Opinion: From the editor - Time to safeguard the reputation of PR

Professional comms consultancies regularly find themselves advising their corporate clients: 'It's not just about your profits, it's about your long-term reputation.'

No lack of irony then that when Chime - the owner of Bell Pottinger, the UK's largest consultancy 'collective' - announced impressive annual results last week, the media coverage was dominated by allegations of dubious ethics.

Chime, run by Margaret Thatcher's favourite PR man Lord Bell, announced a 14 per cent hike in pre-tax profits for 2010 and 'particularly strong performance by the PR division'.

But the British media were more interested in Bell Pottinger's alleged work for government departments in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain - countries that have recently undergone violent popular uprisings.

Such allegations against Bell Pottinger went from the national press, to the hugely influential BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

And recent bad publicity is not confined to Bell Pottinger.

On Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live show last Thursday, presenter Lauren Laverne launched a diatribe against 'British PR firms working for despots'. As well as Bell Pottinger, the agency Brown Lloyd James was criticised for its alleged work for Libya's Colonel Gaddafi and Burson-Marsteller for allegedly helping a number of dictatorial regimes, including Indonesia.

The FT last weekend roped Portland PR into the ethics row, accusing the consultancy of polishing up the reputation of dodgy plutocrats.

Lord Bell - one of the country's most accomplished and admired PR bosses - has always staunchly defended his advice to controversial politicians, claiming that everyone has the right to air their viewpoint. It is a libertarian argument that has some validity in a pluralist, and increasingly transparent, world. Unfortunately, the overall effect on the reputation of the PR industry is damaging.

This is a sector that thrives on hiring and developing the best young talent and, reading many responses and blogs on the aforementioned news stories, many are becoming concerned and demotivated. It also follows the unpaid interns debate, creating further doubt about the ethics of some PR firms.

This is unfair, of course, because the vast majority of comms professionals are ethically upstanding, thoughtful and responsible people. But, as the best consultants would advise, perceptions easily become reality.

So it is time that every practitioner considered the impact of the work they do and the advice they give. More so than ever, information is power - indeed the currency of the PR profession.

It must be used wisely for long-term success and career fulfilment.


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