Alex Malouf 22 Oct 2017 // 9:42PM GMT
It’s good to see ethics back in the spotlight, and being given the attention it deserves. The Bell Pottinger saga is forcing the industry to face an issue which has for too long been ignored. In his speech this week at the National Press Club, Richard Edelman shared his own ideas about how to tackle the challenge that ethics presents to the industry as a whole and public trust in our work.
For me, the issue comes down to a simple question. Are agencies willing to sacrifice a paying client for whom they’d have to undertake work which is unethical or immoral? The pressure to continually show growth is relentless, and it’d take an incredibly brave agency country head to turn around to his or her boss and say, “I’m sorry, but what we’re being asked to do is unethical.”
To me it’s not surprising that Bell Pottinger was brought down by work done not in London, but in South Africa. It’s also revealing that the initial pitch was led by Lord Bell, who had flown in from London and who wasn’t living in South Africa. It’s easy to talk about ethics in Washington and London, but is the same message being applied in Africa and Asia? And do PR leaders actually dig deep into what is happening outside of their American and European operations? Is it a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' when it comes to ethics?
We’ve had our fair share of unethical practice in the Middle East. Some will still recall Hill and Knowlton’s “Nayirah” testimony deception, a successful attempt to win over a US audience to back Kuwait in the Gulf War that was based on lies.
Money from my region continues to flow into Washington, to fund campaigns on a myriad of issues. One is Yemen, where a conflict is creating the world’s worst man-made humanitarian catastrophe. The Red Cross estimates that there could be one million cases of cholera this year in Yemen. The last time there was an outbreak of the disease on this scale was in 1832, in Victorian-era London.
Unfortunately, there’s no money in representing the interests and needs of the millions of civilians in Yemen who are suffering from both war, disease and famine. Those who are representing paying clients are far from the conflict, unaffected by the daily realities on the ground.
For many of us in the emerging world, ethics isn’t just about reputation or trust. It’s about lives and survival. Most of the PR industry ditched the tobacco sector when it became impossible to disprove the fact that smoking kills. We couldn’t live with that albatross around our necks.
Richard Edelman is right when he says that ethics training should become mandatory for all who work in the industry. He is however off the mark when he advocates for an industry watchdog in the US. The focus needs to be on the emerging world, much of which lacks appropriate transparency safeguards (Bell Pottinger wasn’t brought down by any industry association, but rather South Africa’s free press).
If PR agency heads are serious about ethics, they need to take a clear stand on choosing morality over profit when it comes to anything which could be considered unethical. This won’t just save the industry’s reputation, but it’ll also save lives as well.