I had the pleasure of speaking with the Holmes Report’s Arun recently, on a host of topics. I interviewed him for a podcast, looking at the future of the communications industry. He asked me about recent corporate governance issues in the Middle East. We also spoke about the rise of values-based communications. Have a listen and enjoy. And get involved by sharing your opinion.
I’m sharing this article, which first ran in Communicate Middle East a couple of days back. I care deeply about the industry and about MEPRA, to which I gave five years of board service. My message is simple – we can and must do better when it comes to corporate governance. And MEPRA must lead by example.
“It’s no secret that I care about the communications industry in the region. I’ve done more than my fair share when it comes to supporting people and organizations in becoming more aware of what good communications is all about, and why it’s central to building strong reputations. I’ve also spent years advocating for the adoption of best practices, including good corporate governance, through both my day job and my board positions for several communications associations including the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA), Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Advertisers Business Group (ABG).
Good corporate governance builds reputation; weak corporate governance undermines trust. I’m not simply talking about following regulations and laws, but also the need to be transparent as well as feel that an organization’s leadership is doing the right thing, listening to concerns and acting with integrity. As a member of the communications industry who is interested in how my profession is perceived, I care about reputations and the need to do the right thing.
One of the organizations I’ve supported, both as a member and through a board position, is the MEPRA. As a member, I’ve always maintained that we must adhere to the strongest standards of corporate governance. It’s integral to our mission of empowering communicators in becoming strategic advisors, particularly to organizational leadership.
Given that, I’m confused as to how at least three members have been added to the organization’s Strategy Board in the months following the Annual General Meeting on February 5. There was no member’s vote on their nomination and no communication sent to members besides the update on the website. And I’m struggling to reconcile this with what’s stated in the MEPRA Charter. I’ll quote from the Charter:
- The Boards shall be elected from MEPRA’s members.
- The election will take place at the Annual General Meeting to be held each year or at an Extraordinary General Meeting if required and agreed by a majority of the Executive Board.
- The Executive Board shall be responsible for establishing the nomination and election process each year, provided always that: nominations for each office of the Boards will be invited from the members of the association when giving notice of the Annual General Meeting. The Executive Board must receive all nominations in writing in reasonable time before the date of the Annual General Meeting. Every nomination shall be supported by at least two voting members of the Association. The Executive Board will circulate the list of nominations to members not less than two weeks prior to the Annual General Meeting.
- Election will be by a simple majority of the members eligible to vote.
- Voting will be by secret ballot.
- All MEPRA members are eligible to vote in the election of the Strategy Board. Only members of the Strategy Board are eligible to vote in the election of the Executive Board. Only members of the Executive Board are eligible to vote in the election of Chair and Vice Chair. No member may vote for him or herself.
- If for any reason a member of the Boards is unable to serve for a full two years the vacancy will be advised to the members and the Executive Board may fill the vacancy from any candidates that express an interest in filling the vacancy and which have the competencies required in order to fill the relevant role. The decision of the Executive Board in relation to filling vacancies shall be final.
This article won’t win me many plaudits, and I expect that I’ll be criticized for openly airing this. However, we must be able to have the courage to speak honestly, even to those in power. Speaking truth to power means that we believe deeply in what we say, that we care, and that we understand the risks of not doing so. Doing what’s right, rather than what is politically convenient, is incumbent on all of us.
It would be easier for me – or any of us – not to say anything. I was asked by a board member, “Why do you care?” I care because I am part of this region and this industry. Reputations matter, especially for a body that represents what we do. I believe in the region’s talent, and our ability to break down misperceptions about the Middle East when it comes to corporate governance.
I also realize that if we are not transparent, if we don’t engage proactively, and if we don’t follow our own rules, we will not have the trust that we need to raise the profession from one that simply executes to one that advises and guides a company and its board to do the right thing.
If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I may be taking all of this too seriously. However, go and ask any Abraaj shareholder about the implications of weak corporate governance. If you still don’t understand the need to build strong corporate governance and its role in reputation building, then maybe communications isn’t the right role for you.
