How the Bell Pottinger scandal made me think about Public Relations as a force for good and the inherent challenge of moral relativism

The Bell Pottinger row got me thinking about wider issues 

I’d imagine most people involved in the UK PR industry and many more around the world are aware of the situation around Bell Pottinger and their involvement in the deeply complex post Apartheid political dynamic in South Africa.

This is not an article about the Bell Pottinger scandal. I don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a lot of covering going on. I’m not a South African expert in any way shape or form.

The reaction to the situation has driven a bout of self reflection by a lot of highly respected comms consultants. The commentary all comes down to a few apparently simple questions that the PR and comms industry has been asking themselves for some time. How does PR create value? How do we best interact with a range of “publics”? What is acceptable corporate behaviour? Do we have responsibilities to our industry and publics?

As someone who fell into the communications industry following the realisation that I didn’t have what it took to make it in investment banking or diplomacy; I still feel like an outsider, especially on the occasions I put my thoughts on paper. I haven’t studied PR as an academic subject and my professional experience is through a series of specialised roles that demand either capital markets and / or geopolitical understanding. I therefore don’t necessarily know the rules of the wider game and can no doubt appear somewhat naïve or ill informed to wide sections of the PR / communications industry.

My reactions are based on personal experience of similar work, including a stint at B-P and reading the thoughts of more experienced industry practitioners, such as the links at the bottom of this article.

Something went very wrong on a well remunerated strategic communications project of the sort that is far more common in our industry than many PR practitioners might realise. It has given the industry pause for thought and has driven a lot of us to examine the way we look at PR as an industrial discipline. What conclusions can we draw?


PR’s reputational challenges whilst operating in a globalised economy

One of the reactions to the B-P situation has been to reassert a common aspiration within the PR & communications community that PR can be a force for good. That we can be the soul and conscience for an organisation and that PR & communications can help mould organisations into better citizens.

This is an entirely legitimate point of view and I agree with much of the aspiration behind it. An effective grasp of the potential of communications can make an organisation more focussed and effective in reaching its goals. An understanding of the wider needs of its publics and hardwiring them into its operations can have significant benefits for the organisation, its people and the balance sheet.

However, who defines what is moral and a force for good? How far along the value chain should PR advisors go to work out if they are genuinely on the right side, or whether they are part of what could be considered a reputational laundering structure?

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Old certainties that we understood who we were doing business with and why are gone. Industrial supply chains have diversified, capital moves around the world at the speed of light and our socioeconomic and cultural certainties have also changed, as we now operate within a far more diverse community than was the case 20 years ago. To be a successful global business you have to have high standards but you also have to be able to work with a multitude of diverse communities whose sociological / philosophical background might not match your own.

There are numerous tools and cut outs that allow international communications consultancies to feel more comfortable about certain sorts of work. Generally it’s about putting space between the consultancy and the ultimate beneficiary of the work. It could be a foundation; a stock market listing; a trade association; or a seemingly strictly delineated brief – all of these cut outs avoid the contentious stuff and appear to focus on apolitical, non contentious themes such as investment or diversity or competition.

Step back a bit however and this sort of projects can be seen as part of a wider pattern by a sovereign state, multi national corporation or ultra high net worth individual to project an alternate, more positive narrative, or to distract attention from some local unpleasantness.

The system therefore benefits three parties: the cut out itself that will benefit from the communications consultancy; the comms provider that will be paid handsomely and finally the “beneficial owner” whose wider reputation will be enhanced by the service, if only tangentially. In fact for the cut out to be a truly successful communications platform, it has to be seen to be successful in its own right, otherwise it’s transparency as a PR platform undermines its original purpose.


The challenges of moral relativism

This system allows international consultancies to operate within a globalised commercial system. The system both acknowledges the challenges that are inherent to cross cultural commerce and finds a legitimate solution that meets the needs of the majority of parties and stakeholders.

Once you start on the road of moral judgement, the endpoint is difficult to discern. Where do we draw the line? Why should PR providers be singled out for such a challenge? Lawyers, accountants, bankers and other service providers that offer a combination of C-suite strategic counsel and a commoditised suite of tactical operations do not appear to be going through similar existential angst.

A few examples of entirely legitimate and legally approvable work that might be challenged by the need to follow a more moralistic approach:

• Should we refuse ANY mandate from certain sovereign states or their paratstals (another sort of cut out) because of their involvement in (to us) morally challenging issues such as military conflicts, or their internal policies that us appear discriminatory but to them follows the teaching of their religion?

• Should we as PRs, refuse work from companies that generate power through burning coal, despite the multitude of evidence to show that it both damages the environment and kills people through higher levels of pollution derived respiratory disease?

• Armaments is a morally challenging industry, given what they are for and more specifically who buys them. When fuel air, cluster munitions or urban pacification tools are put in the hands of certain regimes, bad things can happen. It could be argued that the arms industry runs PR programmes to help clean some of that dirt off and ensure that they are not regulated to the point of significant damage to their balance sheet.

• Tobacco has been a constant challenge for the PR industry since the linkage between smoking and cancer became accepted. It’s not just a moral issue though. You probably can’t work for Philip Morris and Glaxo. You have to choose.

When it comes down to it, we all have our own “sniff test”. Some people have a sensitive nose and cannot stand the smell. For others it’s got to be really bad before they back out.
Speaking to a range of my peers and senior PR practitioners whilst preparing this piece, what is clear is that there are very few moral absolutes. Some would work for tobacco but not arms. Some would work for X country but not Y.

As mentioned, this bout of soul searching in PR is not necessarily shared in other industries. Much of the work I used to do as a communications consultant is increasingly becoming part of the management consultancy offering – in part because it dovetails neatly with their risk / corporate structure / fundraising / HR offerings and can be done by small teams for significant fees. It’s as likely that the same advice will be given by Mckinsey, or Deloitte as Bell Pottinger or Ketchum (two of my previous employers).

Perhaps this shows the direction of travel for the industry? Either willingly or due to a lack of care, this sort of business could be lost to a different industry.

I’m going to conclude with an example from a BBC comedy sketch show that makes my point and exaggerates for comic effect. It’s a discussion between two Waffen SS officers who are trying to work out whether they “are the baddies” –


Some more reading on the subject: