Reputation. It’s what elite strategic communications and public affairs strategists protect for their clients. Lucratively, so.  As a result, firms continue to aggressively compete to gobble up this profitable service line. Sovereign representation has long been seen as possessing a unique industry niche with the greatest financial reward in the space but also coming with significant risk.

Most recently, the British communications firm, Bell Pottinger was expelled by PRCA, the UK’s PR trade association for its work on behalf of Oakbay Capital, the holding group controlled by the Gupta family, which enjoys close ties to South African President Jacob Zuma.  Specifically, Bell Pottinger’s work on behalf of Oakbay has been alleged to sow racial divisions.

The fallout to Bell Pottinger has been steep, which begs the question: does the public relations industry need to tighten up its ethics standards or does the reputational hit that public outcry causes organically translating to adverse market consequences satisfy?

Over the years many firms have represented governments, heads of state, high net worth individuals or ruling families that might be deemed less than benign in the public eye.  Business judgments made by firms or individual practitioners must navigate the need to generate revenue while balancing the potential reputational damage from representing such clients.

It certainly was not a secret that Bell Pottinger represented Oakbay.  But the allegations of race baiting only came out as a result of a business dispute. The public relations industry must have strong ethics guidelines but just like any other profession there will always be a small segment of the industry that is willing to live with the reputational stain of associating with unctuous activity in exchange for financial upside.

Public relations operatives are not lawyers.  We are not bound by the same legal requirements.  Yet, potential clients deserve a right to communications counsel, based on best practices.  It is up the individual firm to conduct the appropriate due diligence to determine whether or not the assignment is worth undertaking.  To a certain extent, firms must apply the precise skill set that they would on behalf of a client when making a potential client evaluation.

Some will not think through the consequences.  Digital media and sleuthing reporters will do that for them.  And then the market will mete out the punishment in the form of boycotts, dropped clients and negative press.  Reputation.  It’s what lesser strategic communications and public affairs strategists must protect for their clients, but often fail to protect for themselves.

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