Bell Pottinger: The Choices We Make Matter – Ethics & Integrity in PR


“Morality is a job for priests,” Bell Pottinger, co-founder Tim Bell was quoted as saying in The New York Times. “Not P.R. men.”

While there’s an argument to be made that everyone deserves to be represented, morality, ethics and integrity, clearly do have a role to play in PR and communications.

In response to The New York Times’ detailed analysis of the failure of Bell Pottinger, Anthony D’Angelo, chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), highlighted the industry’s focus on ethical behaviors and practices, and rightly made the point that the PR industry is not Bell Pottinger.

As a cautionary tale, the company’s story underscores that when it comes to integrity and ethics, and let us not forget clients, our choices matter.

It’s also an opportunity to step back and remind ourselves that what we do is driven largely by incentives, both positive and negative, and shaped by behaviors we may not always fully-recognize.

Put simply, making a lot of money is a powerful incentive. Going to jail is a powerful disincentive.

The decisions most of us make may not be as stark. But that does not mean they aren’t consequential.

The other big recent New York Times communications-related story, “The Follower Factory,” a powerful exposé of social media’s black market in followers, is a case in point.

In an industry where “popularity” is a metric of success and ultimately for influencers – dollars, the incentive to increase followers is strong.

Since, buying followers isn’t illegal, it’s perhaps no surprise that The Times reported celebrities, government officials, companies and communicators acting on their behalf had purchased them. Naming names, buyers scurried out of the limelight, reminding us of the adage, “Sunlight is a great disinfectant.”

The story reveals just how easy it is to start down the slippery slope of questionable decisions, especially when justified by the idea that others are doing the same thing.

While it may be easy to take the moral high-ground, it is important to acknowledge that making bad choices when money is involved is all too human.

In an article, “Tunnels & Funnels: Why We Make Bad Decisions & How We Can Make Better Ones,” I highlight an excellent podcast by the Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vedantam in which he shares perspective on why people make bad financial decisions when they are in debt.

The “scarcity trap” – in this case the need for money – drives us into tunnels, in which our view of the world narrows because we are chasing a specific objective.

When we talk about money clouding decisions, it’s the scarcity principle kicking in. But rather than the decisions being obscured by fog, it’s the evolutionary-driven focus on our prey (money) that precludes us from seeing the bigger picture.

This can never be an excuse for doing the wrong thing. By understanding these behaviors, we have the opportunity to step back and look holistically at the decisions we are making.

When it comes to acting with integrity or ethically this is critical.

It’s one of the reasons why the simple idea of asking how something would look on the front page of The Wall Street Journal is so powerful.

It’s an intellectual jolt that forces us to look at decisions from another’s perspective. Thinking about the WSJ also helps us frame them in the context of consequences.

If we learn anything from Bell Pottinger it should be that smart people just like us can make very bad decisions. And that incentives – generally, money – may result in us losing perspective and moral direction.

Although, we may not always recognize the forces leading us astray, we all have the ability to stop, step back and seek guidance from our colleagues, peers or associations to decide if what we are doing is ethical or right.

Ultimately, we own our choices.

Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch


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