It could happen here. What the PR Council will do with the next Bell Pottinger

The PR Council and other industry leaders draw a line in the sand: What they're prepared to do if a U.S.-based firm brings the industry "into disrepute."

A protest outside Bell Pottinger's London office this summer
A protest outside Bell Pottinger's London office this summer

The PR Council agrees with the U.K.-based PRCA’s decision to kick Bell Pottinger to the curb after the London-based firm orchestrated a campaign in South Africa the group said was "likely to inflame racial discord."

And it has a message for its U.S.-based members: we’re prepared to do the same thing.

"If that happened here, we would take a similar action," says PR Council president Renee Wilson about the decision by the PRCA, a U.K. industry body. "What [Bell Pottinger] did was unethical."

What would it take to get kicked out of the PR Council? A member agency could be removed for violating a provision of the organization’s bylaws or performing any action contrary to its mission, which is to "advocate for and advance the business of communications firms by building the market and the value of firms as strategic business partners," according to its website.

The disciplinary process would begin with a complaint filed to the board about a member firm, setting off a four-step process that could lead to expulsion. Grounds for removal must be submitted in writing to the board, which would conduct an inquiry into the matter. If the grounds are deemed legitimate, the board would take a vote. Expulsion would require a two-thirds majority of the full board. The member agency in question would be given an opportunity to defend itself.

Any agency removed from the PR Council would be ineligible for membership for at least one year following the date of expulsion.

The organization also has a set of ethics and culture guidelines, created by FleishmanHillard, that members can tailor to their own firms. "It has a training book and video, and we do workshops once a year on it," says Wilson.

Wilson, who has served as PR Council president for two years, says there have been no complaints about member firms in her tenure.

"When agencies recommit each year, we have them sign our code of ethics and principles, which is another clear way to indicate the standards of practice the PR Council lives by, which is important for the industry standards," says Wilson.

Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay Investment was found by the U.K. trade body to have breached its professional charter and public affairs and lobbying code of conduct. The PRCA revoked Bell Pottinger’s membership, banning the firm from reapplying for five years. The agency has hired business consultancy BDO to examine options for its future; Bell Pottinger is expected to go into administration next week.

Mike Paul, chief executive of PR consultancy The Reputation Doctor, advises that the PRCA’s decision was an "excellent" one that should be discussed at board meetings.

"Maybe [the industry’s] current guidelines aren’t strict enough to best protect our own brand and reputation," Paul says. "The U.S. associations, firms, corporations, and groups have an opportunity to use morality clauses to best protect them immediately. They need to understand the kinds of damage that can be done to their organizations when problems arise."

While Bell Pottinger’s work is an extreme example of a PR firm offending widespread sensibilities, other prominent agencies have found themselves as the subjects of scathing media coverage examining controversial work.

In early July, Weber Shandwick walked away from a contract with Egypt’s government that was managed by the country’s General Intelligence Service. The relationship was the subject of a critical piece in The Atlantic headlined, "Egypt’s best friends in DC - Why is a PR firm working directly for one of Egypt’s top spy services?" APCO Worldwide has since taken over the work with Egypt.

Two years ago, Ketchum left behind its lucrative work for the Russian Federation, citing tensions between the Kremlin and Western governments. The business relationship was the subject of unflattering reports by The New York Times, ProPublica, and The Daily Beast, among others.

In 2008, Burson-Marsteller then-CEO Mark Penn resigned as chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign after reports emerged that the firm was working with Colombia's government to win congressional approval of a trade pact she opposed. Two years earlier, Edelman faced outside pressure after it was discovered the firm created a blog for client Walmart that did not disclose its origins or funding.

"When this happened, I acknowledged the issue, said we had to do better, and we did a company-wide training program on standards for funding of bloggers and disclosure," says Richard Edelman, the firm's president and CEO. "The Word of Mouth Marketing Association also re-accepted us, so it has a happy ending."

Asked about the PR Council’s stance on these instances, Wilson says, "I don’t think it would be right for me to comment without seeing the details of these situations." Representatives from Weber, Ketchum, and Burson were not immediately available to comment.

The Public Relations Society of America, which is focused on individual PR practitioners and not agencies, also has a code of ethics. However, PRSA chair Jane Dvorak notes the society’s guidelines are not enforceable from a punitive perspective unless criminal felony charges are filed against an individual. The PRSA also has a board of ethics and professional standards, also known as BEPS, which ensures implementation of the code and reviews complaints about members potentially violating it.

"Our code is based on personal responsibility," says Dvorak.

Many firms have their own ethics standards, as well. Ruder Finn is one PR firm that has strict guidelines about what clients it represents, says Markus Gabriel Group principal Emmanuel Tchividjian, who previously led RF’s ethics practice.

"We looked at every [potential client] on a case-by-case basis and made decisions based on those criteria," says Tchividjian. "The criteria stated that we could not get involved with any activities that violated human rights or harmed the environment or were illegal or unsafe."

‘Not a crisis’
Regardless of the negative attention spawned by Bell Pottinger’s work for Oakbay, U.S.-based communications executives say the PR industry does not have a widespread ethics problem.

PR pros are not defined by Bell Pottinger, or the "lowest or worst behavior," says Edelman.

"There may be some who choose to try and do that to us, but actions speak louder than words," he adds. "This is not a crisis for the whole industry."

Industry leaders say the Bell Pottinger crisis will remind firms to communicate ethics from the top down and be more transparent about their guidelines, as well as to take a closer look at clients’ business practices.

Edelman contends that senior leaders in the PR industry are "very conscious" of the role and responsibility of public relations, particularly in the era of accusations of fake news and low trust in the media.

"When [Weber CEO] Andy Polansky started feeling nervous about Egypt, he got out; when [Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty] started feeling nervous about Russia, he got out," says Edelman.

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