If there’s ever a word to kill a conversation, it’s ethics. Despite our job being all about reputations, we’ve not given ethics the importance and time that it deserves. This is changing, thanks in part to the efforts of a number of associations, including the Global Alliance, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), there’s a renewed focus on putting ethics at the heart of what we do and why we do it.
But why does ethics matter, really? Let me first state the obvious; communications has undergone a drastic change over the past decade, owing to the rise of digital channels and social media platforms. Today, it’s easier than ever to reach a global audience through the likes of Facebook or Google. And it’s also easier than ever to manipulate these platforms, to share messages that are false through personas which are fake.
I’m not talking theory here. We all saw the work that was undertaken by Bell Pottinger in South Africa, which led to its collapse. I live in a region which is being consumed by online trolls, botnets and other unethical activity, much of which is reported to be undertaken not by individuals but by organizations.
It is in this context that we need to renew our commitment to undertaking the best ethical practice, which will apply to every single one of us, no matter where we work and how long we’ve spent in the industry.
The sixteen principles which were announced this week by the Global Alliance are a guide that we should all use in terms of how we ourselves practice and represent our profession. We have a responsibility to society, to our stakeholders and to fellow professionals to uphold these principles in everything that we say and we do.
Looking back, what I’m most proud of when I read over the ethics announcement made by the Global Alliance today is that the taskforce that has worked on this represents the majority of associations and communicators worldwide. There’s a growing realization that we need to step up and not just demonstrate that we are against unethical practices as one, but that we’re adopting best practices. We want to be an industry that promotes positive messages, rather than a profession which is known by monikers such as ‘spin doctors’.
Jean and the other task force members have put significant thought and energy into this project, and this is only the beginning. You’ll find resources such as case studies, podcasts, newsletters and advisories that will bring ethics to life through storytelling. This archive will grow, thanks to you and your submissions from around the world. We have to ensure that ethics remains at the core of our industry, and that we feel able to stand up when we see or are asked to do something which is unethical.
I’d like to thank Jean, Jose Manuel and everyone who has given time to bring this project to life. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their efforts to promote a stronger, more ethical communications and public relations industry. My last request is to all of you. Please use these resources, learn from them and let them guide you when it comes to ethical communications. Let’s be known as an industry that is one of, if not the most, ethical in terms of what we say and what we do.
Like many of you, I’ve been reading the unraveling story of how Cambridge Analytica harvested and manipulated the data of 50 million Facebook users to build a system to predict and influence choices during the US Election in 2016. If you haven’t read about this yet, please watch the video below from the Guardian and The Observer media teams led by the remarkable Carole Cadwalladr.
This story is so remarkable that it seems more at home in Hollywood than in reality. But it is important to us all. Over 2.2 billion people use Facebook; that’s just under a third of the world’s population.
We are the Product
I’m not naive, I understand the trade-off when using any social site. To quote media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff, companies like Facebook sell us and our data to advertisers: “Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don’t know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don’t know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”
I’ve always been ok with that, and it was a trade-off that I’ve been willing to make. But the reporting around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s inaction concern me. As far as I’m concerned, Cambridge Analytica basically stole, with Facebook’s consent, 50 million user profiles. Facebook’s system gave Cambridge Analytica the ability to take from the 320,000 people or so who used it all of their friend contacts on the site. The 49 million people whose data was taken and then misused had no idea about what was happening and how their information was used to manipulate American voters in 2016. And I assume most of them still have no idea, because Facebook didn’t tell them.
Does Facebook care about us?
I have no intention of being manipulated online by firms like Cambridge Analytica, and I don’t want them to access data without my permission to reach my friends and family. Unfortunately, the best way for me to ensure this doesn’t happen is to not be on Facebook. I know many people who work at the firm, and they’re good individuals. But there’s something wrong at the top of the organization. Facebook knew about the Cambridge Analytica issue as far back as 2015. It took them three years to go public on this. Why?
What does Facebook care about more? Is it revenues or users? To me, the answer is obvious.
