The PR industry still struggles with ethics when ‘juicy retainers’ are involved

Agencies like Bell Pottinger and BLJ Worldwide have faced accusations of unethical behaviour on behalf of clients in far-flung destinations like South Africa and Qatar, but doing the right thing can be difficult when a large fee is involved – writes Edwin Yeo of SPRG

After the whole Bell Pottinger saga, where the now defunct public relations agency faced serious allegations about its conduct on behalf of a client in South Africa, you would think PR consultancies worldwide would rethink the type of work they do for clients.

But less than a year since the scandal, another PR agency – BLJ Worldwide – is now also in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. This time, it is regarding the Qatar 2022 World Cup, which has already been operating under a massive cloud of controversy.

British newspaper The Sunday Times reported that the tournament bidders paid BLJ to attack the competitors – the United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan – they were up against for the right to host the World Cup. It is said they used academics and influencers in those countries to drum up anti-sentiment against the bids in their domestic markets. Support at home is, indeed, a criterion FIFA considers when awarding the rights to a nation.

It’s certainly a sensational story and while it’s not in the same ballpark as the Bell Pottinger saga, it does put PR agencies under the microscope once again. If we were to be perfectly honest with ourselves, nobody really likes PR agencies. At best, they are viewed as a necessary evil.

In fact, they are often called spin doctors by the public at large – a pejorative term for sure. You’ll also hear journalists call PR ‘the dark side’ only half in jest. Episodes like the Bell Pottinger saga, and now BLJ Worldwide, merely reinforce the stereotype of PRs being the worst people on the planet – no matter how hard the rest of the industry tries to distance itself from such behaviour.

Sadly, the stereotypes are often true in PR. This is the conundrum, the worse an individual’s, or an organisation’s, reputation is the more money they make. And in this ultra-competitive industry, it’s really hard to walk away when someone comes and offers you a juicy retainer.

In the two examples given, both agencies were reportedly paid somewhere in the region of $500,000 to $1 million in fees. With those sort of numbers, you sometimes lose sight of the ethics involved. It is understandable, but not excusable.

Although even if you strip away the morality issues in play, if you simply look at the responsibility as business owners, not having a clearly defined set of business ethics can result in huge financial risks. And that is just not acceptable.

It is clear Bell Pottinger suffered hugely, from a financial perspective, after going after the short-term gain. Meanwhile, BLJ is unlikely to suffer such a large loss (going out of business), as the ‘sin’ isn’t as great. Nonetheless, brands that pride themselves on transparency and integrity might find it hard to work with them given this incident.

So how can agencies navigate the thin line between preserving their souls and making good margins? Here are some possible ideas.

First of all, set out of bounds markers clearly inside the agency on the type of clients you would automatically walk away from. For example, you would immediately turn down any organisations with terrorist links or any companies with a business model that looks like a scam. Personally, I have a problem with companies who deliberately market to children – and I would try to encourage them to target parents instead

Second, for organisations with poor reputations do your due diligence on the company culture before accepting them as clients. Many organisations may have bad reputations in many areas, but that often does not tell the whole story about them.

The Catholic Church, for instance, suffer from persistent accusations of cover ups over sexual abuse by priests. However, that doesn’t mean the organisation itself is inherently bad. But you would always need to know what its current culture is regarding such an issue before deciding if you would work with them.

Third, always examine the client’s goal thoroughly. Consider if it, in isolation, presents ethical issues. Even organisations with good reputations can sometimes ask agencies to do things that are less than noble.

There have been cases in the past where certain reputable organisations have asked us to help facilitate guanxi (unethical business arrangements) with their China partners, but that sometimes mean engaging in practices which we aren’t comfortable with. So we don’t do it, even at the risk of losing the client’s business.

Good PR agencies operate in shades of grey, because we understand that world better than anyone else. We don’t see things in absolute black and white.

But the code of ethics you operate by as an agency should be reflective, especially when it concerns global accounts where clients are represented in multiple industries and many markets. With campaigns crossing borders and cultures and the idiosyncrasies that brings, you have to be much more curious the motivations of some client request.

Losing sight of your ethics means losing your ability to do your job properly and that puts a business at huge financial and reputational risk. Do it right from the outset though and you rarely have to choose between your ethics or your bottom line.

A code of ethics is important, says Yeo

Edwin Yeo is the Singapore-based general manager at the Strategic Public Relations Group, a PR agency with offices across Asia


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