Bell Pottinger brought public relations into the public eye for all the wrong reasons. As a UK-based company, are their lessons for South Africa’s PR industry when speaking of oversight? Read more in our article, Does South Africa’s PR industry need an ethics watchdog?

media update’s Adam Wakefield was at the latest Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa talk, where Cynthia Schoeman, managing director of Ethics Monitoring Management, detailed how being ethical means more than just knowing what is the right thing to do.

Below are five things she highlighted in her talk:

1. It starts with the employees

Beginning with those that make up your organisation, Schoeman said if you assumed that the majority of those you hire are ethical practitioners, you are being fatally naïve. Out of a staff compliment of, for example, 100 people, the ethics of those employees would vary within the ethical spectrum, from highlight ethical, or possibly unethical.

“The challenge is you get a middle group who you need to actively guide and influence to what is [ethically] positive. If you don’t know the fundamentals, how do you guide them?”

2. To have ethics, you need leadership first

The first place to start when thinking about the fundamentals of ethics is the implications and impact upon your organisation.

“What is the impact on our people and what is the impact on our clients? To ignore it is foolish,” Schoeman said.

If there is an ethical problem, it is a “huge step forward” to acknowledge it.

Secondly, a “clear and common understanding” of workplace ethics is very important. Within most organisations, there is a common ethical view, and getting it to a desirable place is not easily achieved.

“The great challenge is when you’re sitting with an organisation, with 100 employees for example, and there is a huge onus on the leadership of the organisation,” Schoeman said.

The responsibility is on an organisation’s leadership to actively and consistently promote initiatives that ensure their employees act ethically.  

3. Have a fundamental understanding of ethics

Speaking about ethics is all well and good, but what are they? Schoeman said at its root, ethics is what is good and right – in that it has a good and right dimension – and becomes visible at the levels of behaviour, strategies, actions, and decisions. Ethics also has an impact on the self and others.

Its key drivers are leadership, values, and laws. Laws also come in the form of codes of conduct, rules and regulations, and policies.

Schoeman said there is a distinction between ethical behaviour and ethical maturity. Ethical maturity can be broken down into two: high maturity and low maturity.

Low ethical maturity is when ethical behaviour is largely a function of rules, policies, and supervision, amounting to a “compliance situation”; a situation where people are ethical because it is something they have to do.

The problem, or ‘catch’ as Schoeman referred to it, is that the effectiveness of low ethical maturity is dependent on the quality and consistency of enforcement of ethical standards. Were the quality and consistency of that enforcement to change, through a superior going on leave or a change in policy, will employees step away from that compliance mentality?

“It’s a high-maintenance system,” Schoemans said.

In comparison, high ethical maturity is a result of ethical values, where a person’s ethical behaviour is motivated by a person wanting to behave or live their life in an ethical way. In Schoeman’s opinion, this is a very far step from the compliance scenario that sits within a low ethical maturity state.

High ethical maturity is a commitment and, most importantly, it’s a conscious choice by the individual, rather than a prescription that originates from elsewhere.

4. Misconduct is not due to lack of knowledge

When ethical failures occur in organisations, Schoeman explained, it is not due to the transgressor not having a grasp of ethics. Usually, the opposite.

“Here’s the nuance: the gap is not knowledge. The gap is the choice between knowing and doing. Managing and improving ethics centres on influencing the ethical choices employees make.” Having rules and policies in place emphasising ethical behaviour is absolutely essential, but not sufficient. 

5. Acting ethically produces ethical capital, a competitive advantage

“There needs to be a deeply held acceptance of the value of ethics. If you don’t know what the value of ethics is, if it is not of value to your organisation, you won’t pursue it,” Schoeman said.

Acting ethically minimises the risk of ethical failure, and its negative costs and consequences. These include damaged stakeholder relations, reputational damage, financial loss, and the legal vulnerabilities generated by unethical behaviour.

Its benefits include good morale within the organisation, and a good reputation, which can be traded to increase business. If a person can answer the question “Can I trust this organisation and will they treat me fairly?” with a yes, they are more likely to stay loyal to your organisation.

However, Schoeman said what acting ethically actually does is generate ethical capital, and ethical capital is a competitive advantage that organisations must use.

Critically, to make use of ethical capital, it must be communicated that you have it in the first place.

She asked the room if anyone could think of three truly ethical South African companies, and when no one raised their hand, Schoeman said, “It’s not that there are no ethical companies. But, who is truly distinguishing themselves?”

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Bell Pottinger brought public relations into the public eye for all the wrong reasons. As a UK-based company, are their lessons for South Africa’s PR industry when speaking of oversight? Read more in our article, Does South Africa’s PR industry need an ethics watchdog?

*Image courtesy of The Blue Diamond Gallery, under this license