In an increasingly politically aware World, the question of whether we should use companies perceived to be unethical as an active part of our reference programme strategy is an interesting one. Ethics and corporate responsibility have a direct impact on a company’s brand perception so we tread a fine line when making the decision to use reference customers that may not be deemed appropriate by a wide audience. Conversations within the reference community have thrown out a variety of viewpoints.

Very few organisations we’ve spoken to have formalised their reference ethics so that there is clear direction on exactly what types of companies are deemed acceptable – the majority judge on a case-by-case basis.

Tobacco and gambling have been raised as two of the most controversial industries when it comes to references. Both are legal (in most parts of the World) yet there is a question mark over them when it comes to advocacy.

Surprisingly, opinions on using companies that sell perfectly acceptable products such as food or clothing (like the Primark’s and McDonalds of this World) but that have been questioned over how ethical their working practices and environmental policies are, are somewhat weaker.

Companies do create references with customers that are often deemed as ‘unethical’, they just make sure they use these references within the appropriate channels (e.g. use them as sales references, but not for PR).

References are typically used in ‘like-for-like’ situations; so if you’re pitching for business with a tobacco company, it’s perfectly acceptable (not to mention appropriate) to showcase a reference customer within the same industry.

There does appear to be an attitude of ‘what can we get away with without tarnishing our brand’ when it comes to using customer references that may be deemed unethical. For me personally, if a company has such strong moral issues with another organisation’s products or practices, then the likelihood is they wouldn’t have them as a customer in the first place.

The consensus seems to be that if you have customers on your revenue sheet, you shouldn’t be ashamed to use them as customer references as long as it’s through the right channels and for the right reasons.