Two recent stories have turned the spotlight on what some may see as the “dark side” of public relations.

First, Uber’s senior vice president of business Emil Michael suggested during a dinner in New York that the fast-growing but sometimes over-aggressive ridesharing service should spend $1 million to hire a team of opposition researchers and journalists to look into “the personal lives and families” of journalists who had been critical of the company, in order to give the media a taste of its own medicine. 

He was focused particularly on Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, who had recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” (His comments provide an excellent illustration of the infallibility of Lewis’ Law.)

Then came the leaking of a strategy memo prepared by Edelman for TransCanada, as it seeks to gain approval for a controversial new oil pipeline in central and eastern Canada. In the memo, Edelman suggested putting pressure on opponents by “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources” by working with “supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can’t.” It also suggested opposition research using public sources to highlight any controversy facing the project’s opponents.

This week, TransCanada severed its ties with Edelman because “recent controversy around our communications strategy has created a distraction most notably in Quebec. The conversation about Energy East has turned into a debate about our choice of agency partner.”
"Good PR is not about making nice with everyone; it’s about standing up for the principles you believe in—and sometimes that means engaging in a robust debate."

There are some significant differences between the two stories—I would argue that the latter is, in principle, smart strategy while the former crosses the ethical line in a pretty unsavory way—but together they highlight the need for some generally accepted principles in terms of what constitutes fair practice in issues management.

The first thing that needs saying is that public relations is—and should be—a contact sport. Good PR is not about making nice with everyone; it’s about standing up for the principles you believe in—and sometimes that means engaging in a robust debate.

The second thing that needs to be said is that in any debate, the rules should be the same for both sides. If it is ethical and appropriate for Greenpeace to conduct “opposition research” on an energy company, then it is equally ethical and appropriate for the energy company to do the same. If it’s okay for Greenpeace to work through third-parties (perhaps a more locally-based community group is more credible on some issues than a large international NGO) then the same goes for its corporate opponents. 

And what is true for corporations and NGOs is equally true for journalists, who should have no unique privileges when it comes to information gathering or reporting (especially in the digital age, when anyone with a laptop and a blog can be a journalist). In the Uber case, there’s nothing inherently wrong about turning a spotlight on an individual reporter’s motives or track record—it’s the focus on reporters’ personal lives and family that is offensive.

Of course, those principles need to be balanced with some pragmatism, and in particular a recognition that in an “age of transparency,” every strategy memo or dinner conversation has a pretty good chance of turning up on the front page of the next day’s newspapers.

In that environment, if something you say or do would look embarrassing in print or on TV, or—more important—if it would damage your credibility or make it more difficult for you to build the relationships you need to succeed, you need to think very seriously about whether it’s a good idea.

In a perfect world, being able to defend your thinking based on the principles outlined above would be enough—and PR people should continually make the case for those principles to be applied equitably. But in the real world, PR people need to pick their battles carefully.