Recently, I wrote a brief post on LinkedIn about September being the PRCA’s Ethics Month, with ethics placed front and centre of the PR agenda. It got me thinking in-depth about where the PR industry is on the big issues, through the lens of the candidates and clients I work with every day.
The fact is that a lot of people, businesses that is, talk a very good game when it comes to ethics. They might highlight their green credentials, the work/life balance, the senior team support, the pushing back on clients that cross or blur boundaries. Yet we all know that the day-to-day reality can be very different. Whether it’s a huge tech client wanting to conceal its less appealing activities, or foreign powers wanting to spin their reputation in different regions, there’s always been an element of setting your own boundaries to PR work.
However, in the 21st century, this boundary blurring has shifted into a much more stark question of what is and isn’t appropriate, which differs from person to person in terms of clients they might be comfortable working on. Of course - no PR agency can cater to everyone's stances in terms of the clients they represent across an entire agency and that’s okay.
But Gen Z will down tools, quiet quit, or leave the industry altogether if they’re consistently presented with work and/or clients that don’t fit their world view or feel acceptable to them to work on, so it’s best to take a tailored approach when assigning clients to individuals.
Zoom out from PR and it’s actually pretty clear how this sense of right and wrong and natural ethics could actually be an advantage to both candidates and agencies. It’s a representation of the world we’re increasingly living in. A world of greater freedom to express ourselves through social media and technology. A world where the choice of how we live is greater than ever for many. But it’s also a world that perhaps, ironically given those points, feels more divided than ever before.
Vegans vs. meat. Cyclists vs. drivers. Pro-choice vs. pro-life. Liberal vs. conservative. Smokers vs. non-smokers (or now vapers!). Religious or not. Which side the toilet roll should face (I joke…).
Seriously though, whilst these polarised views and ways of living might seem problematic, they can be used to a PR agency’s advantage. Gen Z will soon be running the show, so this generation who are more particular over who/how they work might as well be heeded and listened to now. The latest research shows that 54% of Gen Z would sacrifice some of their salary to work for businesses that reflect their beliefs.
So hiring managers and even recruiters should be making sure they’re on top of not just their clients, but their clients’ clients. And ensuring they’re fully on top of the core beliefs and kinds of clients that will drive both existing employees and new hires to not just survive these tough economic conditions, but thrive.
There’s a new kind of emotional intelligence coming into play at a senior level in agencies, and it’s having the capacity and foresight to understand what motivates and drives your employees. If you have a vegan employee, you should know before you get them working on the International Meat Trade Association. They may well be fine with that work, or - crucially - they may not. And more than that, will they have the natural industry knowledge required, or has an assumption been made that they will?
It’s a step above just putting together the most skilled team to resource a particular account, it’s ensuring that there’s a good fit. Today’s Account Execs and Account Managers may well care more about their client fit and culture than the internal ‘culture fit’ that everyone gets so obsessed with. Forget selling new hires on the office’s Thursday night drinks parties, and instead know whether they even drink, and then maybe don’t put them on the Smirnoff account if that’s going to make them uncomfortable, hey?
The list of potentially uncomfortable industries for PRs to represent is growing as society becomes more focussed on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (to steal a phrase!). Fast food, automotive, beauty, fast fashion, big tech, big pharma, anything you can put ‘big’ in front of(!), gambling brands. It’s in everyone’s interests to create, foster and grow a culture of support, tolerance and - let’s be honest - client growth/love that can only come from properly understanding the drivers and needs of the people who work for you, and the clients they may work for.
Handled correctly, and you’ll find yourself with happy long-term retained clients, and a happy, stable PR team.
I’m excited to see what effect this annual PRCA ethics month has on the industry - but I wonder, isn’t it time we made sure ethics didn’t need its own month?