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The Ethics of PR: Choosing the Right Clients, Making a Positive Impact and Enabling Change

Karena Crerar quote


Across the globe, the leadership of public relations entities face an unenviable balancing act. You want to take on more work, watch your revenue grow and expand your footprint. Yet at the same time, there is a very personal, moral obligation to minimise harm and positively impact society. 

Client choice is often at the centre of this quandary, and we can never underestimate the importance of due diligence. Be considered in pitching for potentially lucrative contracts, even if you believe there to be no red flags at a perceptual level.  As much as it may be tempting to rationalise the work based on the potential financial gain, there was no way to maintain our sense of morality, both personally and as a business. 

That is not to say that potentially controversial clients should always be struck from the list, but when allegations relate to anything that goes against our core values, our reputation and peace of mind come first. A business must set its own limits, and that can include opting to not service entire industries. PR leadership must be stringent in maintaining these rules to ensure a cohesive, consistent corporate identity. 

Edelman’s Trust Barometer report from earlier this year, A World in Trauma, has shown that society is looking at business leadership in a new way – expecting corporate entities to always be pushing for good. Naturally, the same goes for the world of PR, possibly more so due to the public nature of our work. 71% of South Africans surveyed believe the country can’t overcome its challenges (such as job creation or the COVID-19 pandemic recovery) without the involvement of corporates. Yet these massive expectations must be met through a sense of altruism, not simply for reputational gain. 

As the report shows, transparency, authenticity and positive impact are craved by the South African public, the same public that ultimately proved to be the downfall of Bell Pottinger.

It is because of this, that even when our existing clients have reputational issues, transparency and honesty are central to our response. Acknowledge the damage done, if you can’t reverse it, mitigate it, and ultimately take action to change internal behaviours. Beyond this, it is up to a brand to use its influence to change the same negative behaviours within the communities it affects and ideally, society at large. 

Even though we expect our clients to be influencers and role models, the PR sector must be equally purpose driven. Edelman and its parent company, DJE Holdings, have spent decades refining their own code of conduct to ensure that we have an overall net-positive impact in everything we do. 

Honesty, transparency, fair dealing, diversity, equity and inclusion are all central pillars to our operations. 

In Africa, these values are going to be at the core of transforming our industry for the better, allowing a more diverse and quite frankly, more authentic, set of viewpoints and changing the way in which we do business on the continent. We have an ethical obligation to evolve our industry, move away from the ways that perpetuated power imbalances, and do what we can to build genuine trust in our clients – and ourselves. 

Because building trust is at the heart of what we do.