PR Associations, British Government React to Bell Pottinger Scandal

Lord Bell

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the U.K.’s “advocate and voice of the public relations profession,” came out with its response to the Bell Pottinger scandal that unfolded (on video!) last week.

In a post on the CIPR Conversation blog, the CEO of the organization Jane Wilson said comments on the video show “poor judgment,” were “over-claiming” or “ill-informed,” and said PR can only be “seen as a strategic, senior management discipline” when “incidents such as this are a thing of the past.”

At the same time, Wilson defends PR and lobbying, saying that, as a former MP, Tim Collins, head of public affairs at the firm, would have strong government connections, and using them is something that other organizations, like philanthropic groups, do. Talking about the coverage in The Independent, Wilson writes, “There is a lot of what appears to be wilful misunderstanding or fake outrage at the use of what are in fact open and above board communications channels.”

At the same time, the decision on whether or not to represent the government of Uzbekistan, a country with a reputation for human rights abuses, up to personal ethical code.

The scandal has prompted an inquiry from the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), which could suspend or dismiss the boot and publicly censure it based on the findings; an internal investigation and, according to Lord Bell, lots of “soul searching”; and investigations from Wikipedia and from parliament. (The PRCA announced today that it would be pulling out of another organization, which was attempting to create a voluntary register of firms. More here.)

The PRSA’s chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske also addresses the issue agreeing with Wilson’s calls for transparency and stating in no uncertain terms that PR firms should not represent dictatorships. As in previous comments from Keith Trivitt, she also points out the fact that Bell Pottinger execs tell the Uzbek “reps” that there should be real change in that country.

The PRCA rule that allows for suspension or dismissal and a published censure is one to be admired. It’s becoming painfully obvious that repeatedly stating the rules and ethical codes will not stop the bad apples from stinking up the joint with their unsavory ways.

Who can forget the public shame that Rep. Charlie Rangel displayed when he had to stand before his colleagues to be censured for his ethical lapses? PR firms are quick to tout when they’ve won an award. You wouldn’t believe the number of press releases we get on that very topic. (Or maybe you would.) If the industry can be that quick to hand out accolades, it should be equally strident in pinpointing who is doing wrong. We’d be interested to see just much of deterrent it would be, though we think the fear of the bad publicity that would come of being labeled unethical by your own colleagues would make it a good one.