Why the Bell Pottinger scandal matters

When I made the move from journalism into public relations I didn’t lose my sense of right and wrong. As a reporter there was a very clear code of conduct and your reputation mattered. It made the difference between getting the story and facing a wall of silence. 

My first day in PR was interesting but not once did anyone talk to me about a code of conduct or ethical practice. It was a positive working environment with skilled and professional individuals but it was not a priority conversation to have.

More than 20 years later and we have seen one of the biggest PR scandals in a long time. We have seen decisive action from the  Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). There has been much condemnation from across the industry but in the cold light of day we have to make this a game changer in the world of PR.

I woke this morning with more determination than ever to ensure the image people have of PR is not that seen on the front of the Financial Times today or on Newsnight last night. For years we have tried to demonstrate things are a world away from the comedy Absolutely Fabulous but now we face a bigger threat to our reputation. The actions of the few should not define the many but how we deal with poor behaviour is another way we will be judged.

From today we should ensure all entering PR and communication roles are given a clear understanding of ethics and behaviour from day one. It is not good enough just to know there is a code of conduct you have to know what it means in your daily business whether manager or new recruit. Discussions on ethics and approaches should take place on a daily basis.

In policing there has been extensive work taking place to embed the code of ethics produced by the College of Policing. It is discussed regularly, it is considered in decision making, it is part of recruitment and promotion and after a number of years it is well understood. We also have an independent ethics committee who can review policy and activities across policing. Having met some of them I know they can and do scrutinise the media and communication activity and decision making.

So what now? We have to see a change in the way we approach the question of ethical standards and behaviour.

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