In Episode 10 (Part 2 of 2) of this interview with PRCA Director General Francis Ingham, Francis explains the tough realities – and shocking repercussions – of taking a stand in the Bell-Pottinger ethics-violation case in 2017.
Kelly and Mary Beth welcome back PRCA's Director General Francis Ingham, as he joins Ms. InterPReted from London for Part 2 of "Public Relations: Leading from the Front."
In this segment, Francis provides an overview of the world-renowned Bell Pottinger case study ... one of the most high-profile examples of a public relations firm being held to account for ethical misconduct, in the history of the profession.
PRCA's (and Francis's) bold stance on ethics in the Bell Pottinger case represents a ground-breaking moment of both courage and commitment in PR leadership that all professionals, academicians and students should consider, going forward. This PRCA case stands in stark contrast with the U.S.-based PR association's ethics code (an "inspiration"-only model of practice that includes no accountability mandate or credible adjudication process for firms or practitioners breaking rules of professional conduct) -- an ongoing compliance failure that Kelly and Mary Beth speak out against. Francis explains why ethical compliance and accountability matter -- and must be taken with utmost seriousness -- if the profession is to advance globally and achieve respect.
Announcer: Welcome to Ms. InterPReted, her podcast of public relations and strategic communications demystified by Kelly Fletcher and Fletcher Marketing PR.
Kelly: Welcome, listeners, to the Ms. InterPReted podcast. I'm Kelly Fletcher, CEO of Fletcher Marketing PR, and welcome to part two of our chat with PRCA UK's Francis Ingham, leading from the front on PR ethics.
Kelly: Right. So Francis, let's pivot here for a moment and talk about ethics, the ethics issue, and how PRCA manages this area. First of all, please tell us a little bit about the Bell Pottinger case. As I gather that's probably PRCA's most high-profile ethical compliance case study.
Francis: It certainly is, and it was a defining moment for us. So we received a complaint against Bell Pottinger, which was a very famous, pretty large PR association, PR agency, sorry. And we received that complaint from the Democratic Alliance of South Africa, the main opposition party in South Africa. And if you Google it, you get about 19,000 articles and hits that come up.
Francis: And that's just if you Google our respective names. And their complaint was basically that Bell Pottinger was doing work on behalf of Oak Bay Capital, a fairly innocuous financial company in South Africa that was owned by the Gupta family, and the Gupta family were seen as having, in a phrase, acquired the South African state. And the basic work that Bell Pott was doing was to say to poor people, predominantly black people in South Africa, "You are poor because of white minority capital, because white people own everything and they're excluding you from prosperity."
Francis: That is a political point of view, and one can take that point of view, but the work that Bell Pott did was alleged, and we agreed, stirred up racial hatred in South African and racial tensions, and that is a terrible thing for PR people to do in a country that is so delicately poised. So we received a complaint we considered very thoroughly. It provoked quite the reaction, so I had people turn up at my home in London from South Africa threatening to kill me, hammering on the door in the middle of the night.
Mary Beth: I don't know what to say to that.
Kelly: I had no idea, yeah.
Mary Beth: I mean, gosh. My word.
Francis: Yeah, it was quite scary. A van turned up at my house in the countryside to take my children away to kill them.
Mary Beth: Francis, I had no idea that you... I had no idea about that. Oh my word.
Francis: It was quite full on, and I get these videos every day of ways that, people normally on a farm in South Africa have been tortured to death, and with videos of them and, "How would you like this to happen to you?" Sort of content. They're all pretty graphic, and I've seen more ways that people can be killed than I would wish to see, and in the end I stopped looking at any of them. And we had a fair bit of police involvement, so I still, before I get out of a car, always now look behind me to see if anyone's behind me.
Mary Beth: Oh, Francis.
Francis: Following me. It was all quite over the top, and but it was seen as a very big moment in South Africa, and it was. So we went through a legal process, we had a delegation from South Africa with lawyers and a delegation from Bell Pott with lawyers. Very legalistic process, we expelled them. And within a week of us expelling them, Bell Pottinger was no longer a company and none of the staff had a job, and I regret the fact they all lost their jobs, but you know our ruling was pretty clear that this was exactly what a PR company should not be doing, stirring up hatred through its power of communication. And on the back of that, the company having ceased to exist, I think the industry got a great message.
