Graham Robb's Journal Column - September 2017


Politics and business often collide. This month the PR sector acted to root out unethical behaviour in a way politics can rarely do.

Two weeks ago, international politics, truth telling and ethics came to a head in an incident that the PR sector had to get to grips with. The Public Relations and Communications Association, of which I am an individual member, has expelled one of the top PR firms in the world on ethics grounds. Bell Pottinger had been working with a client in South Africa and had run a campaign that was judged to have exploited racial division in the country. Extensive hearings were held after the South African opposition, the Democratic Alliance, complained that the campaign stirred up anger about “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid” to draw attention away from a wealthy and controversial family, who have been accused of benefiting financially from their close links to the South African president. Bell Pottinger was found guilty of violations of the PRCA code of practice on several counts.

This incident has made me think hard about my own business, its clients and the way we all conduct business in the North East. I have tried hard throughout my career in PR (30 years next year) to tell the truth to clients, the public and media. I have also tried to run my business in a way that benefits all involved, from the profits I earn, to the salaries of the staff and, most importantly, helping our clients succeed so that they can support the wider economy of the North East.

I don’t claim to be infallible, but do think that all businesses need to take some time at board level to stress test their own working practices. Many years ago, I introduced some minor innovations that have helped promote high standards and transparency.

Firstly, our fees are openly displayed on our website, together with our objectives, ethics and standards statement.

Secondly, after some difficult experiences early in my career, I try very hard to prevent real or perceived conflicts of interest. For example, when I was appointed to a public body Recognition PR provided service to, I resigned the PR contract and will cease the work as soon as the replacement service is up and running.

Thirdly, I have started to be a lot more selective about who we represent. For smaller firms, like my own, there is always a temptation to chase every contract. Profits are the lifeblood of business but sometimes it is best to say no. My firm also defends businesses and I have recently introduced a clause into our contracts which says we ‘reserve the right not to defend in cases where unethical or illegal behaviour is not repudiated.’ I have had cause to say no to potential clients when asked to defend the indefensible. Some good examples centre around our involvement in care industry. Recognition PR promotes and defends many excellent firms involved in healthcare.  The media often run stories about poor practice in the care sector and very often the stories are isolated examples with the businesses concerned deserving a fair hearing and a second chance. Our clients use Recognition PR to explain their point of view, sometimes say sorry, and to promote the changes that are made as a result of the aberrations that crop up from time to time.

In one case a company was using us to defend a number of similar and regular problems that were cropping up in their homes. My father was in one of their homes, I noticed the issues myself and moved him to another home. I also cancelled our PR contract; a pattern was clear, action had not been taken and how could I defend a care business that I would not allow to look after my own parents? It is a good test for ethical practice to ask yourself, ‘would I recommend this service or product to friends and family?’ If not, Recognition PR would prefer not to be involved with the organisation, unless it was involved in a change programme that would result in improvements.

Finally, all my firm’s objectives, standards and ethics are displayed in our reception area and all new staff have to literally sign the poster to say to the whole world they agree to our values.

The PRCA is to be congratulated on its ethical stance. I do not claim to get decisions right every time, but I think that openness and truth are always the best way to talk to the public in the information age. Increasingly the ethical attitude of businesses can determine success or failure. Our national politicians need to copy the best in business by communicating accurately and openly to gain the trust so many great firms have worked so hard to earn.

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