Guns for Hire
post # 223 — October 25, 2006 — a Strategy post
Thereâ€™s been a lot of discussion about leading PR firm Edelmanâ€™s involvement in something that transgressed many peopleâ€™s sense of ethics — creating a blog consistently favorable to Wal-Mart without disclosing Wal-Martâ€™s (or Edelmanâ€™s) involvement.
For example, noted industry observer Paul Holmes, comments on this (and other similar situations):
Thereâ€™s no doubt in my mind that Wal-Mart is as sincere about its commitment to use every dirty trick in the book to win its public relations battle as Edelman is about its commitment to set high ethical standardsâ€¦. So what happens when a PR firm with high standards works for a company with a win-at-any price philosophy? The answer is not as obvious as it soundsâ€”there are PR firms who do great work for morally dubious clientsâ€”but often the tone is set by the person paying the bills, and we get Hill & Knowltonâ€™s work for the tobacco industry in the 60s and the Kuwaiti government in the 80s, Ketchumâ€™s more recent troubles involving its work for the Bush administration, and countless other examples.
As I read about all this, I reflected on the number of other occasions that I’ve seen my clients (advertising agencies, investment banks, law firms, consultants, accountants and all the others) clearly working for people they neither respect nor trust, doing deals they didnâ€™t believe in. In all professions, it seems, most providers are guns for hire. (Actually thereâ€™s a ruder word.)
I have discussed this a thousand times with professional providers, but very, very few think they are â€œallowedâ€ by their firms to walk away from a paying customer because they didn’t like what he or she was doing.
I like to make a sort of game of it:
Would your firm walk away if you didn’t like the client?
What if he or she was trying to do something you didn’t believe in?
What if he or she was doing something unethical?
The answers are close to uniform: most individuals inside most firms feel an overwhelming pressure to ignore all these considerations but the last – and many will play games with “I didn’t know what was going on” on that one too.
Notice that what people are telling me is how their FIRMS are run. Most tell me they would make different choices if they were solo like me.
And you know what? I believe them! I can impose my own standards of whom I want to work for. It is (and always has been) the reality of my solo work life that I only work for clients I like personally and whose cause I can wholeheartedly serve. It was like that from the beginning.
Yet, the very minute I joined an organization, I know I would sacrifice that ability to apply selective criteria of taste, meaning, ethics and (maybe even) legality. I would have to apply someone else’s selection criteria, not my own. And the bar would almost certainly be set pretty low.
I’ve been told over and over again that business organizations cannot afford to be selective. Public or private, they feel they are under immense pressure to grow, and cannot turn away business. But notice, I’m in business, too. It’s not being in business that drives you to the compromises, it’s being in an organization!
The fascinating thing is that I know LOTS of CEOs and managing partners. as individuals they are usually people of taste, honor, integrity and all the rest of it. But they believe in their bones that they are not allowed to apply the same criteria in their organizational roles that they would if they were working only for themselves. They feel as trapped and as compromised as the most idealistic junior does.
I think part of what is going on is this. Itâ€™s all about trust. If I knew that all my colleagues, bosses, partners, owners, etc., shared a common set of standards, then I would have the courage to make selective decisions based on those standards. However, if I think they do not share my values, ideologies, principles and preferences, then I will not take the risk and expose myself to criticism by turning away cash under any circumstances. And the organizationâ€™s decision-making gets driven to the lowest common denominator. Weâ€™ll shoot at anything that moves, serve anyone with anything, as long as they pay.
Does anyone want to explain all this to me? Are organizations (professional firms) incapable of being selective? Does everyone inside a firm have to end up as just a gun for hire? If not, how does an organization avoid it?