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in defence of communication ethics

by Sarah Williams

In a report in PR Week this week, Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, the group that owns Bell Pottinger, claimed that questions about the conduct of the company’s PR division have had no effect on trading.

Bell Pottinger were last year subject to a sting operation, carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published by the Independent, in which senior members of the firm were alleged to have boasted about their influence in Westminster.

Bell claims, in the interview with PR Week, that the negative press ‘had no effect whatsoever.  The phone never stops ringing – we’re pitching all the time and continuing to win business.’  I think that Lord Bell has rather missed the point here, to claim that the affair had ‘no effect whatsoever’ shows astonishing arrogance and disregard for basic ethics and the impact that this scandal has on the wider PR community.

This is not simply a trading issue and I would hope that rather than having no effect at all, the affair has had the effect of causing Bell Pottinger to take a long hard look at its business practices and consider the ethics of its actions.

Whether we like it or not, incidents such as these, affect the entire industry.  Thanks to oft-peddled claims of PR ‘spin’ in the national media, ethical behaviour is not readily associated with PR practice. Incidents like these reinforce that view and should be robustly denounced by the industry.

However instead of a robust defence of PR and a clear statement of what constitutes ethical behaviour in PR, we have a discussion about what impact negative press has had on the bottom line. PR practitioners need to reclaim the ethics debate for themselves and demonstrate PR’s value to the community; and no sector of the industry is better placed to do that than public sector communicators who promote vital local services and facilitate important public debate in localities up and down the country. Ironically, it is also the sector most badly affected by charges of spin, for as long as trust in communicators remains low, there will be public support for cuts in public sector communications.

Now more than ever, PR practitioners must make their voices heard and advocate ethical practice, publicly decry unethical practices and restore trust in the vital role of communications in society.

Sarah Williams is a university lecturer in PR at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.

Manchester Metropolitan University offers both BA (Hons) in Public Relations & Digital Communications and MSc International Public Relations.

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