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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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