Ethics vs profits in PR

There may come a time in the lives of public relations professionals when they are asked to do something that, while not illegal, stretches the bounds of personal morality. Such a time came to a team of PR pros called to the office of the president of a Canadian subsidiary of a well-known company.

The president was fairly new in his position, one of the American up-and-comers assigned to a Canadian outpost to build creds before returning to the homeland and a big promotion. It was obvious he wanted to make his mark. It was how he wanted to do it that shocked the Canadian PR guys.

‘So how do you think I can manage it?’ he asked. What he wanted was to shut down a huge (by Canadian standards) food processing plant. It would be a disaster for farmers throughout the area. Several local communities would be decimated, including one famous for the plant and its output.

We stared at him in disbelief. ‘You can’t do that,’ one of us said.

‘Why not?’

‘Because,’ we said, ‘There are labour laws. You’d have to work with the union. You’d have to pay out a fortune to the laid-off workers. You would be killing the community. Your brand would be damaged across the country. ..’

‘How about a news release?’

It took awhile but there was some dawning of understanding in the president’s eyes when we finished. ‘What a country,’ he muttered, complaining about this nation’s protections of workers compared with those in place at that time in the U.S.

The president moved back to the U.S. eventually, his plan to shut down his own operation dormant. The PR company had chosen an ethical stand over the chance to run a very profitable campaign and morality may have won out – along with a longer look at the balance sheet.

Years later, the company did shut the operation; the farmers were hit; the area towns were hurt; the brand was blackened, at least for a time. But the arguments of the conscience-struck PR pros may have had some small impact in buying several decades of relative prosperity for one rural area of Canada.

-GR