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Post-Bell Pottinger public relations must focus on its own reputation

Stephen Waddington is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum and visiting professor at Newcastle University.

The public relations business has shown itself able to self-regulate in the last month but it still has work to do to improve its own reputation.

The mood of the recent PRCA annual conference was bullish. The public relations business is confident and optimistic.

It’s a stark contrast to the uncertainty in UK society created by Brexit, a bungled general election, and the Trump administration.

But that’s the point made at the PRCA Conference by my colleague and Ketchum deputy chief executive UK Jo-ann Robertson.

“Public relations is well placed to support organisations seeking to navigate an uncertain future,” she said.

Francis Ingham opened the event celebrating 10 years as director general of the PRCA.

Under his leadership the organisation has seen consecutive year-on-year growth, and established an international reputation.

In the last 12 months, 31 in-house members and 43 agencies have joined the PRCA. Four years ago it was appointed as the secretariat for ICCO.

Self-regulation of public relations practice

Talk inevitably turned to Bell Pottinger. The PRCA expelled the agency at the beginning of September following its work for Oakbay Investment in South Africa.

In reaching its decision, the PRCA found that the agency had run a campaign that "was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa”.

Bell Pottinger was placed into administration eight days following the PRCA dismissal after clients fled the 32-year-old firm.

Ingham told the conference that he’d never felt the burden or the privilege of leading the PRCA more than in the last few weeks.

“Anyone who thinks that I enjoyed the expulsion of Bell Pottinger is a fool. I feel incredibly sorry for the people [employed by the agency],” he said.

The Bell Pottinger scandal hit the national and international media. It’s the biggest story in public relations since former publicist Max Clifford was jailed in 2014 for sexual assault.

The front page scandal has done nothing to help the reputation of the public relations profession but the decisive action by the PRCA shows that it isn’t afraid of dealing with bad practice.

The Bell Pottinger case sets an important precedent. PRCA members will be held to account by its ethical code. Agencies that aren’t members need to be able to justify their position.

The challenge for our profession is to not to let itself be defined by scandals such as Bell Pottinger and Clifford.

Public relations for public relations

Where the Bell Pottinger story is concerned, journalists have inevitability focused on traditional media relations in explaining the role of public relations.

Modern public relations is so much more but an antagonistic relationship with traditional media means our story seldom breaks through to the business community or general public.

The role of public relations in engaging with the public during a crisis, or engaging employees to deliver excellent customer service, gets little air time.

They need to hear Amanda Coleman’s story to the PRCA conference. She’s head of corporate communications for the Manchester Metropolitan Police.

Amanda spoke to the PRCA Conference about how her team worked with the family of victims, the media and the public; after the bombing at Manchester Arena in May.

They also need to hear Jennifer Thomas’ story. She’s head of internal communications and experience, at Direct Line Group

Jennifer explained the link between internal communications, staff motivation, productivity and business performance.

The public relations industry has failed to explain the role of modern public relations practice to the business community, and the general public.

We need advocates that are able to communicate with the media, and the general public. I suggest this ought to be a mission for anybody representing our business.

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