holding signs and the South African flag


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.”


Sidestepping Murky Waters

Years ago a startup called Ashley Madison — a dating service that facilitates marriage infidelity — approached our Asia Pacific team.


Ashley Madison landing page


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 obviously black or white, wrong or right.

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”?


Due Diligence

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 went wrong 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.


When Clients Misbehave

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.


Black vans with image of Saudi Crown Prince


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.


In Sum: Use Your Brain

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.


  • Daily PR Brief - Mon 08/05/19 - ITK Blog

    […] What Happens When a PR Agency Chooses the “Wrong” Client? (Ishmael’s Corner – The H… […]

  • Nicolas Chan

    I remember reading something similar about this happening at Ogilvy and their contract with the US department that is currently involved with detention and separation of kids from their parents.

    I think that it’s a fair statement to say that almost all big agencies would have worked for some enterprise that has threaded in murky waters.

    There has always been a narrative, where if a company is in bad shape, or has bad ideas, the best way to create change is to work with them to pivot away. The other is to, of course, boycott so that the company does not continue to do harm.

    I’m honestly conflicted between the two.

    • Lou Hoffman

      It’s a tough one.

      If the consultancy has a seat at the table to have a say in behavior/decisions for course correcting, that’s a vote to take the assignment. Of course, the reality is consultancies are rarely engaged in this way.


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