Bell Pott Gate: Does PR have an ethics problem?

“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Jon McLeod, chairman, corporate financial and public affairs at PR firm Weber Shandwick, quotes Shakespeare to emphasise how dear reputation is to anyone, and especially to those who work in PR. He adds: “It seems blindingly obvious that an industry that is in the business of guarding reputations should itself be scrupulous in the defence of its own. The point is, sadly, too often missed. And the media can’t be blamed for wanted to catch public relations firms out when they come into contact with a banana skin”.

This is a reference to the Bell Pottinger scandal that dominated the headlines in the last week. McLeod is amazed that a firm can lose sight of the most important asset it owns: “As someone who joined the industry over 20 years ago through the public affairs route, I have always had drummed into me – and have drummed into others – the primacy of protecting the reputation of the firm you serve.”

Agencies must police themselves
As reputation is everything, it is vital to look after it, and McLeod says there are easy ways for PR agencies to police themselves: “Modern PR firms must look to the governing codes of conduct of their own corporate entities, as well as the relevant professional rules of conduct and transparency. Employment contracts and training should reinforce the primacy of those frameworks, not only to address legislative requirements, such as anti-bribery and corruption, but also to ensure that clients and staff alike can be free of reputational taint and can enjoy the trust and confidence of civil society.”

Potted history of Bell Pottinger’s downfall
Following Bell Pottinger’s campaign for Oakbay Capital, a South African company owned by the controversial Gupta family, South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance complained to the PRCA, accusing the firm of a "hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race".

On Monday 4 September, Bell Pottinger was expelled from the PRCA. Its director-general Francis Ingham explains the decision: “We did so because of its unethical and racially divisive work on the Oakbay Capital account in South Africa. We did so because it had used the power of communication for a morally wrong purpose.“

The expulsion came a day after Bell Pottinger’s chief executive James Henderson resigned. On Wednesday 6 September, the firm announced it was up for sale.

Ethical standards start with appointments
To make sure an agency is ethical in its intrinsic structure, Claire Walker, group CEO at agency Firefly Communications, says you must focus on the appointment stage, whether it is new hires or new clients. Walker describes a typical ethical dilemma an agency can face: “Just today we had an ethical challenge: should we/could we work for a company in the same market as a current client? It is not necessarily an arch-rival, but it does have overlapping service lines. And the answer is fairly simple: it’s not a problem if both clients know and agree. But they must be asked and it helps to have an email trail of evidence of such an approval.”

In complete agreement about the value of vetting who your are prepared to work with, are Jill Hawkins, director of agency Aniseed PR, and Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR. Hawkins says: “I couldn’t work for a brand or a person that I didn’t like or respect, I couldn’t ‘sell’ someone that I didn’t have faith in – but perhaps that’s just the hippy in me, and maybe that’s why I’m happy being a small agency and don’t have plans of world domination! My work is focused on building trust and relationships with the journalists I work with which I couldn’t do if I didn’t have faith in the brands and people that I represent.”  

For Turton, integrity is the key, whether you’re a sole trader or CEO of an international agency: “Imagine being approached by a company that makes engines for airlines, but also makes engines for military aircraft (that are being sold to oppressive regimes). Should we promote electric vehicles, knowing that the environmental impact of the production of the batteries is far worse than vehicles that still burn petrol?

“You may disagree with the simplistic right/wrong approach to whether you take on a client, but perhaps we just need to imagine what would be the impact on your business if the news got out that you were dealing with a company or organisation that you would prefer not to be associated with. If senior personnel at Bell Pottinger had asked that question they might have lost a client with deep pockets, but their reputation would not be in tatters.”     

Firefly’s Walker advocates relying on professional guidelines when recruiting staff or taking on new business: “In every employment contract and every client contract, we include 100% adherence to the PRCA Code of Conduct as a standard practice.”

Five lessons from one PR-firm’s reputation catastrophe
If there is one thing better than learning from your own mistakes, it’s learning from the mistakes of others. Here are the guidelines Bell Pottinger has now set itself to make sure such a disaster never happens again:

Bell Pottinger claims it will now:

1. Implement a more formal and robust engagement committee review of any new client work, or substantial work for an existing client, including the ability to monitor on-going matters by way of spot checks. This will allow Bell Pottinger to identify high risk clients and high-risk mandates and ensure that they are monitored and managed more closely.

2. Put in place further training of employees and partners on social media engagement. The company's training programme in general will be updated and completion of training will be linked to the formal appraisal process. Engagement of third parties or other suppliers to carry out social media work will also only occur with sign-off from senior management.

3. Redevelop and re-issue Bell Pottinger’s corporate policies in a new employee handbook. A detailed corporate social media policy will also be developed to address rules of engagement for social media work for clients.

4. Develop an ethics committee to separate the consideration of engaging clients from the consideration of wider ethical questions. The committee would also look at how ethics impact upon all relevant stakeholders and develop an ethics training programme for all staff.

5. Engender a culture whereby junior employees at Bell Pottinger feel able to challenge work with which they feel uncomfortable. This would be separate to Bell Pottinger's existing whistleblowing policy and aim to encourage employees to come forward outside of that formal whistleblowing process.

Following codes
The problem with adhering to industry codes of conduct is that they can be hard to understand, as they are worded in legalistic language. Walker advocates a PRCA course called Ethics in PR which she is the trainer of. “It breaks down every statement and paragraph of the PRCA Code of Conduct into potentially real situations you might face as a part of your work in the PR and comms industry (including bribery, lying, impersonation, truthfulness and honesty) so it brings the Code of Conduct to life and tests your ethical judgement. I am obviously biased, but I do recommend that everyone does this course, no matter how junior or senior.”

Make your own rules
Following industry guidelines is imperative, but as Weber Shandwick’s McLeod says, it is also important for firms to create their own procedures to self-govern. Jim Donaldson,CEO, UK and Middle East at PR firm FleishmanHillard, agrees and describes how his agency does this: “We have very detailed review procedures for any client work that may be considered potentially controversial laddering up through to our global headquarters. This includes clear ethical guidelines that are closely adhered to globally and the ability to refer any project to a panel of senior specialists at the firm for a formal review and consultation.”

Shakespeare says it best
As we began with a Shakespeare quote, thus so we end. In Othello, when Iago tricks Cassio into subverting his boss. Iago tells him not to worry about it: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” McLeod concludes: “Iago is wrong of course.” That is why PR agencies must follow strict rules, set by themselves and by governing bodies: “Only then can the PR industry be sure that it is serving the society from which it draws its ranks”.