Ethics – where do we draw the line?

Originally published on LinkedIn. With permission to reblog.

It is with a heavy heart that I have written this post – I’ve been pondering over publishing it for almost two weeks now. Being silent and pretending that what recently happened in South Africa can be easily brushed over as another day in the life of public relations and communications profession, is not right. As practitioners, we must talk about it, learn from it and ensure we know where our ethical boundaries lie – there is a line we should never ever cross.

We, the public relations professionals, have a unique skill-set that not many professions do; we can do as much good with these skills as we can do evil. We have a moral duty to do good, to build and rebuild reputations, to enhance dialogue and co-operation, to make a meaningful contribution to the society we serve and community we work in, and to help our clients present themselves not just as they are, but as how they pledge to become based on the facts they provide us with – we shouldn’t help them “fix their reputation with a veneer of public relations lipstick”.

There are people who changed the course of history, leaving a legacy that many benefited from: Nelson Mandela did what no other man in the history of the African continent or that of South Africa itself ever managed to do – significantly contribute to a fundamental shift in the recognition and acceptance of all Africans, regardless of the colour of their skin.

What Martin Luther King did for the black community of the United States was immense; what Nelson Mandela did for his South African people was incredible. These two men changed our modern history, taught us respect for the human life on the basis of its diversity and, most of all, they taught us that, sometimes, it takes only the determination and conviction of only one man for the history’s course to be changed.

History, unfortunately, can also be changed by fuelling hatred, igniting racism and instigating to violence. Highly successful in young and fragile democracies, propaganda, manipulation and what I would call subversive PR, can cause significant damage – material, moral, reputational – to the region, to the country or to the people of that country.

Public Relations today is still, sadly, tainted with a very bad reputation and rightly so – how can we, hand on heart, argue that Public Relations is and should be a force for good when one of “our own” has come under so much scrutiny in South Africa? How can we say, hand on heart, that what Bell Pottinger is held responsible for by the people of South Africa is unprecedented? It’s not … Bell Pottinger is currently being perceived by many South Africans as the embodiment of evil, exploiting South Africa’s racial tensions.

Once again, our reputation is shattered; yet again, what we do is called “spin”. None of us – public relations practitioners – can form any judgement on what Bell Pottinger did or did not do until third-party verified evidence is made public. By “third-party” I mean the law firm they have commissioned to investigate the South African public outcry against the agency, or any other independent body that will be tasked with getting to the bottom of this unfortunate story – a completely independent body/court of law that can reliably assess and verify the forensic evidence recovered.

It is in our power to choose to do good; it is in our grasp to be a powerful driver of change and positivity; it should be engrained in our practice to choose to say no to any Client brief, regardless how lucrative it may seem, if it incites to hatred, racism or public unrest. Today, more than ever before, ethics must be at the forefront of everything we do – we need skills, indeed; but we need character and proper conduct first.

Lord Bell, the founder of Bell Pottinger, is alleged to have said that it was the Oakbay brief that led to his precipitous departure last year from the PR agency he founded – whether this is actually true or not, only Lord Bell and the Executive Management of Bell Pottinger know.

Ethics, integrity, responsibility and accountability should be at the heart of everything we do, regardless of the industry body whose members we are. How often did we turn down work because it was the right thing to do? How often did we have the courage to tell the Client: “parts of this brief are in direct conflict with the Code of Conduct I/we abide by”? How often did we stand up and tell one of our peers: “what you are trying to do is unethical?”

Many of us have at least one Code of Conduct we need to abide by and, if we are unsure about we’re being asked to do, we can always seek independent legal advice and/or representation. Did Bell Pottinger have a role in the current South African inflammatory racial divide? Perhaps it did. Did it admit to it? No, it did not. Did it seek legal/ethical advice before it signed its contract? Only they know.

Below are some questions that, in my professional opinion, need to be answered by evidence, not by speculation, rumour or assumption:

  • What was Bell Pottinger’s exact brief?
  • Who commissioned Bell Pottinger to create a strategy, tactical approach and campaign that may likely result in racial tensions?
  • Who approved Bell Pottinger’s proposed strategy/campaign?

Dr Anne Gregory, one of the UK’s most respected public relations academic, argued that “our role is to help build societies that work…by ensuring our organisations are part of the solution to the challenges that face them, not the cause of their problems.”

As an industry, we should be known for the good we do, for the positive contributions we make, and for the positive legacy we help our clients build. We tell stories; we touch people’s souls; we are able to relate to their needs and wants; we can understand what drives and motivates our publics; we can apply behavioural sciences to nudge others in the right direction; we intervene in crisis and keep a cool head; we understand the bigger picture and never lose sight of any detail, no matter how small.

We must learn to say “no” – today, more than ever, we need to master the use of “NO”. We constantly worry about our clients’ reputations and their public perception – how about ours?







Ella Minty

Reputation Management and Stakeholder Engagement Director

Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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