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?

Has the PRCA become MENA’s industry association for communicators?

I’m going to start this post with me eating my own words, and those words were written in 2016. The London-headquartered Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had just started its operations in Dubai, and I’d criticized them for not engaging with the local association, the Middle East Public Relations Association, and for not being in tune with what the local market needed.

Three years later, I’m happy to say I was wrong. The PRCA MENA chapter has launched a number of big, inspirational initiatives, such as the MENA awards, the Cannes Young Lions for aspiring communicators in the region to present at the world’s biggest marketing event, and even Arabic-language initiatives such as NextGen Arabia to mentor local talent.

What has surprised me about the PRCA MENA has been its ability to expand into the region’s key markets. The organization has chapters both in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries which are the feeders of markets like the United Arab Emirates. The PRCA has moved quickly to establish itself as an entity that is locally based across the region. What has also impressed me is the PRCA’s willingness to reach out and work with other groups.

Where does this leave MEPRA?

For a decade, the Middle East Public Relations Association was the only representative body for communicators in the region. When the PRCA opened up shop in Dubai, my hope was that competition would drive MEPRA forward.

At that time, I was on the MEPRA board and was pushing for geographic growth and more partnerships. Back then, there was a chapter in Qatar, and my hope was that we’d open up in Saudi and Jordan or Lebanon.

Three years later, there’s no chapters outside of the UAE (the Qatar chapter closed down). There are partnerships in place with the CIPR, which is benefiting MEPRA members with additional training options. However, I’d have liked to have seen wider agreements with other organizations to promote certification and best practice sharing (there’s an agreement with the Arthur W. Page Society, but I don’t see how this benefits the mass membership, given Arthur Page is focused on senior practitioners).

I have full confidence in MEPRA’s chair and vice-chair, and I was glad to hear of their plans to do more in Saudi this year. But it’s also clear to me that decisions made to make MEPRA stronger after the PRCA MENA launched in 2016 haven’t resulted in more agility and the ability to get things done quickly.

The region needs a strong local body, and I hope that MEPRA becomes a regional association that is present in the major markets across the region. At the moment, the PRCA seems to have become a membership body that is present where most of the region’s communicators are. And that can only be a good thing as we look to bring the industry together and raise the standard of our profession.

The PR industry needs to do much more for employees and their mental health

For many of you, the headline will be no surprise. When it comes to mental health issues, the public relations and communications industry just isn’t doing enough. A survey undertaken by the PRCA and ICCO, in partnership with IABC, across Europe and the Middle East underlines the scale of the issue that is facing the industry. Here are my highlights from the 140 plus respondents.

1. Mental Health is an issue for many of us

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A quarter of respondents to the survey said that they had suffered from mental ill health

A quarter of those surveyed said they’d had mental health issues, the majority of them being diagnosed (either professionally or self-diagnosed) with depression or anxiety.

2. PR Practitioners don’t feel the industry is accepting of people suffering from mental ill health.

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The majority of respondents felt that the PR and communications industry isn’t accepting of people suffering from mental ill health

There’s a widespread perception among people working in the PR industry that the industry as a whole isn’t willing to help those suffering from mental ill health. A quarter did say that they felt the profession was fairly accepting, while almost half said the industry was either not very accepting or very accepting. Almost a third responded by saying they didn’t know.

3. Few Organizations have a mental health policy in place

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Less than ten percent of respondents answered that their firm has a formal mental health policy

What’s most concerning is the the apparent lack of any formal mental health frameworks or policies in place among both agencies and client-side teams. Fewer than ten percent of respondents said their team had any systems in place. I’d assume this would also extend to insurance coverage for mental health issues. If there are policies in place, it’s clear that they’re not being communicated effectively to employees.

4. Workloads up, and Stress is also on the rise

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Unsurprisingly, over fifty percent of respondents felt more stressed today than they did a year back

These responses mirror my own observations about workloads. The industry is struggling with workloads, especially on the agency side where margins are tight. Over half of respondents said they’re suffering from more stress today compared to 12 months ago, partly due to internal pressures and also partly due to client demands (this was a frequent issue that was flagged up by agency people, underlining the lack of understanding many on the client side have on agency pressures).

5. Colleagues, not Managers, are the go-to people to talk about mental health

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Employees are much more eager to talk to colleagues, rather than managers. There’s a 50/50 split on those who would be willing to talk to colleagues, compared to a 40/60 split for those who would prefer to talk to their manager.

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Management need to do more to be approachable on the issue on mental health. This may prove a challenge for some, especially if the employee believes that the manager is responsible for his or her poor mental health.

This is just a snapshot of the research that the PRCA and ICCO will be releasing today. I’d like to thank both organizations for their work, as well as the CIPR, for promoting debate on a topic which has been ignored for far too long. The PRCA will be hosting webinars on mental health and how you can best deal with this issue. The CIPR also has a host of resources online. Please do visit their respective websites to keep up to date on the issue. I hope more associations begin to understand the importance of talking about this issue, so that those in our industry who need help get it, and so that employers realize the importance of promoting mental well being and a balanced approach to how we work.

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.