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Ethical PR – Where do you draw the line?

Spin doctors. Masters of the dark arts. The public view of the PR professional is sceptical at best and never has more fuel been added to this fire of scepticism than the recent Bell Pottinger scandal.

Bell Pottinger conceived and executed a campaign that dangerously played on South Africa’s racial past and sensitivities. The campaign, as revealed in leaked emails, sought to deflect attention away from the controversial Gupta family and President Zuma by stirring up racial tensions with its message of ‘white monopoly capital’ being the real enemy holding back South Africa.

The aftermath of the scandal has seen Bell Pottinger’s chief executive resign, the company banned from Europe’s largest body of PR practitioners and left probably the most famous agency in the world, certainly one of the most powerful, on the brink of collapse.

None of the after effects is surprising, the work Bell Pottinger carried out for the Guptas is indefensible and smacks of economic necessity over sound moral or business judgement. It’s just a shame that more than 200 people could lose their jobs because of the reckless actions of so few.

The difference between right and wrong should always be a matter of debate. PR people, like journalists, are never short of an opinion and this raises the question – what is ethical PR?

Is work for tobacco, alcohol or drug companies ethical? What about a cosmetics brand that uses animal testing? There’s a strong argument that taking this moral stance could be the thin end of a very thick wedge. Once you decide that promoting tobacco is unacceptable, it’s easy to imagine arguments for taking the same approach to other industries, such as fracking, the arms industry, fast food and gambling to name but a few.

There are no easy answers on this issue and it seems an almost impossible task for anyone to draw up the rules of the game.

But I do know this. PR is only as ethical as its practitioners. The ability to engage in ethical reasoning in public relations has never been more in demand and more important than it is today, and that begins with us. As the people on the front line communicating with our clients’ audiences, it’s our duty to follow our moral compass and to convey messages that meet not only ethical industry standards but our own values as well.

Carrying out careful and consistent ethical analysis helps facilitate trust, which in turn enhances the building and maintenance of relationships; after all, that is the ultimate purpose of the public relations function.

For more information on ethical PR practices, why not give us a call on 0121 454 9707 or send us an email at gary.hebblethwaite@hroc.co.uk

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