Throwing stones at hyenas

The ethics of PR in developing markets


I run Grayling’s office in Nairobi.  We are a PR consultancy working for a mix of multinational firms and local Kenyan organisations operating throughout sub-Saharan Africa, so I can only give a view on the ethics of working in these markets.

When considering the ethical PR scene here, my perception is that there are two worlds in operation.  The first world is where many PR practitioners dwell.  It is the same environment you would encounter in Europe or the US:  you pitch for business competitively and win or lose fair and square; you sell in stories to the media which are used or not on their merit; you have meetings with politicians which are open and transparent and the only thing that changes hands is information.


Then there is another world which is much talked about.  Behind the baize door there is a dimly lit, smoke filled place where PR practitioners talk openly about brown envelopes for the reporters and fatter blue envelopes for the editors that are needed to secure media coverage.

There are frequent tales of bribes to win new business pitches or to quash some irritating legislation by paying off politicians.  Highly aggressive personal attacks on business rivals or media stories placed that are less than honest are all activities I frequently hear people speak of as part of doing PR in this market.

The fact that this other world is talked about so much and so openly leads me to the conclusion that it is fairly commonplace.  It would be naïve to assume otherwise, though I have never encountered it personally.  But perhaps that is because I am not open to engage with this milieu and don’t respond to any cues to do so.

In additional to moral and ethical considerations, as a multinational firm we are bound by the UK Bribery Act which dictates what we can and cannot do under the law.  The majority of PR practitioners abide by the highest standards of ethics in this market.  African people are very proud and rightly concerned by the perception that this continent operates to low governance standards in all areas – not just PR.  They are very keen to mitigate the perception of corruption and the impact it has on global rankings, which influence levels of investment from overseas.

So in my experience, certain standards here are applied – and are seen to be applied – far more rigorously than in developed markets as there is the issue of national pride at play and the need to demonstrate that Africa operates to the same global standards as you would find anywhere.

The very fact that I have been asked to write a post on the ethics of PR in developing markets reflects the often unfair assumption that PR is always ethically challenged in developing markets.  The PR community here is very sensitive to this negative perception of ethical practice in African countries and is very committed to avoiding behaviours that are wrong, unethical and lacking transparency and integrity.

Standards of ethical practice have increased as more PR practitioners have Board level involvement in the organisations they advise.  Professionally trained and qualified communications professionals are increasingly in the room to keep things honest when communications messages and strategies are being considered at Board level. Much of this happens during a crisis situation, however communications professionals are also identifying and providing counsel on potential ethical issues as part of reputation management.  This involves PR professionals in the fundamentals, when the business is looking at setting its ethical behaviour and policies, beyond solely advising at the points of crises.

East Africa’s PR professionals are increasingly taking a stand at the highest levels in the workplace to do the right thing and abide by the standards set by our national and international professional bodies as well as all our own corporate governance guidelines and, most critically, our own personal moral compasses.

The commitment to global ethical standards was nicely summed up at a gathering of PR professionals recently with this very African parable:  A boy asked his father what to do it a hyena is threatening him – should he throw meat at it or stones? The father’s advice was to throw stones as it will go away.  If you throw meat, it will come back and want more and when you don’t have it he will eat your hand and then all of you.

The PR profession here refuses to feed the hyenas that damage Africa’s reputation in the world.  We operate to global governance standards.  In fact, often to even more rigorous standards and levels of transparency due to the need to demonstrate that Africa is not the unregulated free for all that those in developed nations often assume it to be.

By Christopher Genasi

Managing Director of Grayling Kenya Limited.

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Finding the courage to unmask the clowns

It’s Halloween, so there will be a few spectres on the prowl tonight. As for us, practitioners charged with building and sustaining the relationships our organisations need to maintain their licence to operate, I wonder if we are looking hard enough, beyond the shadows of current behaviour, into the future of ethical behaviour in public relations practice.

Globally, it’s fair to say that it’s been a year of muddy operational waters, increasingly polluted by the language of fear drip fed around the world and punctuated by a variety of scary international clowns. Kindness, tolerance and basic humanity are – seemingly – in short supply. The old adage of ‘love thy neighbour’ appears to have been replaced by ‘stir up and package as much hate and intolerance as you can’.


