With reports suggesting that one of the biggest PR companies in the world, Bell Pottinger, may fall into administration in disgrace this morning, it feels like a good moment to reflect on Public Relations and ethics.

To me, the practice of Public Relations itself has never been unethical. It’s the malpractice of it that causes problems.

In short, the discipline is about managing the relationship between an organisation and the public. That should always be a two-way street and falls down if there isn’t trust.

If an organisation doesn’t communicate well with the public, its activity is at risk of being misunderstood. If it fails to listen to feedback, it may never improve. If it tries to deceive, then it will get found out in the long-run – and here we are with Bell Pottinger.

Unfortunately, the disgraced activities that have been widely reported are feeding into the idea that the practice of PR itself is problematic. Here’s what The Guardian said last week:

The ethical standard of the PR industry appears to be that it is all right to defend corrupt or wicked regimes providing that you do so while using only arguments that appear respectable. Alternately, you can fight dirty on behalf of a relatively clean cause – Bell Pottinger was paid nearly half a billion dollars for its work on behalf of the US army occupying Iraq, which could have been presented as a help in the struggle against Isis. Just don’t get caught using dirty tactics for a dodgy client.

On the whole, I don’t think that’s very fair on the rest of us. I have heard echoes of those sorts of justifications in my time in the industry. But, more often than not, the people and organisations engaging in PR activity are authentic in wanting to get their message across and keen to take on board what the public are saying back at them.

Nevertheless, we have to wholeheartedly condemn poor and unethical practice when we see it and what Bell Pottinger did in South Africa is intolerable. They are now facing the consequences and hopefully proving true that good PR is ethical PR – otherwise the public will catch up with you.


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