All Articles

The Company You Keep

Author: perkinsk | Image: perkinsk

In public relations, you are who you represent.

Aren’t you?

Recently, London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger discovered the reality of their reputation being tied directly to their client’s.

Bell Pottinger was contracted by an India-based firm to conduct public relations work on their behalf in South Africa. The work they were asked to complete (and did complete) on behalf of their client, created greater racial and economic divides in that country. Creating public conflict and deepening societal ills is unethical. Ultimately, Bell Pottinger was dissolved, as their other clients fled fearing association with the firm.

Loyalty is a core value of public relations professionals. In the PRSA Code of Ethics, loyalty is clearly defined as “…honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.”

Our interdependence on others for resources we can’t produce or provide for ourselves means that we must balance our loyalty to all stakeholders to ensure mutually-beneficial relationships for all. Loyalty to only one public puts all the other relationships in jeopardy. Loyalty to society at large must be at the heart of what we do in public relations.

In an increasingly-transparent world, ethical behavior must be the norm, not the exception.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) responded to the Bell Pottinger situation via a statement on their website. PRSA chair, Anthony D’Angelo, wrote ” ‘Responsibility to the public’ – is at the core of what we do. That sometimes surprises people, who assume our only allegiance is to our clients or the organizations we work for.” (full text can be found here:

In a society where technology captures and broadcasts our every move, reputations are damaged with greater speed than ever. Knowing who you’re loyal to, and who is loyal to you, is key to protecting your reputation. So is knowing the company you keep.

Ethical and effective communication will be among the topics shared at the #GreenleeSummit in Ames on April 6. Please come and share your thoughts on ethics with us. Learn more about the Summit and register here:

Erin Wilgenbusch, APR, is a senior lecturer at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. She teaches public relations classes and is the faculty adviser to the Barbara Riedesel Iverson chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America at Iowa State University.