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.

 

Blurring the lines? Publishers who become Content Creators and what it means for the PR sector

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

As publishers shift their business model to content creation for clients, how should the PR industry react? (image source: writemysite.co.uk)

Who’d be a publisher right now? Revenues are dropping, print is going out of fashion (for most of the world), and people are no longer reading long form. So, what does one do? The answer may be to produce content for others.

Earlier this month Dubai-based publisher ITP announced the launch of ITP Live, a new division that would focus on five areas – creating a social media influencers’ agency, video content creation, digital sales representation, e-commerce, live events and training.

Another Dubai-based publisher, Motivate, works with companies to offer products such as video creation. To quote from Motivate’s own website, the firm is able to “conceptualise, storyboard, film, produce, host and share with our audience a beautifully crafted engaging video.”

Creating good content is only half of the battle. For firms seeking out content creation, the appeal of pre-existing media channels to distribute that content may be too good to resist. But, there’s the ethical question of boundaries. For a publisher which is offering a content creation service, should they also offer clients the opportunity to use their media vehicles to distribute that content? Would the usual editorial rules apply?

The Middle East’s publishing sector has been more fortunate than most when it comes to growth; with the exception of the downturn in 2008, relatively few publications have gone belly-up. However, the strain on budgets is telling. Many publications which had a roster of staff now only have one or two editors. With marketing budgets either shrinking due to the economy or being shifted to digital, will more publishers go down the content creation route? How will this affect their editorial policies and how will this affect the public relations industry?

For years, communications and marketing agencies have been the preferred option for companies needing either written or multimedia content. This content would have then been shared, either online or through traditional media channels. Will publishers now begin to compete with PR agencies? There’s lots of lines which are now being blurred. Where do you think we’re heading? I’d love to hear your views.

 

 

A Lack of Quality: Why the Comms Industry needs a professional qualification

Why don't we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn't it time we change this?

Why don’t we have a standard certification for the PR industry? Isn’t it time we change this?

I don’t want to offend, but enough is enough. I want to tackle the elephant in the room, the issue that many of us face but few of us have the bravery to talk openly about. We have far too many people in the communications profession who haven’t gotten to where they are on merit or who are unsuited for the role.

You know what I’m talking about, the person who got into the job because his or her father is the best friend of the GM. Or the comms manager who has been appointed because global wants to increase their diversity count (despite all of their customers being male). Or the person who is overseeing comms for a specific industry (let’s say, social media), and yet doesn’t even use the product. Or the employee who has been shunted into communications because the company can’t get rid of them. Or the person who has been employed because of their nationality and there’s a quota, despite their lack of experience (or ability).

We have to tackle the issue of quality in the profession. Why, one may ask? Simply because they represent all of us. Their actions shape the views of others. As communicators, we often talk about a place at the table. We won’t claim that board or management seat, unless we’re qualified and able to add value to the organizations that employ us. And, there’s the issue of agencies, which I’ve talked about before.

Who would hire an accountant who isn’t chartered? Or a lawyer that hasn’t passed their bar exam? And yet, there are many who work in our industry without a single qualification. We need to change this approach to professional qualifications. There are many to choose from, such as the accredited or the chartered status from the CIPR. And there’s the CMP examination from the IABC. There’s a host of qualifications out there.

As an industry, we need to change the debate from years of experience to competency and skills. To me, it’s no longer good enough for organizations to seek out communications professionals with little to no understanding of our profession. There needs to be a concerted effort by our industry, by communications professionals who care about how we are perceived by others, for us to adopt a minimum certification.

Only by making a case for a professional certification, which will act as a symbol of our dedication to continuous study and development and our adherence to ethics and best practices, will we receive the respect and trust that we crave and need to be taken as serious as the profession needs to become a boardroom position.

Are you with me?

#CIPRElection – What do the CIPR’s international members want?

The CIPR can do much to promote public relations overseas, and, most importantly, support its international membership.

The CIPR can do much to promote public relations overseas, and, most importantly, support its international membership.

As part of my bid to stand for the CIPR Council this year, I’ve written about what I want to bring to the table on behalf my fellow CIPR members who are not based in the United Kingdom.

I’d like to turn the tables slightly and talk about what the CIPR needs to do when it comes to its members abroad, many of whom (including myself) look to the CIPR for leadership and guidance when it comes to the industry. Let’s start with the obvious.

