All of this year’s major events have had public relations implications - the June election, the Grenfell Tower fire, the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks - but unusually public relations itself made headline news on two occasions in 2017.
The Financial Times led with ‘Bell Pottinger expelled from PR body after South Africa race row’ (with the subheading ‘Blatant instance of unethical practice’) in early September.
This was a good day for Francis Ingham of the PRCA - the PR body named in the headline - who said in a PRCA statement:
“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions, and it has received the harshest possible sanctions. This outcome reflects the huge importance that the PRCA places on the protection of ethical standards in the business of PR and communications.”
This narrative was strengthened by the rapid collapse of Bell Pottinger’s global business - suggesting that being sanctioned by the PRCA and called out for unethical practice was bad for business.
I have no doubt that as soon as the complaint was lodged with the London-based PRCA by South Africa’s Democratic Alliance that some sanction was inevitable. How could the PRCA do otherwise?
What I don’t accept is that being sanctioned would necessarily directly impair a firm (or an individual) from doing business. There must have been deeper fault lines in the Bell Pottinger business than just that involving questions of ‘state capture’ and ‘white monopoly capital’ - questions that mattered intensely in South Africa but need not have overly concerned clients elsewhere in the world.
The major fault line appears to have been a feud between co-founder and former chairman Lord Bell and chief executive James Henderson, as explained by business journalist Andrew Cave writing in Corp Comms magazine.
This opened the question of the professional role of the PR adviser. Are we cabs for hire - like barristers - who must represent the next available client to the best of our ability (and within the law and with regard to ethical codes)? Or is the client-consultancy relationship different in public relations? Michael Skapinker explored this distinction in the Financial Times (subscription required):
‘Lord Bell defended his client list in an interview with the Financial Times in 2014. “Everyone’s entitled to put their point of view across,” he said.
‘Yes, but they do not necessarily need an expensive PR firm to do it for them. It would be unconscionable for a defendant to appear in a criminal court without a lawyer. But PR consultants are not lawyers. They do not have to obey the barrister’s “cab rank” rule. They can choose their clients.
‘There were enough worries about the Guptas when Bell Pottinger took them on in January 2016. The firm should have known this contract could prove toxic’.
The next time public relations made headline news, neither the PRCA nor the CIPR had much to say. This was when news broke of the death of Max Clifford - since he’d never been a member of either body.
There had been several attempts over many years to distance Max Clifford - a celebrity publicist - from professional public relations. Yet while the media persisted in calling him for comments on the industry, describing him as a PR guru, this distance never registered in the public imagination. After his death the headlines did mostly acknowledge the distinction and some media commentators acknowledged that Max Clifford was as much a media problem as a PR problem (see BBC media editor Amol Rajan’s indignant article ‘Max Clifford, king of fake news’).
So what links Bell Pottinger and Max Clifford? The easy answer is ethics - or perhaps the balancing act between ethics and money.
I see it slightly differently. I think these stories ask questions about professional competence - how to give the best advice to demanding clients (all clients are demanding, but working with celebrities and with wealthy oligarchs must take special skill).
A light is shone on this question by an end-of-year post by Brendon Craigie, co-founder of Tyto PR.
‘PR is in a rut. It wants to be seen as more strategic, but we are own worst enemy as most agencies are built on pyramid models bulked out at the bottom with account executives. We are creating a flatter, more senior structure because we want to have serious commercial business relationships with our clients. Not transactional tactical relationships.’
In other words, to be strategic PR practitioners have to give good advice and develop valued, trusting relationships.
This sounds like the agenda of Sarah Hall’s FuturePRoof project. She’s CIPR President in 2018.
The CIPR views Chartered Practitioners as the champions of this approach, and there seems to be momentum building behind chartered status.
I’d like to add my commendation of the new CIPR Diploma qualification (now the CIPR Professional PR Diploma). It was new a year ago, and is now running for the second year.
Where the assessments were previously academic (involving essay writing and a research-based project similar to a dissertation) they’re now much more applied - and more challenging.
Candidates now have to solve real world problems and recommend approaches based on evidence. Then they have to present their recommendations in a style likely to be acceptable to the senior management team.
Someone told me that the qualification is now focused on corporate communication. I think it resembles management consultancy.
Consider how different this approach is from the transactional focus described by Brendon Craigie. Consider how different strategic communication is from the publicity-at-all-costs approach exemplified by Poundland before Christmas.
Poundland stirred up a social media storm in a teacup by wilfully provoking outrage and then orchestrating a reaction to the outrage. I had thought that this behaviour should be ignored, but commend Paul Sutton for explaining, at length and with insight, just why this was a shoddy approach, inconsistent with the brand’s voice and values.
For more on the strategic communication role, I recommend a new book by the European team of researchers behind the European Communication Monitor, Communication Excellence, reviewed here.
And for a deeper analysis of ethics and professionalism that goes beyond the slavish acceptance of codes of conduct, I recommend this book published in a paperback edition this year.
Where does this leave us for 2018? I think there are two questions that need answering.
One: are you a tactical communicator or a transactional publicist, and are you capable of developing as a strategic consultant? (It’s a question for all of us, not just for them).
Two: with the CIPR celebrating its 70th anniversary, it’s a reminder that the PRCA split from the then IPR almost 50 years ago. Since there’s no longer any continuing distinction between a professional body representing individuals and a trade association representing consultancies, what’s the logic for this continued split?
Some tell me that the personalities involved make a reconciliation impossible. Others that the CIPR’s chartered status would be a stumbling block. I simply feel that if the UK can extricate itself from the European Union after four decades then the task of creating a united professional voice for public relations cannot be insuperable.
I do understand that it will involve quiet diplomacy rather than a public soapbox. Is that another task on Sarah Hall’s to do list?
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.