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Why ethics in public relations help defuse trust deficit

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Public Relations with Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

The advice that public relations (PR) practitioners communicate to clients is that ethical behaviour should be the hallmark of all their dealings. It is not the business of PR to whitewash irresponsible corporate behaviour. This also applies to professionals on the company payroll.

PR has to adopt the position of being the conscience of an organisation.

History is replete with consultancies that have either fallen out of favour or were disbarred because of unethical practice. The Bell Pottinger saga quickly comes to mind. In 2016, the firm took on a dubious client, the Gupta family of South Africa.

It hewed a social media campaign whose goal was to exploit racial tension in South Africa to further its client’s agenda. Details of the campaign leaked, and the fallout led to the firm’s demise.

The influential Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) expelled the once celebrated global PR company for its part in stirring racial tensions in South Africa. Its chair, the late Lord Tim Bell, was former communication adviser to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The company he formed no longer exists.

PR practitioners often clean up the battered image of the polecats of this world. I refer to this kind of assignment as akin to putting lipstick on a frog. No matter how hard you try to spruce a frog up, it will remain ugly.

The challenge faced by PR professionals is they find that companies are very conservative in exposing their inner workings to the public. The dynamics that surround access to and calculated restriction of information in organisations remain little understood. Information is power, but they perceive it as an area of high risk, particularly when dealing with so-called industrial secrets.

However, PR practitioners, like lawyers, never lose the opportunity to make the best of a dangerous situation. We expect them to manage the public scrutiny expected because of a crisis without compromising the very survival of the organisation.

It is in their best interest to be part of the process of recovery, particularly when a client accepts that they have done wrong and that it would be best that they show remorse or contrition to win their way back into the hearts and minds of a sceptical public.

We have seen how big corporations such a BP (after the forgettable Deep Horizon oil spill) and the likes of KFC (on accusations of racism) have worked hard to recover damaged reputations, often at a very high cost bordering on millions of dollars.

While we accept that the responsibility for an organisation’s reputation lives with the CEO, it is the timely counsel of the internal or contracted PR professional that should guide the process. Making sure that PR’s image is beyond reproach while doing this sits squarely on the shoulders of the professional.

Writing in the influential Arthur W. Page Society blog, José Antonio Llorente, founding partner and CEO of Llorente & Cuenca, one of the leading communications consultancies in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, says that the reputation of PR experts is at stake, looking at the trust society has placed on their role.

“Trust is a delicate and valuable thing we need to nurture, protect and defend with determination,” he writes.

The challenges facing the PR profession increase with the fast-changing communication landscape brought about by technological advances. One can understand why CEOs remain wary of innovations that expose them to unwanted scrutiny by an increasingly critical audience.

The growth of a pervasive social media and the necessity for organisations to enter and inhabit these new online spaces have come with the realisation that online anonymity can be tricky.

“’Bad actors can take advantage of this freedom to target us, using and misleading us for their own purposes and deceitfully influencing our opinions,” cautions Llorente.

We cannot ignore the negative impact of fake news, leaks and misinformation on organisations. However, it is not every reputational challenge a structured and well-meaning crisis strategy can tackle. It is important that an organisation ensures that it behaves ethically whether in the public eye or “under the radar”.

Behaving ethically should be one of those values company executives should hold dear, anyway. As an integral part of an organisation’s management team, PR’s role remains one that helps build mutual understanding with stakeholders.

Llorente advises that PR practitioners, when safeguarding their clients’ reputations, should perform their roles with honesty and transparency based on facts and opinions, without using deceit or device, and without invading spaces reserved for confidential interactions.

Apart from thriving to be beyond reproach for ethical behaviour, it is the responsibility of PR practitioners, as legitimate moderators in the relationships between communities, companies and people, to be the embodiment of trust in the organisations they work with.

Lenox Mhlanga is managing consultant at Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique public relations consultancy that provides strategic communication counsel, reputational, image as well as risk management services. They also manage digital platforms for clients. Contact: [email protected] Mobile: 0772 400 656

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