Bell Pottinger Lobbying Scandal: The ‘Dark Arts’ of Unethical PR

Revelations in the U.K. last week of spurious and unethical actions from the renowned global PR firm Bell Pottinger have cast a pall over the U.K. PR industry. For any public relations professional who values transparency and ethics ahead of lofty client billings, the multi-day exposé in The Independent newspaper of London makes for grim reading.

The editorial series is worth a read, and I encourage you to dig into it to form your own opinions.

Before diving into some of the specific issues addressed in the reports, let’s be clear on two important points:

First, offering to manipulate a client’s online reputation through the use of fake online accounts, newly created blog pages or fake online reviews is not only foolhardy (the likelihood of getting caught is very high), it is unethical. Lacking in transparency, such activities would be in violation of PRSA’s Code of Ethics and are banned in both the U.K. and the U.S. (the latter through the FTC’s “Blogger Rules.”).

It has been said before, but is worth repeating: the Internet does not forget. It is one of the greatest truth-seekers the world has ever known. If, like the Bell Pottinger executives, you are asked by a potential or current client to manipulate a Wikipedia entry or online review, your obligation as an ethical practitioner is to explain the lack of ethics behind such manipulation. And, if the client does not understand or refuses to acknowledge those concerns, the next step is refusal to comply.

Second, the act of representing a dictatorship, such as Bell Pottinger would have done had it taken on the proposed work with the Uzbekistan government, is a slippery slope for the public relations profession. As PRNewser reports, “Uzbekistan has a reputation for child labor and other human rights violations.”

We have made clear PRSA’s position that public relations firms should not represent dictatorships, regardless of whether they are helping to engender genuine reform in a country. Every person or organization has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.

Back to the revelations of Bell Pottinger’s spurious practices, as raised by The Independent.

Several ethical concerns emerge in the series of reports. The further one digs into the story, however, the more it becomes apparent that firm appears to have acted in good faith to convey the very real need for its potential client to be ethical in its actions, in order to effectively win over various governments and the public. Listening closely to the undercover video in the initial Independent story reveals that Bell Pottinger representatives repeatedly tell their guests that to have a positive impact on the U.K. government and the public, the client must move toward genuine governmental reform and greater transparency.

Unfortunately, that alone does not absolve Bell Pottinger. There are deeper issues that must be examined.

It’s not just that the tactics Bell Pottinger boasts of using are unethical and potentially illegal. It is also that they are amateur and unproductive. They take the public relations profession back several years in terms of our professionalism and our value to businesses.

Also of concern is the need to raise the professional standards for public affairs professionals to rid the industry of its “dark arts.” Jane Wilson of the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations has addressed this issue in a timely post, and it is one we believe is worth exploring in the U.S.

Certainly, the PR industry should not look past Bell Pottinger’s use of spurious and unethical tactics. PRSA has been forthright in our concern over those practices when they have been exposed. But if anything good comes of this, it will hopefully be a greater push toward more transparent lobbying and public affairs practices, which we understand both the U.S. and U.K. governments are pursuing.

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.


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