1) Ethics – While the industry has come a long way in terms of ethics since the days of Edward Bernays, ethics is still an issue for communicators. For people who are tasked with managing reputations, professionalism must be at the top of the list when it comes to engagement with all CIPR members. To its credit, the organization has one of the strongest and most robust codes of conducts I’ve ever read. In addition, the recent launch of a compulsory ethics CPD module is also a step in the right direction.

I’d like the CIPR to build on these steps, and launch ethics campaigns outside of the UK throughout ethics month (which is normally held in September), as well as all-year round. This can take a number of forms, such as social media dialogues and webinars. It could also include working with other public relations bodies, to share best practices. For those of use who care about the reputation of our industry, I’m sure this would be more than welcome.

2) Training and Development – The CIPR has the best development program in the industry, full stop. Its Continuing Professional Development program is exceptional, and covers everything any communicator needs to develop (I’m even talking Chief Communication Officers here). Likewise, the range of academic qualifications offered by the CIPR is outstanding. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has undertaken and completed a CIPR qualification.

This positive attitude needs to spread. We need more communicators outside of the UK to understand the importance of ongoing training and development. We also need more employers to understand that when they look to hire, they should look for CIPR qualifications. We have far too many communicators who haven’t studied communications, either because they don’t understand the importance of doing so (I hope these are far and few between), or because there are no institutions that offer courses in subjects such as internal comms, public affairs or public relations. The CIPR needs to step into this gap, and bring its know-how to bear, to promote a respect for training and development and to offer the tools needed for CIPR members outside the UK to enhance their own abilities.

3) Networking – We’re part of the family, but sometimes out-of-sight can be out-of-mind. One aspect of my membership that I enjoy the most is networking with my fellow CIPR members. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the CIPR offices in London and meet with the organization’s leadership. But many others who are abroad haven’t. We can use technology to bridge that gap (the CIPR International has done great work, with webinars on countries outside of the UK for its home-based members), as well as promoting the development of local chapters outside of the UK where numbers allow. The more we feel that we’re one family, the more we’ll benefit from what the CIPR has to offer.

These are but a few ideas that the CIPR can use to engage with members abroad. I hope to be able to provide a voice for those members, and bridge that gap. The CIPR is an incredible organization, and I have benefited enormously from all that is has to offer. I want others who live outside of the UK to have the same experience that I have had with the CIPR. I hope you agree, and will support me during the #CIPRElection.

When it comes to social media, advertising and the Middle East, why don’t we have any ethics?

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: www.business2community.com)

The region loves social media, but its influencers and advertisers are less keen to say when a post is paid for (image source: http://www.business2community.com)

Who needs ethics right? Ethics are boring, they’re dry, and they mean we have to use disclaimers. Ethics really aren’t fun. But you know what, without them we’d be in a fair amount of trouble. With the Arab Social Media Influencers Summit happening this week in Dubai, and a fair few social media influencers being in town (including quite a few from Kuwait who don’t make it clear that they accept money for posting on their social media channels), I want to reprint this post which I shared with the Media Network Middle East last month. I’d love to hear your views on ethics, or the lack thereof, when it comes to social media and advertising in our region.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same.

We’re awash with social media in our region. Everywhere you go, you’ll see people sliding their fingers left and right, pushing up and pulling down on their smartphone screens. We’re all at it, checking our Instagram accounts, refreshing our Twitter feeds, and posting Facebook updates.

Today we have social media celebrities, people who have become famous through their online activities. There are Instagrammers in Kuwait with over a million followers, Facebookers in the UAE with hundreds of thousands of likes, and Saudi Tweeters with followings equal to the population of Bahrain.

Alongside these social media celebrities we have witnessed the rise of paid posts. Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed how many celebrities online have become more commercial, and have begun to share updates, images and videos promoting brands.

There’s nothing wrong with promotional advertising. Using paid influencer marketing is a common tactic to spread awareness, promote a brand, and to engage social media users across the globe. Online advertising can be more cost effective in terms of measurement and reach.

However, there’s no distinction between an advert and paid-for content. Both involve a payment of some kind by a company for a promotion of its brand or services. Regulators across Europe and the United States have essentially ruled that if money is changing hands, obvious disclosure must occur in-ad. Their reasoning is simple; consumers have a right to know what is an advert and what is not an advert.