While #EthicsFest has provided insights into approaches and practice and it is helpful for everyone to see how ethical codes can be applied as ‘living documents’, I wonder how equipped we are to tackle the ethical challenges ahead – data collection (manipulation and misuse), artificial intelligence and the rule of algorithm, cyber conflicts and the management of human-robotic relations to name but a few.

Such challenges may seem absurdly removed from our current reality – ghosts from futures yet to come – but even five years ago, today’s ethical challenges concerning social media, online engagement and abuse of technology were yesterday’s scary clowns.

Internationally, ethical codes and guides are being revisited. The Global Alliance is currently reviewing its protocols, Finland has recently launched a Council of Ethics for Communication and other countries around the world are involved in their own discussions. The commonality for every code or protocol is our behaviour, with – to echo Finland’s approach – honesty, respect and reliability at the heart of the recommendations.

Yet I wonder if that’s enough. We can behave well, we can operate with good intentions but if we are not completely in the picture, if we don’t have all the information, if we fail to properly assess the operational environment we both inhabit and are moving towards we will be working in isolation, unable to encourage the development of good organisational behaviour or advocate on behalf of our internal and external communities.

Ethical practice demands that we hone our skills, develop our knowledge and abilities. It also demands that we should ask the hard questions, challenge the organisations we work for and apply our minds to developing organisational behaviours that work towards societal good.

Truly ethical practice demands courage. The courage to question and challenge, investigate and explore. It is perhaps the most important virtue a practitioner can possess as it equips us with the ability to stand up for what is right and be consistent in our application of values such as honesty, respect and reliability. As we review our codes, courage should be the stitching that holds them together and, sufficiently equipped, we can unmask the clowns and disperse the shadows.

By Catherine Arrow.

Catherine Arrow is an international public relations consultant, educator and writer. Immediate Past Secretary of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Catherine is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a Founding Chartered Public Relations Practitioner and a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ).


For many years she has been deeply involved in professional development design and provision, sharing knowledge and skills with fellow practitioners across all competencies, including digital engagement, issues and crisis management, research, measurement and evaluation. She was instrumental in establishing regional public relations training provision in the UK and also designed, developed and introduced the PRINZ RIVER Continuing Professional Development programme in NZ.  Catherine is currently involved in the review of the Global Alliance Ethics Protocol and social media guidelines for New Zealand practitioners.


Alongside her own consultancy, Unlocked PR, she lectures and speaks about public relations in New Zealand and around the world. Her career has spanned both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and in 2012, she was presented with the PRINZ President’s Award for exemplary contribution to the profession.

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Working in the Middle East

Due to the multi-cultural nature of the region, the importance of international trade and the significant difference in education levels – many of the ethical issues presented in the CIPR Code of Conduct can be closely linked to local laws. In fact if you are in breach of one, in some cases you are almost certainly in breach of the other…


This makes sense to have everything laid out in black and white if you consider that two people from different cultures may be conducting business in a third nation.


Accordingly, when you are coming to the region to live and work, the first thing to appreciate is there are some extremely serious implications for ‘mistakes’ including significant fines, jail and eventual deportation.


Taking publicity photography without the subjects express approval for example, may be an ethical problem in the UK. In some GCC countries it is a crime.


Potentially this can result in a GBP100,000 fine, six months in jail and deportation – even should the subject decide to remove their case at a later stage.Merely taking or storing the image could be sufficient cause for a case to be filed.


Anyone entering the region with a sincere intention to work or do business must therefore take time to study the various press and privacy laws that apply and vary from country to country, as well as labour and trade licensing regulations.


One of the most common ethical problems not explicitly covered by law is the issue of gift-giving for influencers. This is a complex issue and there is a strong tradition in the Middle East – and other developing parts of the world – to offer gifts as part of etiquette.


It must also be noted that given the five to seven star status of so many properties and activities, its practically impossible not to offer an item or experience that would not generate a chorus of ‘tut-tutselsewhere.