Francis: It rowed in behind us, said this is the right thing to do. There are standards, they are enforced. Avelman in New York said it was a defining moment for the PR industry, and I look at the consequence of had we done anything other than expel them, if we hadn't had expelled them, we would have said PR has no standards.
Francis: But we did the opposite, and we proved PR does have standards, it is overwhelmingly ethical, and when something goes wrong we enforce standards, and I think that's very important actually.
Kelly: Francis, it's amazing that you had to go through that to stand up for our PR profession. Thank you, thank you.
Mary Beth: I mean, this is very sobering for me to hear this, because truthfully, a specific colleague of mine and I were on the receiving end of quite a bit of retribution and retaliation for some of the advocacy we put forward in the market. And at times we did not feel comfortable at certain events, and I won't go into details on it, but I mean we didn't face anything like what you just described. But that was a courageous thing to have done, Francis.
Kelly: You put your life on the line really.
Mary Beth: I mean, my word.
Francis: That's very kind of you.
Mary Beth: Well, yeah. It's daunting to think about.
Francis: It's not what you really sign up for when you head up a membership body.
Mary Beth: Right, and you should have to.
Francis: But it was a really important moment for our industry, and if you look at it from a different point of view, the fact that people, and the people doing the threats, making the threats were people on both sides of this debate, the fact people felt so fiercely, incorrectly fiercely, but fiercely about it, shows how important it was to come to the right conclusion and do the right thing. Because you really did have a country where division was being widened by the actions of one of our members, and it was important to make a stand against that.
Kelly: Yes. You know, it's embarrassing to call out that in the United States if a public relations agency breaks our US PR Association code of ethics, basically nothing happens.
Mary Beth: Oh yeah, that's correct. I mean, if you see a colleague violate the ethics code here in the US from here to Sunday, you can contact a board of ethics and professional standards known as BEPS, and they will tell you, "Yes, we'll sit and listen and entertain your story on what you think happened, and we'll take some points from that story and try to craft some kind of teachable moment out of it, but only using hypothetical names or just hypotheticals for a case study later to educate people on what not to do." But that's the end of it. I mean, BEPS does nothing beyond that to intercede with the offending party.
Kelly: I think a lot of our US association members don't know that. And I know I really never gave it that much thought until recent years, because everything we do in our company I consider to be highly ethical.
Mary Beth: Right.
Kelly: But most of our members have no idea that the PRSA ethics code over here in the US is not enforced and it only exists to quote, unquote inspire people. And that's basically direct from the handbook, so to speak.
Mary Beth: Right, right, there is a lot actually that our US colleagues may not know that they don't know. I mean, under new rules passed in 2018 you can file a grievance, but as I just recently learned, the association does not publicly disclose who is even reviewing the case and whether they have a conflict of interest or not. Leaders are basically allowed to investigate themselves or appoint their close friends to do so. Results of an investigation are not reported in any form of transparent way. I mean, the process simply doesn't foster trust and it's just not healthy for the organization. It's not healthy or helpful to the profession really.
Kelly: And it's really about authenticity. I mean, that and transparency, and those are such big words right now and transparency is one of our core values in our company that we use to measure a mistake or not. It seems that PRCA could not be more open and transparent, on the record and public about how you review ethics violation complaints. Your process does foster trust, just like with the Bell Pottinger case.
Francis: Yeah, I hope it does. We try to make it do. With every complaint we receive, there's a due process that's followed, we take it all very seriously. We have an independent committee that considers every complaint, made up of very senior people who have no conflict of interest whatsoever, and both the complainant and the defendant are made aware of who those people are, they can object to them. We didn't make public the names of people who considered the Bell Pottinger case, because there were going to be threats against people's lives, but the both parties concerned were perfectly aware who they were. And I think it's important to have a robust and independent complaints procedure that is fair and thorough for public confidence in our industry.
Francis: You know we talk about the challenge of trust and of reputation for ourselves and our clients. Well, the public has got to have trust that they can complain against malpractice and that it will be acted upon, because otherwise there is simply no point to having a membership body.