Facebook’s Lack of Ethical Leadership
Balancing what is profitable with what is right has never been easy, especially for publicly-listed companies. The expectation is that revenues will grow, quarter over quarter. While Facebook’s revenues may have grown, I’ve yet to see any ethical leadership from the company on pretty much anything. Facebook staggers from scandal to scandal. Take for example the story about how advertisers could target audiences by ethnicity, leading to the revelation that a brand could focus on users interested in antisemitic topics. Facebook’s leadership promised action, and little was taken.
And then there’s the story of how fake news producers have manipulated the site, most extensively during the US Presidential elections. What was Zuckerberg’s response (which has since come back to haunt Facebook)?
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
The behavioral pattern hasn’t changed with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook’s executives remained silent for a week. Zuckerberg pledged that 2018 would be the year that he “fixed Facebook.” Maybe a more pertinent suggestion would be for him to finally admit that he’s out of his depth and that he hands over to a leader who can balance both ethics and business.
I’m no longer the Product
There are other reasons why I don’t love Facebook like I used to. It’s impact on the media industry, a profession that I started out in at the beginning of my career, has been disastrous. For all the above, I’ve decided that enough is enough. I don’t want to be the product any more. What I do want to do is share a message with Facebook that the company has to change. And as I’m the product, it won’t be able to sell my data, including all my likes and my posts, to advertisers. I’m still thinking over what this means for my presence on other sites such as Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). But my taking a stand with others who have stepped away from the site, I hope that we’ll force the company to change for the better. There needs to be respect and protection for us as users, which the company’s leadership has never shown through its actions. I’ve taken the decision to #deletefacebook. Maybe you should too.
I’m an old hack, literally. I used to work as a journalist, and I still have a soft spot for those who are part of this profession. I also know how hard it is to be a journalist, especially one who wants to go after the stories which aren’t press releases, and who will put up with the competing pressures of an editor who wants more breaking news versus the challenge of finding and then getting sources to talk on a particular issue.
Last week was a wake-up call for me as to how hard it is to be a journalist today in the Gulf, especially one who works for an organization that isn’t government-controlled and who wants to shed a light on a subject which doesn’t fit the official narrative. This post is for those journalists, and it’s a reminder to communications people in the region why respect and ethics should be central to how they behave.
Media Still Matters
First of all, let me make this clear to everyone who thinks that social is the be-all and end-all of what we should be doing today. The media still matters, especially for communicators (any head of comms who doesn’t read the papers during the day shouldn’t be in their respective position). There’s a couple of basic reasons why:
- The media gives us the simplest means to view different opinions, be they from government-owned publications or independents. And they get us out of our social media bubbles.
- Media also allows us to understand the priorities of those who own the media, such as governments.
- At their best, journalists can ask the hard questions that push us to think through how and why we are communicating. This is crucial especially in the Gulf, where there’s often not enough critical thinking or self-examination.
The Media owes us Nothing
We should never approach the media with the expectation that they’ll run anything verbatim. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect them to run with our narratives, and not ask questions. We shouldn’t expect them to publish our pictures. The media owes us nothing (this is a clear point in the IABC code of ethics). It’s up to us to be as good as we can be as communicators, and ensure that we communicate effectively, transparently, and in dialogue with the media.
Let’s be Respectful of the Media
We can and we should ask questions of media coverage which we believe to be inaccurate. However, what I have seen recently is a trend by Gulf-based or Gulf-focused social media accounts to start calling certain media and what they write as fake and fake news respectively. This mirrors what is happening in the United States. Just because we don’t like something does not mean that we should vilify it. Our job as communicators is to engage, persuade and advocate for our causes. If you can’t do that, then I suggest you go and join the advertising sector.
Ethics Matters, Personally and Professionally
Two other worrying trends are for media to be disrespected or even threatened online (especially female journalists). Another trend is for the narrative and facts to be changed after the fact, including through the use of documents or material which could easily be described as questionable. Again, ethically we must communicate honestly, clearly communicate the facts, and not do anything which we know to be dishonest.
Bell Pottinger underlined the need to act ethically. Communicators in the Middle East and especially the Gulf should stand up for ethics. The last thing I want to see is the industry making global headlines for all the wrong reasons.
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.
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.