Starting out in my first PR role in September 2017 was a uniquely interesting time. Just as I began to learn about the sector – what it means and what it does – the industry was rocked by a scandal which stole the headlines, it concerned PR agency Bell Pottinger. PR is an industry dedicated to getting clients media coverage and ensuring good press relations, but never before had the actual PR agency been featured on the front page. When the Bell Pottinger scandal broke, PR practices were called into question and articles erupted across the media. From the front page of the Financial Times to Lord Bell himself being interviewed on Newsnight, debate around PR ethics was everywhere.
The Bell Pottinger scandal goes back some time. The agency stood accused of having, over the last year, stirred up anger and resentment about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa to draw attention away from their controversial client, the Gupta family. The divisive campaign that sought to achieve this was thus aimed at dividing South Africa along racial lines and included creating fake Twitter accounts which targeted prominent white business people in South Africa and took attention away from the Gupta family. The revelations led to the company losing notable clients, numerous people being suspended or fired and eventually saw the agency forced into administration.
All of this shone a bright spotlight on PR and its ethics – what does it mean to work in this industry and to influence the media? The sector was swamped with debate as well as criticism. At Flagship Consulting we took these discussions around PR ethics seriously and it prompted us to enlist the help of Roger Steare, a corporate philosopher from Cass Business School.
We held an intense workshop in which we received a presentation from Roger on business ethics and the corporate world. We then moved on to our own discussions where we were confronted with a number of intriguing and difficult scenarios that made us reflect on our own ethical practice. The exercises were tough but stimulating and made us consider our judgements on a host of topics.
So, what was our conclusion? Ultimately ethics are highly complex and thus can be difficult to define and for this reason they must always be part of an ongoing and open conversation. Spending an afternoon debating and discussing a variation of topics truly brought this home. It made us realise how much it needs to be part of a regular discussion.
While still important, codes of conduct are often vague and unhelpful when dealing with unethical situations. Instead, individuals working in PR and in many other industries should be encouraged to think critically about ethics on an ongoing basis and should feel able to voice their concerns in an open environment. This allows for questions to be raised early and for discussion to ensue. Ethics are essentially built on values so it is often a question of company culture and establishing the right one, as well as an open one.