Lead insight: Francis Ingham shares the PR industry’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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LAST Thursday, I was shocked when one European country invaded another, writes Francis Ingham. And did so without any sense of reason or just cause whatsoever. The natural response of membership bodies in these circumstances is to issue a ‘We feel for fellow practitioners’ statement. It’s natural. It’s well-meaning. And it’s of course utterly ineffectual.

First off, I knew that my position as chairman of PRCA Russia was no longer for me. It is a separate body to the PRCA, simply using the same PRCA name as other associations around the world do, for example PRCA India, PRCA Ireland, PRCA Nigeria. 

It was established to bring together in house communicators, with a Code of Conduct and a commitment to raising professional standards within the Russian PR market. Its aims are entirely laudable. 

Though it has no links with the Russian Government, I simply felt unable in good conscience to be associated with anything Russian given the war unleashed by Russia’s president. 

Then Nicky Regazzoni and I got together and decided to create a network of people who could work with the Ukrainians to leverage our networks, and construct an international group of practitioners willing to sell into the foreign media, and counter Russia’s misinformation. 

I thought we might get a dozen or two. Instead, the response was immediately overwhelming. And it continues to be so. We have over 150 agencies, in house teams, and senior practitioners operating around the world. Offering their expertise for free. 

The strength of feeling of the PR community on this issue, its desire to take a stand, to do something, not just say something, is remarkable and says a lot about our fellow practitioners.

On Monday, we went further. 

First, the ICCO Executive Committee met in the morning.

The association that represents Russia on the Board, AKOS, is full of good people. People who are repulsed by what their Government is doing. 

But there was a strong view, and I most certainly shared it, that no international body should be linked with Russia. With a heavy heart, we unanimously agreed to suspend AKOS’s membership immediately and indefinitely. When the world has gone back to normal, and Russia has returned to the fraternity of peaceful states, we will welcome them back into the ICCO family. But not until then.

In the afternoon, the UK PRCA board met. 

Feelings were equally strong. The unanimous view was that sadly Russia is a pariah state. Our members must not under any circumstances work with sanctioned companies. But more than that, they should also reflect on the consequences for their own reputations of working with other organizations and individuals linked to the Russian Government. PRCA members around the world uphold standards and principles which are incompatible with the current activities of the Kremlin. 

We saw with Bell Pottinger that our often-repeated assertion that an organization’s most valuable asset is its reputation was true. When Bell Pottinger’s reputation was trashed, it went under. PR firms’ client lists will be under intense scrutiny. It is for them to decide which legally permissible clients they work for. But they must stand by those choices and expect the public; their clients and their potential clients; their staff and their potential staff to come to their own conclusions and decisions. 

So the bottom line is this. The PRCA strapline is ‘The power of communication’. That power can be for good or be for ill. There are moral choices to be made. And that is most certainly true regarding work related to the Russian Government right now.  

Francis Ingham is director general at the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), and chief executive at the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO).