Public relations as an industry has been in the headlines again. The whole Bell Pottinger saga raises lots of questions – not least when the messenger becomes the message.
The decision by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) to expel Bell Pottinger from our ranks – following a comprehensive investigation into its work in South Africa – is clear and unequivocal.
The investigation followed a complaint which came directly from civil society – the Democratic Alliance party in South Africa. Too often the PR sector has been challenged by civil society and chosen not to answer. This time it did, and rapidly.
Bell Pottinger has been found to have breached the PRCA Professional Charter and Public Affairs and Lobbying Code of Conduct. For everyone involved in the communications sector – a vital part of City life – this has been an important moment to reflect.
But let’s move away from the case and talk about some general principles.
Many would say ethics and PR are uneasy bedfellows, or that they don’t even lie in the same bed at all. This is both lazy and dangerous.
The UK has built a world class communications sector, anchored on good governance, ethics and diversity of thinking. Just as with our legal system, we have a communications industry that is admired and hired the world over – which is why the sector needs to police itself robustly.
But the truth is that an environment of 24/7 news and digital social feeds has created new ethical challenges for communicators, and my industry needs to ask itself some hard questions.
We have seen how the peddling “fake news” can be described as a “point of view” in the news “debate”. And thus news and facts become subjective, with an attitude that “my news is better than your news”. Just listen to the President of the United States on this topic.
In fact, while I was in New York last week, I heard from him a lot. What I also did was get away from it all and see the theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 on Broadway. With its talk of “newspeak”, the vision Orwell imagined when he wrote the book in 1949 seemed to predict fake news with alarming accuracy.
In the present day, I am currently reading Evan Davis’ intriguing new book Post Truth – Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it. It could not be more timely.
Davis correctly observes a diminishing “language” in all our communications – not just in PR. He also points to overwhelming “spinning” in all walks of life – to the point where trust in institutions has evaporated.
Against this backdrop, we must all aim to ensure we are part of the solution, not the problem.
For the PR sector, this means applying an “ethical lens” to what it is doing, every time. Evidentially Bell Pottinger’s South Africa work failed that test. Do “astroturf campaigns” – the Washington insiders’ term for masking the message to appear as if it is supported by grassroots sentiment – really pass it?
For businesses, there is an important question every company should be asking right now: is the governance right around my own communications? So much time is devoted to selecting boards and choosing their accounting, M&A or legal corporate advisers. Just as much focus now needs to be placed on the messenger that those boards choose for themselves. For your messenger holds your corporate reputation in firmly in their hands.
And for the rest of us, we must move beyond current headlines. While the focus in recent days has been on the messenger, there is a bigger question the PR sector alone cannot answer. It is a question for all of us.
In an era where we seem to seek the news we want to read or to believe, we all now need to think about that as a message in itself.