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Mueller-Manafort trial raises some discomforting public relations issues

It may be time for some of us to perform an "examination of conscience" *

Consider these excerpts from the August 2nd edition New York Times front page article, "Mueller Exposes Foreign Lobbying and Big Paydays" :

 

"At the trial of Paul Manafort, an unflattering picture has emerged of lawyers, lobbyists and consultants from both political parties winning big paydays for work on behalf of a Kremlin-aligned former Ukrainian  strongman ... All of this has prompted lobbyists to hunt for advice about how to comply with laws governing that sphere, long viewed as toothless."

"Mr. Mueller's investigation shined a spotlight on the waves of foreign money washing through American politics ..."

"... The Justice Department ... has made it clear in a recent cybercrimes report and in congressional testimony that influence  [emphasis added] has become as great a threat [as spying]."

"Some Washington lobbyists made up for lost business [after a 2006 scandal] with foreign clients trying to exert influence on American politicians."

 

 The charges against Manafort are off the ethics chart. What remains, however,  is whether consultants, especially in public relations firms with lobbying units, are in need of some reflection on the foreign intrusion into American political discourse, especially that affecting elections and foreign policy.

First, a bit of history:

Was it an Original Sin -- or simply legitimate market development -- back in the early '90s when major public relations firms acquired lobbying subsidiaries, some of whom had, or lusted after, "foreign interest" clients? From The Washington Post, January 3, 1991, at the time of one such acquisition, quoting an acquirer CEO: "He agreed there is 'a real trend' toward consolidation among politically connected lobbying and public relations firms [note the distinction] that want to 'practice governmental relations for clients with global needs.'"

Fast forward to 2018:

Today, the minimum for foreign interest lobbying --"the ticket to get in" -- is still transparency under the 1938 U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. FARA "is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as wells as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities."

But what else is now needed to be "purer than Caesar's wife" in representing foreign interests attempting to influence American public opinion and policy? What is the perimeter of "foreign interests" -- a sovereign state or a state-owned company? foreign policy? a tourist or marketing campaign? And all this in the context of how international relationships can be fluid, now more ever.

Should each such U.S. public relations firm at least have a FARA compliance officer? In the final analysis, is the lobbying consistent with American interests?

All very difficult questions, perhaps prompting the central question: Is it time for firms to reflect on whether such business, lucrative as it may be, is no longer worth the reputational and operational risk?

 

Critical as it is, the "foreign influence' counseling issue arises at a time -- and within -- debate of an even broader issue in the public relations profession: The ethics of whether everyone deserves public relations counsel.

In rhe PRWeekender August 4th edition, Steve Barrett, Editor-in-Chief-US presents this headline and sub-head:

"PR  people aren't defense lawyers 

"Ethical considerations should underpin all credible  PR practice - not everyone deserves PR representation and black ops should not be part of the communications playbook."   

In that article: "Richard Edelman, owner of the biggest and best-knows PR firm [and a champion for professional ethics review and reform], 'Not everyone deserves representation.' "

Some venerable axioms seem to help on these issues -- yet they feel unsatisfying:

" Lobbying is Constitutionally protected".

"Everyone is entitled to public relations counsel" (derivative of the right to legal counsel).

" You're known by the company you keep."

" Do nothing you wouldn't want to see on the from page of The New York Times"

Too, there are well-established ethical codes within the public relations profession -- among them at The Public Relations Society of America; The International Communications Consulting Organization; and the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (the GA code is being updated).  These relate to domestic as well as "foreign interest" clients and other ethics issues. But the question of who you will represent -- and how --  seems to take on a special resonance with the near-daily reports of alleged foreign intrusion into American politics.

We seem to be at a new  confluence -- or collision --of professional ethics, patriotism and pragmatism

In his compelling blog, Steve Barrett  is not encouraged:

"The wider question ... is what the PR industry can do to stop its overall reputation being brought into disrepute by bad actors. I'm not sure there is anything else concrete that can be done to alleviate negative connotations ... and that is very much to be regretted."

 Fair enough. But addressing the issue of counseling foreign interests attempting to influence American politics and foreign  policy -- whatever the degree of public relations  firms' involvement -- would surely be a good start. 

 

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*Examination of conscience" - soul-searching prior to Confession in the Roman Catholic tradition

 

 

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