Is it time for a debate about how the PR sector deals with Ethics?

Why isn’t the PR industry able to get a grip on and deal with ethical breaches? (image source: Greenbiz)

Don’t fall asleep. Please don’t. What I’m going to say matters to our industry and profession. Over the past week there have been a number of big reads about ethical issues. First there was Fleishman and accusations of astroturfing about a project in Manchester. Then there were the revelations about how Monsanto and FTI Consulting sought to discredit journalists and activists who spoke up about Roundup weedkiller. And there was an interesting read from Stephen Waddington on Dominic Cummings, the communications tactics used during the Brexit campaign and why our political campaigning laws are not fit for a world where online advertising now dominates.

What is good is the increasing focus on ethical issues in the industry. We need to talk more about ethics, and realize the importance of this issue. What’s leaves much to be desired is how we are dealing with these issues as an industry. Our associations follow an approach of only investigating an issue once a complaint is made, leading to far too much reaction and not enough pro-active engagement (while I’d like to give the PRCA credit for agreeing to investigate Fleishman, it’s strange how this has occurred – Fleishman has asked the PRCA to investigate its own alleged breach of ethics. Fleishman’s Jim Donaldson is also chair of the PRCA Board of Management).

In some cases, associations aren’t even willing to investigate ethical issues. Case in point is my own experience with MEPRA last year, when I privately and then public asked about how new board members were being added, in a process that was in breach of the bylaws. What was the response, which was supported by many of the board? To paraphrase, “We failed on corporate governance, but you can now go jump…”

Many of us feel that censuring Bell Pottinger was the right thing to do after what they did in South Africa. And yet, the complaint against BP wasn’t raised by a public relations practitioner, but rather a political party and a journalist. Anyone who works in public relations will know a story or two about ethical breaches (always about someone else, of course). And yet, we’re not willing to speak up. Is it because we don’t want to speak ill of the industry, or that we don’t want to be seen as a trouble-maker (only own experience with MEPRA would suggest the latter).

Whatever our reasons for not talking, ethical issues are going to compound, given the increasing ease by which anyone can manipulate digital media. We’ve got to ask ourselves if there’s a better way not just to deal with ethical breaches, but also to educate members about ethics in general. This is a reputational issue that impacts us all, and we’ve got to start talking about an approach to ethics that is fit for today. What say you?

The Billion Dollar(s) Business of Social Media Trolling in the Philippines, and what it means for Public Relations globally

Social media trolling is big business in the Philippines. And that business is about to go global (image source: When in Manila)

If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).

As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.

Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.

Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).

So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.

If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…

Why Communicators must stop Virtue Signalling

We’ve got to be honest about the challenges we face and how we deal with them

I just love conferences, especially about communications. There’s always the chance there’ll be a fascinating panel with a group of communicators who share their experiences and insights. I enjoy listening to professionals who tell it like it is, with no embellishments. However, when working in the communications function there’s always a danger that we stick to the narrative and come out with viewpoints that sound wonderful, but which are the opposite of reality.

Last week was one of those occasions. The excellent team at the Holmes Report were in Dubai for their second IN2Summit MENA. The opening, headline session asked if CEOs in the Middle East should take a stand on public debates and policy-making.

Given everything that’s happening, from the introduction of taxation to regional politics, you’d think that CEO activism would be at an all-time high. However, it’s hard for me to remember the last time a CEO in the Gulf spoke up on a hot topic (there are exceptions, and interestingly enough, the CEOs who do speak out often tend to be nationals who are close to government leaders).

I hoped I’d be wrong, and kept any questions to myself. However, when following the debate online, there seemed to be little alignment between what the panelists were saying and what’s actually happening on CEO engagement in the Middle East region. The moderator referenced Nike and Unilever, both great examples from regions where there’s significantly more freedom to engage in political debate.

One speaker commented that: “I believe CEOs should be involved. They should preserve the interests of the country as well as holding core values that are aligned with the government. Change doesn’t always come easy but it’s always necessary.”

