A Threat To Public Relations – And An Opportunity

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As a practice, we are more divided than ever. It is not the skills we need or lack that divide us – ethics does.

It started some years ago with Dr Aleksandr Kogan’s research into human psychology and online behaviour. Dr Kogan is a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Psychology of University of Cambridge and, funnily enough, Dr Kogan also undertook work at St Petersburg University, Russia.

Dr Kogan worked extensively with SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. There are very few academics who can maintain their university positions without grants, research budgets and “test subjects”.

What better research grounds than testing behavioural and psychological theories using social media platforms, particularly Facebook? After all, Facebook’s algorithms gather so many data about us without our express permission or clear understanding of what we say “yes” to.

Public Relations / Communication has never been more powerful than it is today.

Social media’s constant algorithm improvement has led to an abundance of targeted and behaviour based specific propaganda and manipulation activities.

The Oxford Internet Institute’s report on “Challenging Truth and Trust: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” makes for a chilling read.

Prof Howard, one of the authors of this Report, estimates that “tens of millions of dollars are spent on this [ social media manipulation] type of activity”.

Our personal data contributes to what we call today ‘big data’. And there is a ferocious market out there, with many opinion research, marketing and social media companies competing to sell our information to the highest bidder.

Six months before Bell Pottinger was expelled by PRCA, I wrote an article for CIPR’s Influence (March 2017). In it, I argued that character and ethics should matter much more than skills do in Public Relations and that:

Our moral values, psychological drivers, beliefs and interpretation of various ‘fight or flight’ circumstances can be all encompassed in one word: ethics. The landscape we work in, both nationally and internationally, is complex: political and personal agendas, insider information and whistleblowing, issues and crisis, bribery and corruption, corporate manslaughter and risk management.


If we don’t have the right attitude to deal with complex issues and use our moral (behavioural and ethical) compass, the skills we have won’t get us very far. What we should strive for is trust and respect: trust that we know what we’re doing and respect that we have done it appropriately.


We need ethics, character and the right behaviour in Public Relations – we can teach the rest.

When Influence published the article above, it was criticised by someone who, funnily enough, is now a member of one of UK’s PR membership bodies’ Disciplinary Committees. This person’s views were that skills in PR and Comms trump everything else – I wonder if their views changed over the last two years …

As a practice, “we are going to become more fractured, to such an extent that in a few years’ time, Public Relations as we know it will cease to exist or be called something else completely different”.

This is what the Global PR Director of an international business told me last week. And I tend to believe it.

Membership bodies are quick to condemn any signs of astroturfing, whitewashing, unethical behaviours; they do these, generally, once the media runs with a story or clients/members raise a complaint against an agency or practitioner.

Bell Pottinger will have still probably retained its PRCA membership if it hadn’t caused (read “got caught”) such a scandal in South Africa, and the UK media, including politicians, hadn’t become involved.

Accounts from past Bell Pottinger (BP) employees speak of years of wholly unethical practices, subversive activities and war propaganda that BP was involved in. If I am permitted a comparison, it’s pretty much like the case of the wife who’s constantly being cheated on by her husband – everyone knows it only she doesn’t (or chooses not to admit it).

But Bell Pottinger is hardly alone in this ethical quagmire. The destabilising power of those who are very good at what they do (whether we like it or not) in the world of PR and Comms has never been so strong nor their reach so high.

We seem to hear/read about more and more agencies which simply appear not to care anymore whether what they do is right or it is for the right reasons:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudis-hire-worlds-biggest-pr-firm-push-muslim-nato

https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/05/30/the-north-face-axes-unethical-wikipedia-product-placement-campaign-leo-burnett
https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/05/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior-from-israel/
https://www.prweek.com/article/1593097/jack-irvine-astroturfing-widespread-pr-tactic-used-larger-agencies
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/01/revealed-johnson-allys-firm-secretly-ran-facebook-propaganda-network
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/08/monsanto-roundup-journalist-documents
https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2019/05/09/fichier-monsanto-des-dizaines-de-personnalites-classees-illegalement-selon-leur-position-sur-le-glyphosate_5460190_3244.html

And these are just some examples – we know there are many more.

What puzzles me is the silence … or the lack of “voice” coming from very senior PR/Comms office holders.

While our membership bodies do try and respond/engage in the ethical debates we have online and offline, we see almost no champions of ethics and responsibility from the large corporations’ PR, Comms, Corporate Affairs departments.

If you happen to see a Head of Comms/PR in a multinational organisation (especially one listed on the stock exchange) who has publicly come out and condemned unethical practices in PR and Comms or simply said “this is not what PR/Comms is about” or “this should never happen” etc., do let me know.

Their silence is deafening. But why are these “look up to me” individuals silent? Which one of these (if any or any combination thereof) applies to them?

  • I couldn’t care less
  • I’m too busy to care
  • Why should I get involved?
  • What if I get caught?
  • It has nothing to do with me

Membership organisations bring the numbers – they’re yet to ignite the passion that can mobilise and motivate our practice across the world to behave ethically, responsibly and professionally.

Social media platforms are a manna from heaven for both “good” and “bad” PR/Comms practitioners, for Governments and extremists, for trolls and abusers, for communities of practice and purpose, for friends and foes. What they are primed for most is digital manipulation.

Are we so fragmented as a practice that instead of coming all together to condemn unethical practices in our line of work, most of us don’t care, while others can’t be bothered? Are we so divided that those who keep on shouting out loud are being called idealists for believing in a utopia?

Is it that you and I should mind our business and not comment on or condemn “how PR people choose to make their money” (as a now-deleted tweet from a PR veteran read only several days days ago)?

When state capture and state destabilisation, including election fraud and data manipulation, were so much a part of the Brexit Referendum, South Africa’s corruption scandals, and the latest US Presidential election, and also “accepted” as a reality of our time, are we witnessing the rise of unethical PR and Comms practices as the new “standard” of our services?


Photo credit – Eliska Motisova, Unsplash

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