One argument which Ive frequently heard is that the host can offer any gift they like, and the recipient can always refuse or return it privately at the end of the event. Some press will donate valuable gifts to charity and in at least one publishing house there is a box for unwanted gifts which everyone can drop off or take from depending on their need, including office staff and cleaners.


In my experience hosts quickly realise that their hospitality is being abused when expensive gifts are taken by ‘non-influencers’ and that multiple packs are collected by guests who are taking one or more back to their friend/publisher/editor in chief in the office who sadly couldnt attend.


Also, whereas it is almost impossible to determine the effect of the gift-giving on the coverage (if that was the intention) – the process of damage control from offending someone who didn’t attend and receive their gift will begin even before the press briefing has started. In fact some highly influential people will contact your speaker directly, potentially distracting them at a critical stage.


To test the intentions of your client, you may wish to develop a strategy that goes far beyond the value of the gifts initially proposed. You can recommend a private jet to take media representatives to one of the local desert island resorts, an UBER helicopter pick-up to the press conference or something equally as extravagant.


No-one has ever taken one of these ideas up (at least from me) but it does allow you to raise important questions such as the objective of the gift-giving – is it for influence or is it sincerely for cultural reasons. 


Giving expensive gifts is steeped in rich culture and it might be impossible to divert your client from this course. Taking a pragmatic approach and letting things roll can be a necessary education.


After you have been here a few months and got to grips with what you can and can’t do or challenge, you will be ready to continue developing your skills. And one of the best things about the Middle East is that you can benefit from a wealth of knowledge transfer and receive real rewards for advancing your abilities.


There is a genuine thirst for knowledge in the region and a respect for true experts. There are also very attractive financial incentives from employers who seek qualified practitioners. A recognised Master’s degree automatically confers a higher salary in many government positions for example.


Multinational networks regularly hold training events for their staff, clients and for the wider industry. And even the smaller boutique agencies are happy to engage and share knowledge as part of their marketing activities.


Labour laws are another attraction for expatriates coming to work here. They convey a number of rights and benefits with the employer assuming many expenses including eventual repatriation expenses, visas, medical fees and health insurance. In my experience officials at all levels are extremely vigilant and will proactively offer advice or highlight a possible breach of rights.


These laws benefit both parties and are meant to reward the individual for loyalty and the employer for developing talent.


There are also some significant legal issues to consider when contemplating a change of workplace after you have arrived.


When moving jobs it may be necessary to request a No-Objection Certificate from your current employer. There are also provisions within labour laws that may prevent you from working with competitors for several months. In theory this prevents staff from job-hopping or from walking out and taking client lists or other confidential information with them. 


It is also common for people to wear “multiple hats” and in some countries its legal to hold second jobs, or even to own your own company whilst sitting in another office 9-5. You must obtain a No Objection Certificate from your employer first and permission from the appropriate Ministry.


Accordingly its very unusual for a conflict of interest to cause an offence that could breach any of the relevant elements of CIPR’s Code. 


The strength of the legal process in the region makes ethics in many cases an issue for the Courts. Accordingly the CIPR Code of Conduct provides an excellent resource to turn to in the first instance and can prevent you from making some very serious and life-changing mistakes.


In the areas that aren’t covered, ethics becomes more difficult as you are potentially facing cultural issues that have been in place for centuries. In which case it’s generally best to take a really deep breath, bite your tongue and reflect deeply before questioning someone else’s heritage and view of the world – especially when you are a guest in their country.

By Steve King.

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Ethical considerations for working in the Middle East

Before entering into any observations on right or wrong – I’m extremely aware that I’m an outsider in the Middle East. This is not my ‘home’, even though I’ve lived here for the past 14 years.


Steve King, CIPR International Committee Member

Also as PR practitioners we should all be professionally critical – and cynical even – of what we see and read in the popular press. If the international media will report what US and British politicians say without question – how likely are they to offer credible reportage on a part of the world that is both mysterious and a ‘million’ miles away.

With that in mind I ask you to forget everything you know or think you know that you may have learned from third party sources. And if you haven’t been to the region and seen for yourself – you really should, it’s quite an amazing place.

