No room for complacency in Bell Pottinger case

Posted on 05/09/2017

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Many years ago I went to my first PR industry award ceremony. I was overwhelmed by three things: how much I hated wearing a tux, how much a bottle of crap wine cost in London and how ethically dubious people in my chosen profession were.

At that ceremony one of the agencies shortlisted was a firm which had run a campaign on behalf of the Iraqi government in exile to have Saddam Hussein overthrown by force. In terms of meeting your KPIs, you can’t argue it was a killer campaign.

But it was a literally a killer campaign.

I was gobsmacked that people could work on a PR campaign which resulted in getting fellow humans killed. After a few too many of the cheap wines I went up to their table. I’d like to think I was eloquent in my demolition of their ethics. I probably wasn’t.

But the evening had a lasting impression on me. Longer than the hangover from that night.

I can’t remember the name of the agency, but let’s face it, there are plenty of PR’s out there who work for dodgy regimes, on campaigns with ethically dubious objectives. “Bell Pottinger” has always been a byword in the industry for these kind of agencies. But Bell Pottinger’s welcome expulsion from the Public Relations & Communications Association (PRCA) should not be a sign that the stain of their practices has been cleansed from the PR agency world.

The fact is that even if Bell Pottinger collapse, other firms will line up to take on their clients.

But, maybe there is a sign of light.

As if the front page headlines, wall-to-wall BBC coverage and social media storm isn’t enough, the case has captured the wider public imagination. For example, one Labour Party branch passed a motion condemning the firm and comedians at the Edinburgh Festival, such as Nick Revell, have been taking shots at the profession, using Bell Pottinger as a byword for dubious moral practices.

And this could put pressure on the sector to up its game.
For PRs it should be worrying that people outside the bubble are equating the industry in this country with the practices of Bell Pottinger. The PRCA has acted firmly and should also be congratulated for its Ethical Champions initiative, but the question will remain if it will be enough and if more will need to be done to build public trust in the PR pros who abide by industry codes of conduct.
The refrain from the individuals involved in morally dubious campaigns is that everyone has a right to representation. True, but that doesn’t mean that PRs should check their ethics in at the door or be exempt from basic human decency.
However in a sector where money talks, consumer power can have a role to play in cleaning up the industry. As clients line up to fire Bell Pottinger, they should ensure they don’t walk from a rock to a hard place.
All organisations should ask who else is on their PR agency’s client roster, the transparency applied to public affairs lobbying could be rolled out to all public relations activity and, yes, there should be a deeper inquiry into the ethics of the industry.
Cover image from Steve Rhodes on flickr