PR: How to sell without selling your soul

How much of a role does belief play in public relations? Or, for that matter, ethics and scruples? Sarah Ebner asks the professionals how far they would go for publicity
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The Independent Online

Nick Naylor is a PR maestro. As the spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, he promotes smoking while effortlessly batting away any connection to addiction or cancer. It's not an easy job, but Naylor, who's smart, handsome and an incredibly smooth talker, is brilliant at it. He rejoices in his ability to spin.

However, Naylor - as played by Aaron Eckhart in a new satirical film Thank You for Smoking - is a movie creation. Luckily. But do public relations professionals in the real world believe, as Naylor does, that "the beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong"?

It's a good question, says Mark Borkowski, whose self-titled company is doing the promotion for the new film. "I've seen people like Nick Naylor throughout my career and he's someone I don't want to be," he adds. "The film deals with spin, but it doesn't question anything. Good PR can actually achieve things.

"I have never done cigarettes or oil. I have turned down petro-chemical companies and I've never wanted to work for a political party. I have done booze, because I drink."

Borkowski also says that that he turned down the chance to promote Death Cigarettes, even though they were offering a "sizeable" budget. That account was taken instead by Angie Moxham (who has since set up her own agency, 3 Monkeys). Moxham says that, although the product she was promoting was cigarettes, she had no ethical qualms.

"I was absolutely intrigued by the Death brand," she says. "What it was doing was having a pop at the original tobacco cartel and I felt there was an inherent health message in it. I believe in an honest message to consumers and what it was saying was, if you want to smoke then admit it's going to kill you, so smoke Death."

Both Angie Moxham and Mark Borkowski work for themselves. This gives them the choice of being able to turn down work which doesn't suit them or fit in with their beliefs. Unfortunately, that luxury does not extend to people who are starting out on their careers or working for a large corporation.

It was when Kat Byles was told to promote powdered mashed potato that her faith in PR went rapidly downhill. "I was supposed to ensure that the product was positioned as nutritious and easy to use, but I just don't believe powdered food is nutritious," she says. "I took journalists to tasting sessions, but I didn't try it. It looked terrible. Of course I wasn't going to eat it.

Byles' solution was to set up Authentic PR, which works on accounts that she finds fulfilling.

"We all have to take responsibility for what we do," she says. "It's hard work, but now I'm so much happier."

Nicholas Breakspeare would agree. He has also found fulfilment by staying within PR, but in a completely different field. When he was 21, he began working for an American firm that lobbied on behalf of the food industry. He was fresh out of university, given a salary of $37,000 (£25,000), plus substantial expenses, and couldn't believe his luck. "But as time went on, I realised that I wasn't actually working for a politically impartial think-tank, but for a political machine," he says.

" It got to a point where I couldn't do it any more, but there were certainly other people who felt that the money and benefits were so good they were willing to ignore their conscience and sacrifice their ideals."

Breakspeare is now senior media officer for the Children's Society and says he's "wowed" by doing something worthwhile. "It's very difficult to promote an organisation you don't believe in," he says.

"Although in PR, I think it's often just part of the job."

That may be true, but PR guru Lynne Franks says it shouldn't be. "I think the only way a PR can promote something is if they convince themselves they believe in it," she says. "It's the art of self-deception. If I believed in something wholeheartedly, then I was brilliant.

"There's always a good side and I do think there's a way of doing honest, good communication for everybody. It's about not lying and living by values."