The just-ended elections, and the intense campaigns that preceded them, present public relations practitioners with a unique learning opportunity.
This time round, social media played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions, but at a great cost.
The spectre of fake news overshadowed and undermined legitimate attempts to get constructive messages across social media platforms, raising questions over the role of ethics in the communications industry.
Fake news, which systematically falsifies the truth to maintain control over public opinion, is not unique to Kenya’s social media scene.
In South Africa, it is equally a big issue.
The ongoing case involving British public relations firm Bell Pottinger is a compelling example.
The firm was hired in 2016 by the Gupta family, an influential South African group reported to be the power behind President Jacob Zuma’s throne.
The PR firm was expected to help reverse negative perceptions about the family, as it had expertly handled similarly sensitive cases before for regimes in Belarus, Bahrain and even the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
However, things went south for the firm when allegations emerged a few months ago that it used fake social media accounts to stoke up racial tension and deflect public opinion away from President Zuma’s dealings with the Gupta family.
In response to these grave allegations, Bell Pottinger dismissed some senior staff and issued a statement of remorse and readiness to look into the matter.
But South Africans are yet to be convinced that they are, indeed, sorry.
This is understandable, considering the sensitivity of racial issues in a country that went through the horrors of apartheid.
The Bell Pottinger case, just like the menace of fake news that characterised the Kenyan elections, seems to suggest that there is an inherent problem with social media.
Nothing however could be further from the truth.
Social media is merely a tool that can be used for good or bad.
The real problem is that an increased number of brands and some key personalities are ready and willing to transgress codes of ethical conduct to influence public opinion.
This puts PR practitioners in a tight spot.
In every profession, but especially in PR, the desire to satisfy clients’ demands can prove to be a temptation to mute conscience and cut corners.
PR practitioners need to rise above this temptation and remain faithful to their responsibility to give clients objective communication counsel.
One of the key responsibilities of a PR agency is to help clients map out their stakeholders.
In my two decades as a communication practitioner, one stakeholder that is a common denominator for all clients is society.
PR firms need to give clients advice on what society expects of them.
This is especially important today as businesses are called upon to be responsible corporate citizens to earn a social licence to operate in the form of goodwill.
In the case of Bell Pottinger, sensitivity to the apartheid legacy ought to have taken precedence over the desire to reverse negative perceptions.
Similarly, in Kenya’s elections, fake news and the tribal bent most of these fake reports took demonstrated a reckless disregard for the wounds that Kenyans still suffer because of tribalism.
In both cases, brands and personalities ended up angering the very society they sought goodwill from, highlighting the responsibility of PR practitioners giving clients feedback on society as a valued stakeholder.
For a brand to resonate with the society, it needs to be seen to be in touch with the moral and ethical compass.
This should never be overlooked and PR practitioners have an obligation to remind their clients of this important truth.
Failure to do so can have catastrophic consequences for both brands and practitioners.
Mr Obado is founder and managing director of Redhouse Public Relations. [email protected]