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Weighing morals vs money in the events industry

In 2018, Guardian columnist Owen Jones launched a scathing attack on the Natural History Museum.

He was rather flustered that the venue had accepted a booking to host an evening reception for the Saudi Arabia Embassy. He pointed to the appalling human rights violations of the Saudi regime and their waging of war against the Shia Al Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But Saudi Arabia is not alone when it comes to this sort of thing. The UK itself has a rather chequered history when it comes to foreign relations, as does France, Spain, Germany, China, Russia, Israel, and the USA… it’s a rather long list, and each comes with its own complex debate and divisiveness. So why should an events organisation such as the Natural History Museum be vilified for taking business?

CN speaks to event professionals to gauge their views.

Michael Charles, creative director at Julia Charles Event Management is forthright in his views. He says what is viewed as “morally wrong” in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. He says: “We work internationally, and our clients are spread far and wide – including some that are based in Saudi Arabia. We have to consider that what’s morally questionable to some countries may be completely acceptable to other cultures, so who are we to judge?

“We work with some tobacco and shisha brands; when we create events for them we have to adhere to strict legislation to ensure that the events stay within the laws of that country.

"Some may say that it’s morally wrong to promote tobacco products, but they are legal products that can be legally promoted within strict guidelines. We also work with a wine brand – yet some may view that as morally unacceptable because alcohol can cause death.

"Cars can cause pollution so is it morally wrong to work with a motor manufacturer? So where exactly do you draw the line? In this day and age, people take offence very easily, so it is impossible to satisfy everyone’s moral compass.”

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Charles continues: “We also work in the luxury sector – planning parties and events for people who think nothing of spending a million pounds on one occasion. Some people may say that, with so much poverty in the world, it is morally wrong to spend so much money on an event, but who are we to say what’s right and wrong or how people and companies spend their money?

“We have worked with venues that some may say are a little ‘smutty’, but we consider a venue to be a blank canvas. Everything (including the smuttiness) can be stripped out and the venue transformed into whatever we want it to be.

"My choice of venue would be guided by the brand, its values and identity, and what the event needs to achieve. If a client wanted to use a venue such as Stringfellows, I would consider it, but also include a few others in the mix because we are spoilt for choice in that area of London.”

In contrast to Charles, Karen Kadin, joint managing partner at Brands at Work, says that her agency does indeed assess client requests before deciding on whether or not to accept business.

She says: “We don’t have a blanket policy about which brands and sectors we work with, instead we assess each brief and every company on a case by case basis. It is a bit of a sliding scale of moral assessment. Does the company or its products or services knowingly and willingly cause direct harm to health or humanity? If so, we’ll definitely pass on the opportunity.

“When it is a little less clear cut, we’ll take a closer look at the brands and consider if their company ethos and moral compass is aligned with ours. There are shades of grey, of course. We worked with a company that had been fined by the industry watchdog for mis-selling products; however, their brief was for an employee engagement campaign and series of events to re-educate staff on ethics, values and compliance.

"On this occasion, we jumped at the opportunity to help transform a negative corporate culture into a positive one.”

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