While European and American consumers are benefiting from crystal clear regulations on sponsored social media content, there’s little to no clarity here on the same. Consumers here have no authority to turn to or no regulations to guide them on what is and what isn’t sponsored.

There seems to be little eagerness for brands or social media celebrities to advertise what is paid-for content either. This is understandable, as their followers may be less inclined to engage with a post if they know it is sponsored, or even follow a person who they know accepts money for posts.

While this lack of disclosure may appeal in the short term and help to maximise revenues (paid-for posts in Kuwait can fetch up to three thousand dollars per posting), it does nothing to building goodwill and trust with consumers across the region. A lack of honesty and transparency on what social media celebrities are paid to post will negatively affect trust in both the sponsoring brand as well as the celebrity who is accepting the payment in return for sharing the content.

In the US the burden is on brands to ensure that their endorsers, such as bloggers and online influencers) are in compliance in terms of disclosure. Paid-for posts have to include language such as #Ad, Ad: or Sponsored. Even brand posts and shares by a company’s employees have to be clearly labeled to account for the bias.

Either brands can take action and begin to self-regulate, or they can wait for regulators to finally step in and possibly take a harder-line approach to sponsored influencer endorsements. Is risking a reputation and trust, built up over years of marketing, worth risking over a lack of disclosure? I hope the answer is no.

The cost, and ethics, of paying Instagrammers in Kuwait

Kuwait is known for its love of Instagram and local Instagrammers (image source: http://www.248am.com)

A fascinating blog post by Mark of TwoFortyEightAM has me focusing on not just the cost of using Instagrammers, but the ethics of advertising through influencers in this region. In his post last week, Mark published a list of how much Kuwaiti Instagrammers get paid per post by advertisers. To quote from Mark’s blog, here’s a sample of some Kuwaiti Instagrammers and how much they/their agencies charge (note: prices are in Kuwaiti Dinars and one KD is just under 3.5 US Dollars).

@ahmad_asb (134,700 followers) KD450
@alimubarak1 (68,152 followers) KD450
@ameralshaibani (204,455 followers) KD450
@ascia_akf (1,005,559 followers) KD850
@azizbader (497,708 followers) KD850
@basharnoo (342,316 followers) KD400
@batoul_alkandari (224,233 followers) KD450
@bb_alabdulmohsen (59,123 followers) KD350
@dalalid (866,687 followers) KD850
@daneeda_t (358,396 followers) KD450
@dr_shammat (887,156 followers) KD750
@elham_alfedhalah74 (1,758,795 followers) KD900
@faisalalbasri (474,132 followers) KD850
@fawaz_alfahad (111,874 followers) KD400
@groupwanasah_ (444,647 followers) KD350
@hayaalshuaibi_79 (814,972 followers) KD700
@kaftanusman (516,835 followers) KD500
@nohastyleicon (811,541 followers) KD850
@omaralothman (92,482 followers) KD500
@thedietninja (351,952 followers) KD550
@therealfouz (216,096 followers) KD500
@theveeview (631,973 followers) KD500
@yousif_alblooshi (171,520 followers) KD350

You can see pricing lists for one agency, Ghaliah, here.

What fascinates me more than the pricing (and the analytics) is that of the ethics associated with influencers such as the above. In the US, if an influencer is taking money for a post they’ll have to make this known to their audience – it’s a legal requirement to ensure that their audience understands what they’ve just posted online is paid-for and therefore is an advert.

However, there are few Instagrammers here who do the same. As mentioned by one of Mark’s visitors, one of the Instagrammers above does use a * to denote a paid-for ad. But as for the others, there’s no suggestion as to what is paid-for and not paid-for.

Is this right? As a follower, I’d like to know if someone is paid for promoting another brand. It’s honest and forthright. Unfortunately, we will have to keep on guessing whether or not these posts are free or paid-for. Maybe this is one area where we need more government legislation to help consumers know what is really going on.

As for the costs of these Instagrammers, it’d be interesting to know how advertisers track their return-on-investment for sponsoring these paid-for posts. While Kuwait is one of the largest markets for Instagram in this region, it’s still difficult to know what percentage of followers is real and what percentage is fake. Similarly, when you’re spending over $2k USD on an Instagram post what are your intended outcomes as an advertiser?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above, as well as how much Instagrammers get paid in the rest of the region. Ta for now!