For the past couple of months, the public relations industry has watched as one of the world’s best-known public relations agencies has become embroiled in a crisis of its own making.
Bell Pottinger, whose founder Lord Bell often courted and worked with controversial clients including Chile’s General Pinochet and Syria’s Asma Al-Assad, is set to go into administration after being deserted by clients and being expelled from the UK-based PRCA trade association.
This came after an investigation found its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to “be the worst breach of ethics in the PRCA’s history.”
The crisis unfolded after Bell Pottinger undertook work for the Gupta family in South Africa that sought to distract attention from the family’s dealings with government through a campaign that aimed to stir up public anger about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa.
Journalists were targeted, fake social media accounts were created, and harm was done to a country and society that is still dealing with the aftermath of its apartheid past.
I’ve worked in PR and media for over a decade and a half, mainly in the Middle East. Ethics has always been a challenging issue to face up to.
With the rise of digital and social media, it’s never been easier to both reach out to a mass audience, and also create content—and a narrative—that can be difficult to verify as true.
The International Association of Business Communicators best summarizes how important communications has become to organizations:
“As a professional communicator, we have the potential to both influence economies and affect lives. This power carries with it significant responsibilities.”
For this reason, ethics matters more than ever. It can mean the difference between undertaking work which unites divided groups, or which can seek to divide and harm the public.
Ethics isn’t a new issue—the PR industry has been grappling with how to behave ever since it came into being. The industry has historically had a reputation for spinning.
The father of PR, Edward Bernays, had a resume which involved governmental coups, support for the tobacco industry, and the creation of advocacy groups for the sole purpose of legitimizing his public relations campaigns.
Thankfully, today’s communicator does have a number of guides and references to use, to best understand what defines ethical behavior. I’m going to quote from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and their code of conduct as to how an ethical communicator should behave.
Integrity and honesty
• Ensuring that clients, employers, employees, colleagues and fellow professionals are fully informed about the nature of representation, what can be delivered and achieved, and what other parties must do to enable the desired result.
• Never deliberately concealing the practitioner’s role as representative of a client or employer, even if the client or employer remains anonymous: e.g., by promoting a cause in the guise of a disinterested party or member of the public.
• Checking the reliability and accuracy of information before dissemination
Capacity, capability, and competence
• Delivering work competently: that is, in a timely, cost-effective, appropriate and thoughtful manner, according to the actual or implied contract; applying due professional judgment and experience; taking necessary steps to resolve problems; and ensuring that clients and other interested parties are informed, advised and consulted as necessary.
• Being aware of the limitations of professional capacity and capability: without limiting realistic scope for development, being willing to accept or delegate only that work for which practitioners are suitably skilled and experienced and which they have the resources to undertake.
• Where appropriate, collaborating on projects to ensure the necessary skill base.
Transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest
• Disclosing to employers, clients or potential clients any financial interest in a supplier being recommended or engaged.
• Declaring conflicts of interest (or circumstances which may give rise to them) in writing to clients, potential clients and employers as soon as they arise.
• Ensuring that services provided are costed, delivered and accounted for in a manner that conforms to accepted business practice and ethics.
• Safeguarding confidences, e.g. of present and former clients and employers.
• Never using confidential and ‘insider’ information to the disadvantage or prejudice of others, e.g., clients and employers, or to self-advantage of any kind.
• Not disclosing confidential information unless specific permission has been granted or if required or covered by the law.
Reputation has a direct and major impact on the well-being of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole.
As the people tasked with managing reputations, it’s imperative that we work towards ensuring that our reputations are pristine before advising others.
Ethics in PR, and by extension business, has never mattered more than it does today.
I for one hope that we all learn lessons from what happened to Bell Pottinger, and put ethics at the core of the work we do as communicators.