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Bell Pottinger PR ethics scandal

South Africans protest against Atul Gupta, a Bell Pottinger client. Image source: Discott via Wikimedia Commons

Public relations leaders are urging PR pros to place a priority on ethics following ongoing repercussions of the Bell Pottinger scandal.

The British PR firm collapsed after news emerged of its secret divisive campaign in South Africa last year. The New York Times recently published an in-depth page review the PR firm’s demise and its secret campaign that inflamed racial hatred in South Africa. The firm ran the “economic emancipation” campaign for the Gupta family, a wealthy Indian family, with large corporate holdings in South Africa and a close relationship with then President Jacob G. Zuma of South Africa.

While ostensibly a grassroots effort to improve economic equality, the campaign inflamed racial animosity in the country with hate-filled website content, speeches, news releases, fake Twitter bots and other tactics. Its slogan was the incendiary motto “white monopoly capital.” The Gupta’s hoped to distract attention from its activities, but reports of its corruption emerged over time. Zuma recently resigned over corruption allegations.

PR for Despots and Rogues

Calling Bell Pottinger the “PR firm for Despots and Rogues,” the Times noted that Bell Pottinger, following a “go anywhere, do anything” philosophy, worked for dictators such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, repressive regimes like Bahrain and Egypt and celebrities accused of serious crimes like Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius over its 30 years in business.

“Morality is a job for priests, not P.R. men,” said Tim Bell, the firm’s co-founder once said, according to the Times.

The Public Relations and Communications Association in Britain ejected Bell Pottinger from its membership.

“In my years of running the P.R.C.A., I have never seen anything worse, never seen anything equal to it,” Francis Ingham, director general of the trade association, told the Times. “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.”

“Not Our PR”

“What Bell Pottinger did for revenue is not ‘our PR,’ which we practice and advocate for every day,” states Anthony D’Angelo, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in a letter to the editor to the Times. “We won’t lie about our clients, or anyone else, including those who may oppose what our clients advocate.”

D’Angelo also urges PR professionals to aggressively defend their profession, promote ethical practices and strengthen the public’s trust in the profession. PR professionals can find information about the PRSA’s Code of Ethics and other information on PR ethics on the PRSA’s website.

“Bell Pottinger and its ilk damage that trust, and our industry’s reputation,” he asserts. “It’s our duty to speak up, push back, clarify and explain that public relations is based on strictly defined ethical practices, or it simply doesn’t work.”

Ethical practices are good for business as well as the PR industry, he argues. Conversely, PR outfits that don’t follow ethical practices will not survive over the long term, as the Bell Pottinger example shows.

“The Bell Pottinger catastrophe is a harsh reminder of the value of values,” said Peter Wilkinson, managing director of the Wilkinson Group. It’s essential for PR firms to examine potential new clients and reject any who follow unsavory practices.

PR Ethics on a Global Scale

The Global Alliance, a worldwide network of communication associations including the PRSA, recently gathered in Madrid to discuss how to improve PR ethics. Participants agreed to form a task force to explore ways to enhance PR’s reputation by raising standards and developing an overarching set of principles. The global principals would not replace ethics codes of member groups.

“Fake news and an inappropriate use of automated communications in particular, erode trust and reputations in our institutions,” states the Global Alliance.

Bottom Line: Ethics has emerged as a major issue in the PR industry following the Bell Pottinger scandal. Fearing that the firm’s misdeeds may have damaged the entire industry’s reputation, PR leaders urge a renewed focus on integrity and an effort to educate the public about the profession’s ethical standards.

William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.