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Is it right to reject clients on moral grounds?

the word cancel on paper in an old typewriter

Just how far should we impose our own moral standards on our clients? It’s a business decision which has profound spiritual, moral and legal implications.

In his 2022 Reith lecture on freedom of worship, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams finds a moral distinction between an individual being forced to do something and  that same individual imposing their own freedoms on others.

head of a bearded clergyman
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

“A legal exemption which allows an employee to avoid directly performing an action believed to be intrinsically wrong is one thing, but it’s clearly different from allowing the employee to refuse to grant simple legal recognition to choices made by others that are wholly within the law.”

In other words, he has sympathy with the customers who were refused a cake celebrating gay marriage by Christian bakers. What they asked for was legal, the bakers offered that service, so they should have complied.

In response to a question, he elaborates: “the power to deny somebody what is legally available to them is not a power I think religious people ought to be seeking to exercise.”

Lots of us with liberal principles will agree. It’s a human rights issue. Businesses should offer their services to all equally.

And yet.

Many PR companies, including my own, make it clear that we will not service companies whose values seem to run counter to our own. In our case, to name but a few, we won’t work with fossil fuel companies, makers and suppliers of single use plastics, tobacco firms and gambling concerns.

Are we making the same discriminatory decision as the bakers?

PR services are not the same as baking a cake. Perhaps a closer comparison would be Robin Cook, who announced an ‘ethical foreign policy’ in 1997.

It was just one part of a long speech which outlined the Labour government’s approach to foreign policy, most of which was totally uncontroversial. The key sentence was: “Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.”

In other words, Cook introduced a new focus on human rights alongside the nation’s self-interest. He never said that the UK government should not talk to people with whom we disagree, nor refuse to trade with them, play sport with them, etc.

The shift in approach was visible when the UK sent troops to Kosovo in 1999, justifying military action on humanitarian grounds.

However, even this doesn’t quite fit the PR model. Public relations is not merely negotiating with other bodies – PR consultants promote them, enhance their reputation, tell their stories in the most positive, creative and effective way we can.

That is rather different from decorating a cake or even doing a trade deal. I do my best work when I, at the very least, sympathise with the client. If I don’t want them to succeed, a polite refusal to pitch is probably better than winning the business on false pretences.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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