Mary Beth: Right, and what I love is that if a member organization or individual has violated your ethics code, not only are they expelled from membership, you send out a news release and announce it to the world. They don't go quietly into the night. I think that bears out how committed PRCA is to preserving the integrity of our profession.
Kelly: Right, yeah.
Francis: Well, justice has got to be done, seen to be done, because otherwise it isn't really justice now, is it?
Mary Beth: Right. Well, and I will say too that it speaks to the relevance factor of how PRCA has made itself the relevant voice in the profession. Since I'm speaking to a Britain, I will say that the late great Margaret Thatcher once said, "If you have to say you're a lady, you're not."
Kelly: I'm going to agree with that.
Mary Beth: Yeah, and-
Francis: And you are a lady, no doubt.
Mary Beth: Thank you. But applying Lady Thatcher's same logic, if you have to ask if you're irrelevant, you are. And unfortunately here in the US, we have so many leaders or people who posture as leaders asking out loud is our profession relevant? Is our association in the US relevant? I think the jury is back and the verdict is this on that, that our US based professional community does find itself in a leadership conundrum. Some might even say it's an all out leadership void. I would argue that point.
Mary Beth: But that aside, we do have fantastic leaders of agencies over here in the US. We have some excellent thought leaders, we have fantastic leaders of teams, but we do have a void as to that one single universal voice of the profession being one that is known, respected. You know, going back to that concept again, and sufficiently visible in the right ways to move public relations forward and the interests of our US professional community, which the US Department of Labor, I think the data they have is that there are hundreds of thousands of practitioners in the US in the public relations and strategic communications area.
Mary Beth: I've studied this problem long enough and I feel like I probably have enough war wounds at this point to say it is a conundrum that is not going away and it's not going to fix itself. That's part of the reason, Francis, that PRCA has just blown me away with regard to the value that you provide in the marketplace. And for benefit of our listeners' peace of mind, I pay PRCA to be a member. I'm purely a volunteer. When I say all of this, I don't mean to be just over the top in my effusive comments here about how much I've really embraced this organization. But the more I discover about PRCA, the more impressed I am, the more I want to be a part of it.
Mary Beth: Really that's thanks to you, Francis, and your team. Any normal consumer I think who finds a great experience, they want to share that experience. That's kind of been my mantra here in recent months, and I just really want to congratulate you and your team about what you've accomplished.
Francis: That's incredibly kind of you, and we are delighted to have you both as members, and hopefully more American members going forward too. My view, I know we're coming to the end of the chat, is that we have a global community of PR practitioners all around the world, you know very different markets in terms of where they are in maturity, but we face pretty global issues.
Francis: I think the best way to do that is together, and I also think they have global values. Global values in terms of ethics like telling the truth, having regard to the public interest, not stirring up division or hatred, I think are best enforced rigorously. I think that the imperative on associations everywhere around the world to do the right thing, enforce standards, and take the tough calls has never been greater, and that we frankly all ought to embrace it internationally rather than individually. I just wanted to thank you for the time to chat and to share our thoughts really. It's great.
Kelly: Well, Francis, thank you for sharing your leadership and vision with us. I'm so inspired by this conversation.
Mary Beth: Right, I am too.
Kelly: And really very proud to be a new PRCA member too. To our listeners, you can become a PRCA member as well. If you're based in the US, you can become an international individual member by going to the PRCA website at prca.org.uk. You can also contact Renna Markson, that's R-E-N-N-A, Markson, M-A-R-K-S-O-N. She is Engagement Director for PRCA and she can be reached at email@example.com.
Mary Beth: Yes, you can also follow PRCA at Twitter handle @PRCA_UK. You can also follow Francis Ingham on Twitter, as I do, @Ingers1975, and that's I-N-G-E-R-S 1975. And don't forget to follow as well The Ms. InterPReted Podcast on social media. We will respond to your questions and comments, so please post them using the hashtag Ms. InterPReted, and that's hashtag M-S interpreted. For visibility sake, don't forget to capitalize the PR.
Kelly: And finally, you can follow me on Twitter @KDFletcher and that's K-D as in Kelly Dawn, as well as @FletcherPR, and follow Mary Beth at @MaryBethWest. Our thanks to our sound engineer Chris Hill of Knoxville based Humble Pod at humblepod.com. Thanks listeners. Until next next time.
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