Ethics is a topic that is often overlooked in corporate communications. Citing the Mengelola Etika dalam Bisnis (Managing Ethics in Business) book published by the Indonesia Business Links Foundation in 2006, Ethics are principles or standards that govern the behavior of communities, groups, organizations and individuals. Furthermore, it is said that ethics is more than morality, which is a judgment of good and bad, right and wrong.
Ethics is even more than law, because it is a combination of standards of behavior established by law, societal values, business rules and standard norms. It may be that an action is not considered a violation of the law, but it is unethical.
The guidelines above also state what is considered unethical in the business world, such as: violation of international or local laws, violation of an organization’s values and code of ethics, deceptive behavior, deliberate breach of a promise or agreement, etc. Management skills and business ethics are two inseparable things. The repercussions can be fatal to the company if ignored.
As experienced by a leading public relations company headquartered in London, Bell Pottinger. A major project acquired in early 2016 marked the start of a disaster that ended the company’s journey on September 12, 2017, after nineteen years of existence since 1998.
A South African company called Oakbay Investments contracted Bell Pottinger on a retainer for £100,000 per month (the equivalent of nearly Rp2 billion). Oakbay belonged to the three Gupta brothers who were known to be close to the then President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. The company received a lot of orders and the owner was very rich. Then in April 2018 President Zuma became a corruption convict.
Initially, the Bell Pottinger-Oakbay project was intended solely for corporate communications activities, including reputation management. This activity in September 2016 developed into a political campaign. Political campaigns are inherently common, although of course risky. What becomes a national problem is the campaign theme and the methods used. Using provocative language and spreading hatred, Bell Pottinger took the theme: “White Monopoly” ruled the South African economy, while most of the population lived in poverty.
The campaign run by Bell Pottinger created tension between the races. Racial unrest in South Africa was fueled by a campaign directed by Bell Pottinger. Social media is being used very actively, among others by creating more than a hundred Twitter accounts to retweet content from other Twitter accounts whose hashtags are planned and are heavily racist. Not to mention the various websites that are deliberately opened for the same purpose as the support of the Gupta family’s print and television media.
Clients sensed Bell Pottinger’s involvement in creating social tensions in South Africa and began canceling their contracts. The Board of Directors tried to resolve the situation by asking an international law firm to conduct independent research. The firm confirmed the ethical violations and negligence of the Board of Directors in establishing procedures and internal controls. The recommendations given in July 2017 included forming a committee to evaluate new clients, especially those with potential risks; train employees and leaders about social media; establish an ethics commission and provide ethics training for employees; and fostering a culture in which even junior employees can question assignments that make them uncomfortable.
Bell Pottinger’s CEO agreed to implement the recommendations, but it was too late. Large shareholders began to give up ownership, clients terminated contracts, and employees left. On September 4, 2017, the British association of PR and communications companies, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) dismissed Bell Pottinger from membership on the grounds that it violated the organization’s Code of Conduct and was unprofessional and thus damaged the reputation of the PR industry. Bell Pottinger was later declared bankrupt and forced out of business.
The actions of one unit at Bell Pottinger that ultimately destroyed the company fell into the spinning category, which until the early 1990s was considered one of the PR masters. Spinning is an attempt to find publications in any way and override the truth factor. It is this approach that has damaged the reputation of the profession and public relations activities.
Chairman & Chief Consultant, Kiroyan Partners
This article has been published in PR Indonesia magazine 38th Edition, issued on May 2018, page 55.
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