Let me put a couple of things in context. When I lived in the UK I was always anxious that two in three of my childhood friends came from broken marriages.

Coming into the region I met with a large number of young people from Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Out of all my friends with whom I would play volleyball on the beach or sing karaoke with after work, I would learn that two out of three had been shot at or had lived in an active war zone.

Where some ‘friends’ in the UK would boast about how they managed to run and hide from the ‘5-0’ for tipping over dustbins, the story that haunts me still is of how one of my young female colleagues and friends had teased and evaded the Israeli armed police somewhere near their national border.

And then think how you might discuss professional standards with a young account executive who is trying to find a satellite phone to so she can contact her family in Iraq – when you are sitting next to her knowing that your country is in the Gulf firing the missiles that are putting her parents in danger.

The ethical issues developed to address issues in the UK or Europe should therefore be applied with deep respect for what is happening here, today – as well as in context with the rich local history and culture. This is especially the case when you are faced with dealing with stakeholders in this very ‘difficult neighbourhood’ – and you are asked to advise between a bad or terrible option, where lives and not lifestyles are at risk.

And this in a nutshell is the challenge when trying to introduce alien standards – some would argue double-standards – into a region which has centuries of issues and its own way of managing and dealing with them.

So when outsiders consider the ‘wealth’ of the GCC and rush to criticise for largesse of the extravagant launch parties, gifts and receptions – or even the blurry lines between advertising and editorial – we may reflect that the peoples are potentially doing no more than mirroring what they see on TMZ or in the Financial Times, and simply making hay whilst the sun shines.

And although it’s almost always sunny – when it does rain, it’s truly devastating.

By Steve King.




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Brown-envelope journalism and the practice of paying for column inches

I’ve just set my alarm for the third and final US presidential debate. I can’t wait.

Being based in the UK, this does mean waking up at 2am and losing an hour and a half of sleep on a school night but having gone through this process for the first two debates, I know it’s worth it. It’s easily some of the best television I’ve ever watched.

By the time this blog is published, the debate will have come and gone. The second debate took place just two days after the infamous Access Hollywood video was leaked, which unless you’ve been living in a locker for the last two weeks (sorry Trumpy – couldn’t resist!), you’ll know involves the Republican candidate bragging about kissing and groping women without their permission. Since then, a handful of women have come forward claiming that Trump touched them inappropriately in the past. Two of these women were interviewed by the New York Times and later that day, Trump’s lawyers sent this letter to the publication’s editor claiming the article was “reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se” and demanding a retraction.

The New York Times’ response to this has since gone viral and it’s safe to say the article will never be removed from the publication’s website, but the squabble did get me thinking about countries where Trump’s lawyers may have had better luck. The World Press Freedom Index – a ranking of 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists – has been on a rapid decline since 2013 as a result of tightening government controls on state-owned media. Given that it’s known for its liberalism, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Scandinavian countries hold three of the top five positions, while places at the bottom of the Index are held by the likes of China, Eritrea and North Korea. The UK ranks 38th in case you’re wondering.

Over the course of my career so far, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of different countries and work with on-the-ground teams, sharing best practice and learning about different media landscapes. Nigeria (ranked 116th) is one of the places I’ve visited that I wanted to discuss in this blog as it was there where I first encountered a practice known as “brown envelope journalism”. Nigerian journalists are typically very poorly paid and many are forced to wait months before they get their salary. Last year, the Nigerian Union of Journalists picketed the premises of This Day – one of the country’s most well-read daily newspapers – protesting the non-payment of nine months’ worth of salaries to its employees.

As a result of ongoing struggles to pay members of staff, there are some papers that run on quid pro quo arrangements whereby powerful companies and individuals pay for advertising in exchange for favourable editorial. In some cases, journalists are encouraged to make up for the shortfall in their income by directly asking for payment from individuals or organisations in exchange for publishing their stories. The wads of cash are usually distributed to the media at the end of press conferences, interviews and corporate events, sealed in brown envelopes.

