Copyright 2018


Relationship Gert


The whole Bell Pottinger saga has most definitely put the fox in our professional fowl-run. More was written by PR professionals on this, and on PR as a profession, than has happened in quite some time. Mostly it was negative, and rightly so, pointing out the ethically dubious approach and behaviour that is at the root of the whole embarrassing saga. As a matter of fact, so much has been written about it that there is barely need for yet another article dissecting the whole Bell Pottinger thing – to be honest, after our colleague Solly Moeng’s excellent analysis of it in Business Day, very little remains to be said about their actions as such.

As deplorable as the course of action that Victoria and friends took, and as truly grovelling as the apology came across, I think that it is high time that the pot stops calling the kettle black. Anyone in our profession who acted with shock and disbelief when this story broke, is either incredibly naive, or conveniently hypocritical. As a profession, we have been practising ethical brinkmanship for a very, very long time in that we have been using the power that communication gives us to influence. Then we still have the audacity to object to and be offended by titles such as “spin doctor” and “white-washer” – well knowing that only the noblest among us have never painted the truth in a way that has only a semblance of the real thing – like an impressionist painting. If communication is the sharing of meaning, we have succeeded in shaping that shared meaning to display the bias that benefits us, our professional credentials and our careers. Counter-arguments to our cause are inconvenient and, while we talk a lot about authenticity and the like, we seldom get ourselves to also state these.

It is not that the emperor has not been naked for very long. The mere existence of Codes of Conduct and Ethics in every professional PR body, the generally toothless nature of these Codes, and the blatant disregard for them by the members of those same professional bodies, has been raising concerns about the very nature in which we conduct our business while purporting to be truthful, noble and aware of our moral obligations. If Bell Pottinger did us one huge favour, it was to hold up the mirror so that we could see what others have been seeing for a very long time. We often respect only the colour of money and the headiness of the power that being professional communicators gives us, and therefore believe that the ends that we are pursuing justify any means to get there. I would have been glad to be able to plead not guilty to this, but unfortunately my conscience would not allow. If I look carefully at what Clause 2.8 of the PRISA Code of Ethics and Professional Standards says: “We shall not knowingly, intentionally or recklessly communicate false or misleading information. It is our obligation to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently”, I must change my plea. Take a minute to think about it. And, that is but one short little sentence of a 3-page document...

I could claim to, academically, be a trained ethicist, but I wouldn’t. I have become simply too rusty and too blunted by many years of not being actively involved in the theory and philosophy of ethics. It is clear that our mostly teleological approach to the ethics of what we do (believing that the end justifies the means) by nature discards all principles except those of randomness. People (objectified and relativised to “target audiences” in our world) are viewed as unfortunate casualties of the bigger goal we serve (or rather, get paid to serve).

In terms of such a teleological ethical mindset, Bell Pottinger has done absolutely nothing wrong. If they had been convinced, and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt (big budgets can be very convincing), that the cause that they were serving through their campaign was noble, then – teleologically speaking – we as citizens of South Africa should appreciate what they have been doing, and regard the damage that was caused as an unavoidable sacrifice that the populace of the country would have to make to achieve those big and noble goals.

As in many other branches of business, ethics do not really form an important consideration for taking decisions in our profession unless the reputational and/or business risk outweighs the ethical risk. I do not believe that the average (and many above average) business and PR professionals really have much of a feel for, or any knowledge of what ethics is really about. I cannot remember ever seeing any serious analysis of ethics being included as a formal part of any communication and PR study. Nor have I seen it discussed in an academic discourse in which I was involved (apart from philosophy, of course) other than in loose and generalistic discussions about “authenticity”. We tend to handle it just as eclectically as we do the rest of the theory on which we base our body of knowledge, but that is a discussion for another day...

Now that the penny has dropped, and we are embarrassed and inconvenienced by the unwelcome light that has been shed on our favourite approach to furthering causes, we retreat to the safety of deontological ethics, using that as a barricade from which we can pelt the big, bad Bell Pottinger with stones. We have now conveniently developed a conscience and firm principles, in which the ethical nature and implications of every act and every step is examined and commented upon. If our turncoating is not the zenith of hypocrisy, I would like to know what is...

Reports that Bell Pottinger has been sanctioned by the PRCA are an encouraging step in the right direction, and while the full sanction will only be published after this is written, it could be expected that the decision would be based on such deontological ethical grounds. I sincerley hope that this will be the start of serious introspection by us - the one profession that I believe has the power to make a positive and lasting difference to the social capital of our country and the world.

For those who are not convinced, I think it is time that we decide what we want – are we going to be serious about ethical conduct, and stipulate it as a key requirement of being part of our professional community (imposing the necessary sanctions when this requirement is breached), or are we just going to take Bell Pottinger-like sagas on the chin in future and then carry on smarting as if nothing has happened? And, if we are serious about it, we might want to reconsider the virtues of a deontological approach, given the pitfalls of teleology that were so clearly and painfully exposed now.

As I surmised above, Bell Pottinger has in fact done our profession a huge favour by exposing both its immense power and its weaknesses. It is now up to us, as leaders in the profession, to buckle down and make sure that we temper the immense power with a measure of responsibility and accountability, and address the weaknesses – both for which a keen sense of ethics, and how it should be applied, will be needed.

Gert Klopper APR, Communications Manager: Operations - Petra Diamonds Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd

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