PR ethics – European Association of Communication Directors’ debate

Panel on PR ethics at EACD Amsterdam forumIn December I took part in a fascinating panel debate on ‘Defining ethics for today’s communicators’ at the European Association of Communication Directors‘ forum in Amsterdam. It was facilitated by Mike Cooper, editor-in-chief of the Holland Herald and the other panellists were Andre Manning, the vice president and global head of external communications at Royal Philips; Nicole Gorfer, the head of communications at Roche Pharma AG Germany; and Professor Rosa Chun, Chair of Global Leadership and Responsibility at University College Dublin.

Much of the discussion focused on the importance of ethical codes of conduct for communications professionals. From the audience Philippe Borremans, chief social media officer and CSR coordinator at Van Marcke Group, asked how many of those in the room had signed the Code of Athens (PDF). Not a lot was the answer. Although personally I don’t believe that means people don’t subscribe to it. My own hand stayed down as I haven’t signed the Code of Athens, mainly because I had no idea you needed to. If Phillipe had asked if I was aware of it and abided by its principles then I could have given an unequivocal yes.

Many of the principles of the Code of Athens has since been incorporated into the codes of conducts of many of the world’s professional public relations and corporate communications organisations.  I joined the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 1988 when I was still a communications student (although it hadn’t yet achieved chartered status) and have abided by its professional code of conduct throughout my entire career.

One of the points that I made was that codes of conduct were pointless unless they were enforced with sufficient vigour. Despite the existence of codes PR and communications people still have a dubious reputation and are constantly maligned in the media with phrases like “PR spin” common parlance. The danger for ethical public relations and communications professionals is that we are too often confused with the often far more high profile unethical communicators and publicists.

We must demonstrate that membership of professional bodies means something. This means rigorously enforcing codes of conduct and sanctions against those who transgress them. At the moment we still have professional PR organisations whose members appear to transgress yet ‘internal investigations’ clear them of wrong doing. The processes need to be far more transparent. The UK PRCA’s investigations into potential malpractice by Bell Pottinger simply reported that “there was no credible evidence of wrong-doing”. The actual report (Word) was slightly more critical, but couldn’t be termed an in-depth investigation.

However, stricter enforcement isn’t the whole answer as most of the ‘PR’ practitioners engaging in unethical behaviour are the 80% who aren’t members of a professional organisation. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations needs to be more vigorous in promoting chartered status and help clients and employers understand that the benefits of employing a PR professional who is a member of a chartered institute are the same as employing a chartered accountant rather than a bookkeeper.

In a recent PRmoment article the CIPR’s director of policy and communications Phil Morgan said:

“The CIPR’s Royal Charter recognises that professional standards in public relations are in the public interest. The status of public relations depends on gaining respect for the quality of the work we deliver and for the integrity with which it is carried out. Vital to this is the accountability provided through codes of conduct such as the one that all CIPR members make a commitment to when they join.

“Ethics within such codes are expressed in general terms – honesty, integrity, transparency, confidence and competence. These concepts need to be applied in a rapidly changing world and both professionals and the public need access to resources that keep them relevant. In key areas, especially digital and social, where the profession is changing continuously and expectations around disclosure and transparency are increasing, everyone needs access to best practice and resources that explains the central ethical concepts in terms of their day-to-day work.”

During the EACD debate I also made the point that indications from the UK were that unless the public relations profession put its own house in order then government might step in and do it by regulation. The Leveson Inquiry and subsequent report into press standards shows that there is appetite for statutory regulation. Likewise the public affairs and lobbying profession is facing statutory legislation to force it to publish a proper register of clients. In both instances it is because the industries have failed to provide adequate self-regulation.

Today unethical behaviour is more likely to be exposed

Another issue that I raised is that today there is a new dimension to ethics. If we believe that public relations is about reputation then fundamentally it must be about behaviour. There has always been a divide between what is right and wrong, although where that divide lies is always open for debate and indeed might change in different circumstances. What is different today is that in the past you had a greater chance of ‘getting away’ with bad behaviour. There was a limited number of people scrutinising you and even more limited number capable of exposing your bad behaviour. Bluntly you had a chance of getting away with it.

The rise of social media and citizen journalism mean that companies and organisations are under far greater scrutiny than they ever have been. Every customer, every employee, every member of the community has the power to record what they see and to publish it in an instant. Your media statements can be analysed by experts – be they bloggers, academics, campaigners or enthusiasts – who will identify every error and have the capacity to expose your ‘spin’.

So even if you don’t subscribe to the notion of doing the ‘right’ thing because it is right you need to behave better, just because you’ll get caught and be exposed if you don’t.

Some of the panel discussion also focused on the difference between personal/professional ethics and corporate ethics. In the same PRmoment article Professor Tom Watson of Bournemouth University gives examples of how personal professional ethics in public relations are frequently violated:

“Every year, a few students coming back from placements with stories of how their PR employers had misled clients, asked them to write fake customer reviews on websites, switched account teams after winning pitches, charge high for untrained internship staff and falsified evaluation data.“

He adds:

“The route to ethical public relations lies primarily in the honesty and moral compass of individuals, especially those who are leaders and managers of PR operations; not in a heavier, quasi-judicial system.”

Professor Watson is right we should be able to rely on “the honesty and moral compass of individuals”, but we can’t make the assumption that it will always automatically kick in. There needs to be far greater emphasis in PR education and training on teaching the fundamentals of ethics and illustrated with practical examples and ‘moral maze’ type exercises. This should start with PR undergraduate and post graduate courses, but also be part of the membership induction when someone first joins a professional body like the CIPR. Philippe’s idea of signing the Code of Athens is a good one and perhaps we should look at getting new members to physically sign the CIPR code of conduct.

The debate about public relations ethics isn’t going to go away and I believe will continue to increase in importance and is an issue that the PR profession needs to take far more seriously.

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Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs