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.”