Edelman’s Ethics Standards – Why Context and Oversight Matter

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Richard Edelman’s suggestions for how to rebuild trust in public relations are welcome, but will they work in the emerging world?

Richard Edelman, the head of the world’s largest independent PR firm, set forth his vision for how corporations and governments can rebuild public trust this week during a talk at the Washington DC-based National Press Club.

Entitled “The Battleground Is Trust,” Edelman detailed a number of steps. The first, “collaborative journalism”, would involve companies opening up to civil society and other stakeholders on issues they have detailed knowledge of (Edelman gave examples of Walmart on China supply chain or GE on wind power, according to the Holmes Report), as well as cutting down on corporate speak. He also spoke about the need for companies to “create a platform for employees and customers to talk openly about your company or brand. Provide the ability to rate and review the business. Allow users to voice the good and the bad, permit self-criticism, and encourage open dialogue. Listen to what they say so you can improve your products.”

While it’s good to hear an industry leader talk about the need for transparency to rebuild trust, corporates have been slow to respond to customer engagement on social media platforms and review websites such as Glassdoor. There’s already enough appraisal data out there for organizations to filter. The question is whether they’re listening or not.

The bigger issue for me is the disparity in cultures and in organizational ownership. Take for example the Middle East region, or China. In contrast to the United States or Europe and the separation between government and business ownership, many of the largest companies in the Middle East and China are government-owned. Would they willing to engage in “collaborative journalism”, and opening up their internal workings to the public? Would governments in emerging markets be willing to listen to views on how their businesses are run, views which may be contrary to their own. And who would the collaborators be? Government-controlled media? Would this engender public trust?

The first step to building trust is to understand that context matters. While I appreciate that Edelman was addressing a US audience, the PR industry must do more to better grasp cultural nuances, and adapt its thinking appropriately to serve different geographies, governance models and civil societies.

The other big headline which came out of Edelman’s speech was the idea for a “PR Compact” and mandatory ethics training. These include four tenets:

1. Insist on accuracy. Check the facts. Don’t just accept what a client tells you as the truth. Get third-party validation and cite sources. Correct errors quickly.
2. Demand transparency. Press clients to disclose their financial interests in advocacy programs and to reveal their role in coalitions. Advocate for laws that require more transparency in communications. Report on non-financial metrics in supply chains and hiring practices.
3. Engage in the free and open exchange of ideas. Create platforms that encourage and empower informed public discourse. Tell both sides of the story, and allow for dissenting views. This benefits business, shareholders, and society.
4. Require everyone to take universal online ethics training. Everyone must learn the same best practices—what is right and what is not. Tie advancement and promotion to successful completion of the course. This training should be free and accessible to all.

As a member of a number of different industry associations, I adhere to the ethical codes which these associations espouse. However, context is also key. It’s no surprise that Bell Pottinger was undone by work undertaken not in London, but in South Africa, for an entity which has close ties to the South African government. Bell Pottinger was undone by the excellent work of the South African press. In other emerging markets there is no freedom of speech (and definitely no dissenting views). And there’s no way to advocate for laws that promote transparency.

For me, there’s an urgent need to promote ethics not just in London or Washington DC, but in the up-and-coming PR hubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It needs a coalition of associations who have members from every level of the industry, who are international in their nature, and who can oversee ethical guidelines that are both universal and contextually-appropriate. It’s no surprise to me why this hasn’t yet happened. But I do hope someone will have the courage to push for a global ethical conversation soon.

 

Why we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back over the Bell Pottinger saga

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Bell Pottinger has fallen from grace due to its work with the Gupta family, but there are many other instances of ethically dubious work being done by PR practitioners and agencies.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, with no cellphone connection and no newspaper rounds, there’s only one topic of conversation today in the PR industry. That is the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association for its work with the South Africa-based Gupta family. The agency was found to be promoting racial divisions through fake social media accounts in order to divert attention away from their client’s government connections and accusations of improper acquisition of wealth. Here’s a brief background, from the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Bell Pottinger, one of the City’s leading public relations agencies, has been expelled from the industry’s trade association after an investigation found its secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa to be the worst breach of ethics in its history.

The Public Relations and Communications Association said Bell Pottinger was unethical and unprofessional, had brought the industry into disrepute and has banned the firm from its membership for at least five years.

The punishment, unprecedented for a firm of Bell Pottinger’s size, was handed down after the PRCA investigated a complaint from South Africa’s main opposition party that the PR firm sought to stir up anger about “white monopoly capital” and the “economic apartheid” in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger was being paid £100,000 a month by client Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Gupta family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their close links to the South African president, Jacob Zuma. Both have previously denied such a relationship.

The PRCA decision to investigate and then expel Bell Pottinger was announced following a complaint by the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, about Bell Pottinger’s work.

There’s been a chorus of voices congratulating the PRCA for this decision (could they have taken any other route?), and insisting that the industry should follow more rigorous ethical guidelines.

What concerns me is 1) how any agency would have taken on a brief to harm others on behalf of a client, 2) why any body would need a complaint to be made to take action when the information was in the public domain (the story broke in Spring of this year, and we’re now into September), and 3) why is this particular case being highlighted when there’s a myriad of other client-agency relationships which should be under the spotlight.

