Feb 16

Saluting ethics in an unethical world

Next Wednesday evening I’ll be attending the Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communications 2018 awards dinner.

In case you may be unfamiliar with the Center, it was created in 2004 and dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communications and other forms of communication. In the span of 14 short years the Center, which is headquartered at Penn State University, has become an international leader in research on ethics and integrity in public communication. It’s funded more than 200 scholars and awarded more than $700,000 in research.

The awards dinner was created by the Page Center Advisory Board and named in honor of Larry Foster, a renowned communicator during his time as both as journalist and PR practitioner.

This year’s honorees are:

–      Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic

–      John Onoda, consultant for FleishmanHillard and Gagen MacDonald

–      The late PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifil

Denise Bortree, Page Center director and associate professor of public relations/advertising at Penn State said the awards dinner is intended to showcase professionals who established their integrity through challenging times and over long careers. “We hope their good work will help us promote ethical decision-making in our field today and in the future,” she said.

Funds raised from the event support innovative research by Page Center scholars who represent universities all over the world.

If you haven’t bought a seat (or better yet, a table), I strongly suggest you do so. If there’s one thing this world could use a whole lot more of it’s ethical behavior. Hats off to the Page Center’s board for establishing the Larry Foster Awards.

 

Feb 06

Morality is a job for priests. Not PR Men.

Anyone who toils in public relations or one day aspires to join our field MUST make it their business to read about the rise and fall of Bell Pottinger. This superb New York Times front page article will dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” for you.

Long story made short, Bell Pottinger, a 30-year-old, high profile player in the U.K. PR world shuttered its doors after a series of reprehensible programs it had concocted to stir racial strife in South Africa went very, very wrong and nearly tore the country apart.

The firm, founded by Tim Bell who helped Margaret Thatcher win three go-rounds as PM, had had a long, and checkered, career of representing very evil people and institutions. To wit:

  • Former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet.
  • Our very own Pentagon, for whom BP produced pro-US commercials that aired on Iraq TV soap operas during that never-ending war.
  • The three Gupta brothers.

The latter, who are rich beyond one’s wildest dreams, told Bell Pottinger executives they wanted the firm to enact a campaign in support of poor blacks in South Africa. Sounds innocent enough, right?

Bell Pottinger moved forward and created a “non-party political narrative around the issue of economic apartheid.” Needless to say, the word apartheid remains incendiary in a country that embraced it for centuries.

This time around, though, the victims of the economic apartheid campaign were South Africa’s white one-percenters. Thanks to BP, these totally legitimate business executives found themselves being singled out and crucified as the worst examples of what BP copywriters termed, “white monopoly capital.”

Things got so bad so quickly that the government was concerned the BP campaign could ignite a civil war.

But, Bell kept the campaign going even though, as Mr. Bell is quoted as saying, “It was altogether smelly.” Why? Because it was also immensely profitable: the Gupta boys were paying BP a cool monthly retainer of £100,000 a month.

And, at least in the beginning of the race-baiting campaign, BP had only experienced one client resignation.

Things quickly turned south when more and more radical black groups began springing up across the countryside intent on inflicting physical harm to any well-heeled white executive. Government investigations began and BP’s onerous role was made public.

Almost immediately, clients and employees began dropping like flies. The firm was barred from the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association (which is the kiss of death for any firm). And, as the late political talk show host, John Mclaughlin, was fond of saying, “Buh-bye.” BP went belly-up.

Bell Pottinger’s sordid tale of self-destruction should serve as a wake-up call to any agency that agrees to represent sketchy clients and governments. The short-term windfall will never offset the long-term image and reputational damage.

Post Script: In describing Bell Pottinger’s role in the South African race-baiting campaign, Francis Ingham, Director General of the aforementioned Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.”

How’d you like that as your legacy?

Tim Bell’s response? “Morality is a job for priests. Not PR men.”

It’s too bad PR doesn’t have a commissioner who can impose lifetime bans on people like Bell. Their very presence sullies an industry whose image is always in a quasi-shaky condition.

Feb 01

Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

I don’t know if you caught the rather tepid furor over Amazon’s decision to sell a line of products with the slogan, “Slavery Gets S**t Done.” That’s right, Amazon was selling baseball caps, T-shirts and a whole host of other products with that obscene slogan.

What puzzles me the most is this: How could a product line with such an obviously racist and offensive tagline possibly make its way up the corporate food chain at Amazon and EVER see the light of day?

I’m guessing the idea came from someone in either the in-house creative, merchandising or licensing groups. Then it would have had to make its way through the approval process that must have included a senior business unit executive and, I would hope, a trained legal counsel.

So, how could do many people be so deaf, dumb and blind? It truly defies logic.

Amazon yanked the offensive merchandise, but never apologized. Instead, they issued a terse statement that read, “The products in question are no longer available.” That’s like saying the gun that fired the bullets is no longer loaded.

With black history month kicking off Thursday, one would think a smart marketer would be extra sensitive to such a gaffe, but apparently not at Amazon.

Imagine if these other hateful, insensitive taglines were in the hopper at Amazon…would they, too, get through?

– “Bullying toughens you up. So suck it up.”

– “What’s a little nuclear war between friends?”

– “Africa is full of sh*thole countries”

Shame on Amazon and shame on the media for not giving this horrific incident more coverage. Neither got their s**t done.