Ethical PR the only way

A recent public relations scandal has served to highlight the necessity of ethics in the industry.

It led to the demise of one of the most prominent and successful companies in PR, UK-based Bell Pottinger.

Early in 2016 the firm, then led by Lord Bell, a confidante of the late Margaret Thatcher, made a successful bid to represent Oakbay Investments, a South African firm owned by the multi-millionaire Gupta brothers.

For months the Guptas had been battered by claims they had a corrupt relationship with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma whose son, Duduzane, was a board member at Oakbay.

For a fee of £100,000 a month Bell Pottinger undertook to restore the Guptas’ image.

The methods they used attracted widespread condemnation after an official inquiry into the affair found that Bell Pottinger had secretly hired hundreds of tweeters to spread fake news attracting over 220,000 re-tweets in 12 months. Even more damning was that many of the tweets stirred race hate by raising the spectre of “white monopoly capital” and pro-white “economical apartheid” implying that widespread criticism of Zuma and the Guptas was some white elitist conspiracy which it was certainly not.

Bell Pottinger was forced to issue an “unequivocal apology” over the campaign. But it was too late. Important clients fled. Lord Bell and the chief executive resigned and the company is now in administration. 

So what about ethics and PR?

There are two broad approaches to the subject.

One outlook is absolutist, with individuals and organisations insisting their system of ethics is unchallengeable and unchanging. The basis for this approach is often religious, with individuals or companies adopting a religious stance and not undertaking certain kinds of work - a firm with Islamic principles would not represent the alcohol industry, for example.

The other broad outlook sees ethics as changing with society and changing social attitudes. What was acceptable once can, over time, be unacceptable – or vice versa. Well into the 20th century the death penalty was considered ethical in New Zealand and the UK, attitudes changed and the scaffold is no more.

Most PR firms hold to the second outlook. The task of PR leadership then becomes the ability to interpret the moving scene and make good decisions.

Different companies, in this category, will undoubtedly have different ethical rules. For example, we at Cadence would not work for the tobacco industry.

As members of the Public Relations Institute of NZ (PRINZ), we adhere to its Code of Ethics [link to].  Although we are not members of the International Association of Business Communicators, we act in keeping with their 10 Commandments, which are as follows:

1.  Communicate accurate information and promptly correct any errors.

2.  Obey laws and public policies; if I violate any law or public policy, I act promptly to correct the situation.

3.   Protect confidential information while acting within the law.

4.   Support the ideals of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas.

5.   Be sensitive to others’ cultural values and beliefs.

6.   Give credit to others for their work and cite my sources.

7.   Do not use confidential information for personal benefit.

8.   Do not represent conflicting or competing interests without full disclosure and the written consent of those involved.

9.   Do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.

10.  Do not guarantee results that are beyond my power to deliver.