Let me spell out some of the ethically-dubious issues that are there for all to see. We have the US Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is issuing grand jury subpoenas seeking testimony from public relations executives who worked on an international campaign organized by former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort as part of his investigation into the alleged Russian interference in US elections, a whole raft of PR agencies and lobby groups working for governments with poor to nil human rights (a recent example is APCO and the Egyptian government), and agencies working with firms who impact public health. Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell has an interesting CV; he’s worked with the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.

The industry has historically had a reputation for spinning. The father of PR, Edward Bernays, was long associated with the tobacco industry. Anyone who has worked in the industry in the region will know of the role that Hill & Knowlton played in pushing the United States into the first Gulf War through the use of a fictional story about dying babies. More recently we’ve seen agencies use fake digital and social media accounts to discredit groups, corporations or countries on behalf of clients. I could go on…

We have to face up to the fact that the PR industry has an ethics problem. There are far too many agencies who will take the business if the cheque has enough zeros. For an industry that trades in reputation above all, we have to take a far stricter stance on ethics, at least at an agency level. While I applaud the PRCA for what it has done, this is only scratching the surface. We shouldn’t start patting ourselves on the back when the job to clean up the industry has only just begun.

 

Washing your dirty laundry in public PR style

As someone who’s been around the proverbial communications block, I’ve always been taught never to air any grievances in public. The thought of picking a fight with a journalist or a publication is always a no go, no matter who is right and who is wrong.

While few things seem shocking following events over the past six months, a couple of articles in the Bahrain media were eye openers in terms of how regional governments, media and public relations firms are communicating with each other in the public domain. The first was a stinging article in Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News related primarily to the decision by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA as it’s also known to cancel this year’s Bahrain race.

The author suggested that Bahrain’s loss of the race, which is estimated to bring in several hundred million dollars to the local economy, is partly due to a lack of action by lobbying firms hired by the Bahraini government. The below from the article on the 10th of June suggests that only companies with a vested interest should be hired to support and defend Bahrain. For those interested the fully story is hosted here.

“Certainly Bahrain should share part of the blame for innocently allowing both international media and human rights organisations to twist the truth. For years they have been fed a dubious diet of information. However, we have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford and public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger (whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as trouble started). They have milked the country’s financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result.

From now on we hope such tasks will be undertaken by organisations with true local links, knowledge and understanding, as well as a genuine love for Bahrain.

The defamation of Bahrain was started by so-called native opposition elements, therefore only local, loyal media and public relations companies with a vested interest in the future of this country can be relied upon. “

What is striking about the above paragraphs is how the author attacks those agencies hired by the government to lobby on its behalf. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.
In response the founding partner of one of the agencies mentioned, Gardant Communication, replies to the article with a short but succinct letter published on the 15th of June and which can be read here.

Lord Clanwilliam argues that he’s on Bahrain’s side and that he’s been criticized for his support for and defense of Bahrain

“When I defended Bahrain on Al Jazeera news channel recently, calling it a beacon of democracy, I had no idea what events would follow, nor how much I would subsequently be attacked for my loyalty by the British gutter Press.

I am proud to defend a country I love, but it would be helpful to have the support of that country’s Press instead of unsubstantiated criticism.

Finally, Anwar, we have known each other 15 years, please learn how to spell my name correctly.
The riproste from the editor is carried below the letter. In summary, the editor attacks the Lord and his firm for a complete lack of action in relation to its lobbying contract for Bahrain (the firm is actually hired by the Embassy of Bahrain in London).

“However without in anyway wishing to be personal, we do not believe that you have represented Bahrain successfully and that you have given the opportunity to opposition elements to steal a march on us by allowing them to influence the international media virtually unopposed.”

To top it all off, the Lord is attacked again in the letters page on both personally and professionally the following day by a reader. The letter is still hosted on GDN’s site.

“This is to you, Lord Clanwilliam. Simply adding the word “Lord” before your name doesn’t make you one. You have to go a long way to achieve it.

In the report ‘Overtaken by lies?,’ the only inaccuracy was one letter missing from your name – for which GDN Chairman and Responsible Editor Anwar Abdulrahman apologised. Apart from that, all other matters were correct.
Abraham Samuel (bijji)

What is astounding about all of this for me is that these views are being aired in public at all. Having worked in the region for this amount of time I don’t believe that the initial piece and slight towards the agencies employed by Bahrain unless it was sanctioned by a government employee. Gulf Daily News is a pro-government newspaper.

What follows is a further tirade which is both personal and professional.

I don’t understand is how this benefits anyone. If the agency/ies have not done what they were hired to do then release them. Attacks on people who are supporting you will not encourage other agencies to flock to your support . If I am working on a client account it doesn’t do much for my motivation to be hammered. I can imagine that those agencies who were attacked in the article and particularly the founder of one of them is even less enthused about fulfilling their duties towards the country.

The loss of this year’s formula one to Bahrain is a major political and financial blow. The race was estimated to be worth up to 500 million dollars to the island’s economy. However, if you are unhappy with your agency my advice is to show it in the simplest and most effective of ways and change your agency. Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.