BELL Pottinger, the UK PR company which was paid to whitewash the Guptas and their ghastly shenanigans, is currently under fire for using unethical tactics to divert attention from Zuma and the state capture issue.
They deserve the flak they are getting, but they are not alone.
The cynicism behind the campaign is unspeakable: what are two issues guaranteed to grab the attention in our historically fractured nation? Racism and economic inequality.
In short, it’s like letting a toddler play with matches in a dynamite factory. Or setting your pants on fire because your legs are cold.
So what caused their withdrawal from the campaign in April and the subsequent firing of some employees? No, it wasn’t a sudden pang of conscience after raking in the cash for years.
It was the piercing of the anonymity behind which many corporate animals hide: the sudden appearance of the face of Victoria Geoghegan, a partner at Bell Pottinger, on posters displayed in public by angry South Africans made things get personal and uncomfortable for the firm.
I, for one, was sufficiently outraged to send the company a nasty email. This is something I don’t often resort to, and I am under no illusion that it would change anything, but it made me feel better. And if enough people do this sort of thing, just maybe it does get noted, if only among the minor minions in the company.
Will the money ever be enough?
But the issue about Bell Pottinger is just scratching the tip of the corporate iceberg. While I am not defending them in any way, they certainly are not alone in the world of business when it comes to taking seriously questionable decisions in order to make money.
Let me make it clear that I am not saying that all big business is evil: many big businesses operate ethically (at least as far as we can see), they pay a huge amount of taxes, they are based on the ingenuity and hard work of their founders, they provide employment to millions of people, and provide services and manufacture goods that make society function.
But many of them also make an unnecessarily huge amount of money. And pay their CEOs the kind of salaries that are equal to the GDP of some small countries. And pander to their shareholders, regardless of ethical considerations.
I know that making money is the main point of having a business, but is there a point where it is actually enough, or is overriding greed always going to win the day, until it all collapses in on itself?
There are other considerations, such as saving the environment, and having a good reputation, and treating your staff fairly, which also form part of the bigger picture.
And no, these are not just superficial PR exercises to keep the cash rolling in. They are serious considerations which will have a negative impact on your bottom line in the short run, but will enable long-term survival for the company.
And that’s just where the rub lies. Ethical considerations and short-term targets are seldom a comfortable match.
'Only following orders'
How many large companies deal with this discomforting reality is by means of hierarchy and the division of labour and responsibility, much in the same way as military forces do. The person who decides to invade the small town is never the one who has to pull the trigger on defenceless civilians.
And the one who pulls the trigger can say that he was only following orders. In business, when top management decides to retrench staff or cut benefits, they are seldom the ones who have to break the dreadful news face to face. And the ones who have to break the news can, like soldiers, say they are only following orders.
Many employees in big corporations, such as sales people, are put under immense strain to achieve certain targets and to do whatever it takes to get there. When they succeed in doing the impossible, the company takes the credit; when they take a few questionable shortcuts to try and relieve the immense pressure, they are held personally accountable.
Then ethics are suddenly an issue. But nobody ever questions the ethics of putting people under that kind of strain in the first place.
A good example of this is Nick Leeson, whose unauthorised speculative trading caused the collapse of Barings Bank in the mid-1990s. For this he was sent to prison. But while he was making profits doing exactly the same thing (by all accounts, with no questions asked) in 1992, he was given a bonus – more than twice the size of his annual salary.
So what am I advocating? I know I am an optimist, but I am hoping for some sense of morality and social responsibility in large companies. (Try not to laugh too loudly.) Something that isn’t just a PR exercise, or a minimum legal requirement. A smattering of conscience would do.
But while endless greed remains the motivating factor, there is no hope of this, unless people realise that moral and ethical considerations actually make businesses more sustainable in the long run in the societies in which they operate.
That the damage done to Bell Pottinger by this latest scandal is far greater, and will cost the company far more, than any money they ever earned from the Zuptas.
The last word on greed and ethics belongs to Professor Guy McPherson from the University of Arizona: “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while you count your money.”