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PR firms represent reprehensible clientsLawyers argue that people accused of a crime have the right to legal defense. But do they have the right to public relations service?

In an op-ed for The Times of Israel, Alan Dershowitz, one of the lawyers instrumental in attaining the favorable plea bargain for accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, argues that defending unpopular and controversial people is essential for a just legal system. Most people accused of a crime are guilty, he argues. If lawyers did not defend guilty clients, more innocent people would be brought to trial.

“In other words, I defend the guilty not only in order to protect them, but in order to assure that innocent people are not brought to trial and put through the personal agony that such a legal process entails,” he asserts.

The Sixth Amendment grants every accused the right to legal counsel, but many defendants cannot obtain robust legal representation because lawyers fear reprisals, including loss of business. “This is a dangerous development, reminiscent of McCarthyism,” he says.

The lawyer says he’s been unfairly villainized for defending Epstein. He was the subject of “a hit piece” in an article titled Alan Dershowitz, Devil’s Advocate in The New Yorker and was accused of sexual misconduct by two of Epstein’s alleged victims, he says.

“In other words, because I did my job well—getting my client the best result possible—I have now become a target of efforts to destroy my reputation and career,” he writes.

It’s not the first time he’s suffered for defending controversial clients. He saw protests and pickets after defending films that were called obscene, lost speaking engagements after helping to defend OJ Simpson, and was called a communist for defending communists.

Aside: Most often it’s the well-heeled unpopular clients who get upper crust legal representation.

 PR Firm Drops Controversial Client

Unlike many top-tier defense lawyers who are willing to take on repugnant clients, PR firms are more likely to avoid them.

Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm by revenue, recently terminated a contract with for-profit corrections company The Geo Group, a top contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Backlash from its own employees caused Edelman to drop the client less than two weeks after beginning the assignment, according to news reports.

Such cases of employee activism are increasing. More employees are prepared to speak out against their employers.

Edelman executives were also concerned about the PR firm’s overall image and its relationship with other clients such as Wells Fargo, which has publicly distanced itself from the private prison industry.

The GEO Group sought Edelman’s PR expertise following negative reports related the Trump administration’s immigration policy, including family separation at the Mexican border and poor living conditions at detention facilities.

A spokesperson for The Geo Group said the PR firm bowed to personal political beliefs of some its employees. Edelman spokesman Michael Bush sent an email statement to the media, stating: “Edelman takes on complex and diverse clients. “We ultimately decided not to proceed with this work.”

Should PR agencies assume the philosophy of defense lawyers. Probably not. Everyone is entitled to an adequate legal defense; not everyone is entitled to PR services.

Difficult Decisions

Deciding to represent an extremely unpopular person, or even a criminal, is a difficult decision. “The right choice isn’t as much about which clients we represent, but about what we do in representing them,” argues Dorothy Crenshaw of Crenshaw Communications. If the client tells the truth and supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information, it can be an ethical decision to represent him.

“Even a questionable client can find redemption, and that in our business, maybe the ethical choice isn’t always the easy one,” Crenshaw says.

PR agencies distanced themselves from a Minneapolis dentist who killed a lion on a safari in 2015 after withering criticism. The incident showed that, like Dershowitz, PR agencies working for controversial clients can be ostracized and vilified.

A PR agency, at least hypothetically, could have advised the client to apologize, make reparations, and become an advocate for protecting wildlife. With a sincere, apologetic approach – often recommended by PR crisis management advisors – and a pivot to conservation, he could have helped galvanize public opinion against illegal hunting. His conversion could have been just as effective as a well-funded PR campaign by a wildlife preservation organization.

Bottom Line: Do unpopular people, even accused criminals, deserve PR services? While lawyers argue that everyone has the right to legal representation, the argument doesn’t translate to PR services. There’s no constitutional right to PR representation. In choosing who to represent, PR agencies can consider their own best interests.