Part of our roles as communicators is to agitate for change that will benefit our stakeholders. However, we are being disingenuous by sharing insights that are contrary to what is happening? Do we have activist CEOs who can openly engage on public issues in MENA? If there are more than ten, then please do share their names. I can come up with similar examples – one from two years back focused on whether we are speaking truth to power, which is a rarity in our region.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves, but we also need to be honest with our answers. Virtue signalling doesn’t do us, or those we work with, any good, especially when we need to work to change not just our roles but our environments as well. We must have the courage to speak up honestly, and point out when there are contradictions in what we want to do and what we actually do. This will not only benefit current practitioners, but also future generations (at the event there were several dozen students in attendance).That’s how reputations are built, on aligning our words with our actions.

Jamal’s Legacy – What PR Must Learn & Do Differently

Jamal was not only a remarkable journalist, but he was a wonderful person. I miss him.

It’s been over a month and I’m still in shock at what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who died last month while at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

I knew Jamal. I first met him four years back at a SAGIA event in Riyadh. He was working with HRH Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal at the time, as a media adviser and the head of the soon-to-launch Al-Arab television channel.I knew of Jamal; he was the Arab World’s best-known journalist. Jamal was known for his bravery in tackling taboo subjects, and for being able to read the public mood better than anyone else. Jamal wrote for his readers, not his bosses. He’d twice been fired as editor-in-chief of Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper. He was a journalist that I admired, both for his courage and also for his character (I’ve never met any editor-in-chief in the Arab world who was more open, more accessible and happier to talk than him – Jamal didn’t have an ego, but rather an appetite for debate and good conversation).

The coverage of what happened to Jamal has been extraordinary. One of the outcomes has been the beginning of a debate about the issue of freedom of speech, with one particularly brave piece by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg in Arab News (please do read the piece).

I want to focus this blog post instead on the role and responsibility of the PR industry, given the increasing amount of work done by agencies with governments around the world.

The “Everyone Should be Represented” Argument

There’s an argument that is often shared in the PR industry that everyone deserves reputation. This is the line used by individuals such as Lord Tim Bell. This defense, which is akin to the legal requirement for everyone to be offered legal counsel, misses two vital points. The first is the need for equal standards to be applied to all. To quote the previous Chair and Chief Executive of the Public Relations Society of America, Rosanna M. Fiske, who wrote in the Financial Times in 2012:

“We believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.”

Even if we accept this argument, what do we do for those with no money? This is why the legal analogy is false. A lawyer will always be appointed to a defendant, no matter his or her financial status. This is not true in the PR industry. Many agencies do pro-bono work, but I doubt few are representing vulnerable groups in war zones. And that means by default that these people are voiceless. No one knows their stories.

What We Say Isn’t What We Do

What I’m often struck by is the dissonance between people’s views and their actions, especially in developing markets. I’ve seen time and time again senior practitioners tweet a piece of news about democracy in their own country, and yet they’ll be working for an organization that is being criticized by NGOs or single-issue groups. Are they aware of how they look? We live in a digital world, where people try to cultivate a different online persona. And many in the communications industry should know better when it comes to the difference between our online views, which are shared publicly, and our actions.

We also have a bigger issue to face, which is that of denial. When asked about a controversial client action, the most common response from a PR agency was, “we didn’t know.” We’re supposed to be consultants and analysts, the people who know what’s happening both externally and internally. This argument doesn’t wash with me. And it erodes the credibility in our own competency.

When we engage with anything that whiffs of controversy, we should be aware of what we’re getting ourselves into, and we should also be clear with clients as to our red lines. Once those red lines are crossed, we should walk away.

What has happened to Jamal is a tragedy. In the light of his death, I hope that we can all learn to become a more responsible industry. That’s the legacy we owe to him.

When Alex Met Arun: Thoughts on the future of the industry, good corporate governance and values-based engagement

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.

Corporate governance should matter to all of us when it comes to reputation building

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.

Ethics and why it should matter more than ever to today’s communicators

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.

This post first appeared on the Global Alliance website.