In the wake of the PRCA’s ruling on Bell Pottinger, crisis, risk and reputation management adviser Ella Minty explores what to do if you work in PR and are asked to do something unethical.

If you’re ever asked by your boss to do something you know is unethical, inappropriate or illegal, be afraid. Don’t go through it just to please your employer or to show that you’re a team player.

Often, many young executives’ PR career ends before it begins. Your youth or lack of experience, other than the innate enthusiasm you may possess and that feeling that you can conquer the world, should be used to learn the fine line of ethical conduct in PR.

You may think that if you say no to your boss’ unethical request, you’ll lose your job.

You may think that if you say no to your boss’ unethical request, you’ll lose your job. Not necessarily. You need to be wise about it and try these options before you hand in your resignation (which is always an option available to you):

  1. Politely and professionally argue the downsides of going through with that action:
  • legal and financial liability;
  • inappropriate professional conduct on the agency’s part;
  • potential reputational fallout not just for the agency but for its client, too;
  • loss of current or future business if this is found out;
  • breach of professional Codes of Conduct (individual and Agency);
  • setting a bad example in terms of not actually acting in line with the agency’s values;
  1. Offer alternatives to your boss’ unethical action request:
  • do your homework and understand all the ramifications of his/her request;
  • put your qualifications and experience to best use and seek alternative viable options to their request;
  • provide a Cost and Gap Analysis of your countersuggestion versus theirs;
  • believe that it can work and show that clearly during your discussion;
  • make them buy into your alternative proposal – a SWOT analysis is your best friend now;
  • do not allow personalities and emotions cloud your judgement – this may well be a test you’re being given to see how you act/react in conflict situations

Seek confidential advice

  1. Seek confidential advice from your industry bodies – PRCA and CIPR. If their advice is not forthcoming, seek to confidentially discuss your issue with more senior practitioners whose advice you know you can trust. You need to be satisfied with the decision you take, no one can make that for you.
  1. Discuss your boss’ request (including the content of points 1-3 above) with your agency’s legal department (counsel) and HR function. At this point, it will be highly likely that the issue will be escalated internally and the support you need is going to be offered, not withheld.

be respectful, polite and do not lose your temper

Don’t think that just because you’re new into your job or you’re young, no one will trust / believe you. They will, providing you prepare your case very well and remove the personalities out of it – be respectful, polite and do not lose your temper when, highly likely, others will lose theirs.

How you handle these situations will certainly define the type of PR practitioner you will become and be known for. The dark arts of PR are dwindling – their cost is enormous, if Bell Pottinger is anything to go by. Just don’t be afraid.



  • September 5, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    I don’t disagree with Ella’s advice here, but she writes as though “unethical” work is an absolute which can be defined. What is or is not ethical is always a matter of individual and subjective opinion. What you mighr consider ethical, I might not and vice versa. The point here is that PR people should be guided by their own ethical “code.” In my agency for example we are all able to raise a flag on any client work we do not which to be involved with and many (including me) have done so. That does not mean that the same work may be perfectly ethical in the opinion of a colleague to take up.


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