Public Relations for Potentially Dangerous Products

For public relations practitioners, positioning their client’s product or service to the public as a must-have is often challenging. This is particularly true if the client is offering a service or product that is potentially harmful. The New York Times recently published an article, A Safety Kink in Hair Relaxing, which examined whether the popular Brazilian Blowout treatment was dangerous because it contains low levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing agent if present in high levels. The article made me wonder how PR practitioners develop a communications plans to promote a client’s potentially hazardous product. From the article, it seems that convincing the public to purchase a potentially hazardous product, like the Brazilian Blowout, requires a public relations plan centered on image rather than down-playing the dangers of the product.

As PR practitioners in training, we are constantly reminded that our job is not to spin, but to present an honest image of our client’s product or service, in hopes that honesty translates to customer loyalty. While journalist Terry Pristin cited in his article that one stylist stopped offering the treatment because of its potential dangers, other stylists claimed that the demand and profits from the service was too great to lose. What is surprising is not that the stylists offered the service after reports surfaced that it contained the carcinogen formaldehyde, but that their clients still requested the treatment. Why would people knowingly put themselves at risk? In one word: image.

Perhaps looking at the way PR practitioners present other harmful products will better illustrate this point. Take cigarette companies, for example. Although any media promoting the product must legally let the public know the product is harmful, cigarette companies still earn millions each year. How are they able to do so, even after numerous studies on the dangers of tobacco? They present smoking as a cool thing that independent people do. By presenting the product as representative of a type of lifestyle or image (i.e. an independent person or in the Brazilian Blowout case an attractive person) some people will overlook the dangers of the product, just to attain an image society deems attractive.

While it is up to the individual to decide whether they will use a potentially harmful product, is it ethical for public relations practitioners to advocate the use of such products? Would you represent a client with a potentially dangerous product?

This guest blog was written by PRowl Public Relations staff member Shari DaCosta.

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