I am sure each of you who knows about the demise of the British agency Bell Pottinger (which described itself as a public relations firm) was as disgusted as I was to see the story describing its actions on page one of Monday’s New York Times. Writer David Segal did a masterful job detailing the firm’s unethical behavior, its subsequent expulsion from the U.K. Public Relations and Communications Association, its loss of all clients, and its bankruptcy.
I don’t fault the Times for covering the story –it’s important. But as chair of the Society that represents the ethical practice of public relations, I was compelled to write a letter to the editor stressing that what Bell Pottinger did is definitely #notOURPR.
The timing of this story is ironic given that just a few days ago PRSA and other professional associations that are members of the Global Alliance gathered in Madrid to discuss the concept of an over-arching global code of ethics for our profession (without inany way stepping back from PRSA’s own Code of Ethics; we won’t do that).
Our CEO Joe Truncale represented us there, as he is treasurer and an executive committee member of the Global Alliance, which is a global network of communication associations. More details on those discussions are forthcoming, and given the deservedly sharp focus we maintain on ethics and trust, seeing a rogue firm’s actions played out over more than two full pages of the New York Times is frustrating.
We are and will be aggressive in telling our story of the ethical practice of public relations. You should be too. One of the core principles of our Code of Ethics is “Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.” Bell Pottinger and its ilk damage that trust, and our industry’s reputation.
It’s our duty to speak up, push back, clarify and explain that public relations is based on strictly defined ethical practices, or it simply doesn’t work. You can use our website to find more information about our Code, and to reference work by our Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), which creates Ethical Standards Advisories and other thought-leadership pieces that advance ethical guidelines and best practices.
The choice is fundamental. We can subscribe to and promote our Code of Ethics in public relations, which is the right thing to do and ultimately good for business as well as the industry and the publics we serve. Or we can try to get away with doing less than that, and be punished in the marketplace. Bell Pottinger learned the hard way what PR isn’t, and PRSA and our members must advocate for what PR really is. #notOURPR