The concept is something I’d never come across before, not least because my PR career up until that point had generally involved dealings with UK journalists and as a member of the CIPR, I am bound by its Code of Conduct. This clearly states that I must “maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour and integrity”, “deal honestly and fairly in business”, and “raise and maintain professional standards”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure most people have at one point or another in their career, wished they could have paid their way out of a pickle(!), but ultimately part of what makes our job so interesting is having to strategise and devise the perfect pitch that will hopefully lead to the perfect headline. Being able to pay for it is not only unethical, but it also takes the fun out of it. The problem is that these practices have been going on for so long that many newcomers have no idea that it’s unethical, it’s just the done thing.

So where do we go from here? As PR practitioners, I think it’s our responsibility, even when doing work overseas, to help stamp out these practices. This could be through working with editorial teams to define best practice in regards to employee remuneration; establishing editorial committees; writing editorial policies; managing expectations with clients to avoid setting a precedent; and working with media bodies such as the International Press Centre, the Ethical Journalism Network, and Journalists for Transparency to do all of the above.

By Valentina Kristensen, MCIPR

Head of PR and Marketing at OakNorth Bank.


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International crises and differences in cultural perspectives

A glance at a newspaper is enough and you almost always find some organisations involved in some sort of crisis. And indeed there is a plethora of different reasons that will force an organisation to engage in crisis communication and crisis management. But what became clear in recent years is that crises are becoming more and more international. Regardless of Brexit, globalisation has made the world a common market place with customers, suppliers and producers who have entwined business relations. This makes things difficult to begin with, but when a crisis hits your organisation and creates victims that you barely know most organisations find themselves unprepared and overwhelmed.

What makes international crises so difficult for most organisations is a difference in cultural perspectives and an absence or complete disregard for ethical standards. As a firm expands its international presence, its vulnerability to crises may also increase. There is a greater potential for an ethical breach to occur as well. Two clear examples can create severe ethical dilemmas and can cause tremendous reputational damage:

1) The temptation to make illegal cash payments
Illegal cash payments is a fancy way of saying bribery. Isn’t it? Well, to us in the Western World it seems that way but in many parts of the world, offering bribes is an accepted way to conduct business. What should you do in a region where there is no legal infrastructure that forces everyone to play by the same rules?

2) The possibility that a foreign contractor is highly unethical
The working condition of Apple’s main assembler Foxconn has caused negative press as workers committed suicide as an ultimate protest due to perceived inhumane working conditions. Samsung was fined to pay $85.8 million to 200 people who have worked in their vendor’s chip and display factory and later fell ill.

There are measures that organisations can take to avoid these pitfalls, create an ethical culture and, if needed, be ready to manage a crisis. Enthusiasm for crisis management and training, focusing on the prevention of ethical breaches and abiding by both government regulations and the highest industry standards will be good first steps every organisation should take. A code of ethics should be drafted with organisation-wide principals and behaviour to which every employer is accountable. Short classes and workshops to raise awareness and top-level executives that set examples have been found to be effective measures too. Realistic goal setting that does not encourage cutting corners to attain impossible goals and regular ethical audits can all help to establish an ethical culture at your work place where potential ethical dilemmas such as bribery or dubious foreign suppliers are dealt with accordingly.

By Claude-Patrick Kleineidam

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Calling all CIPR International Members – We want to hear from you on ETHICS!

As part of the CIPR Ethics Festival this month the CIPR International Committee wants to hear from YOU on your personal experiences of ethical communications.

In a world that is increasingly international, it’s not always a walk in the park for global PR professionals to act as the guardian of an organisation’s reputation while respecting the local cultures and traditions they span. As someone who is lucky enough to have had a career that has taken them all over the world, I have first-hand experience of the dilemmas you can face.

Agencies who have asked for payment for coverage or introductions; publications which have expected ‘something in return’ for a write up or attendance at an event; measurement experts who have offered to bend the rules and pump up results…

Have you had similar experiences you can bring to the mix? And can you share how you dealt with these experiences in an ethical way? We would love to hear some good global examples of best practice, examples of how you’ve learned, and to hear about the local markets you operate in.

Email with your stories and guest blogs and help make the CIPR Ethics Festival a success for CIPR International!

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