PR Insight

Does PR need to clean up its act?

Date: 10 January 2013 14:22

Journalism has a reputation for dragging others through the mud, but last year the Leveson Inquiry gave the British press a taste of its own medicine, highlighting the extent of unlawful and improper conduct within newspapers and other media. As an industry PR doesn’t have a great reputation for good conduct either and serious lobbying scandals don’t help.

For Tom Watson, professor of public relations at Bournemouth University, it is not just these gross ethical violations that need dealing with, but also lesser, more insidious ones: “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.“

These behaviours are not only hard to police, but as Watson points out, they grind down the values of staff and breed distrust with clients and employers. 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.”

For small firms, it is often the person at the top that gives the moral steer. As the owner of a PR agency, Simon Turton has one clear rule to encourage a culture of trust and honesty at Opera PR: “I always treat client information as 100 per cent confidential and nothing ever goes out to the media without approval from all parties identified in a story. My view on PROs, at any level, is that they should be like a one-way valve: information goes in and stays in; and only comes out if the client (following this simile) lets you open the tap.”

If the PR industry wishes to promote itself as an ethical industry, it must encourage individuals to work in ethical ways. Guidelines are a start. Watson describes those that have been followed since 1965: “PR has had codes of ethics since the early 1960s when IPRA introduced its Code of Ethics (known as the Code Athens) in 1965. This was also adopted by many PR bodies as the basis of national versions. In the UK, both CIPR and PRCA have detailed codes, which are sometimes called into action.“

However, as Watson points out, there is a limit to what voluntary codes of ethics can achieve, “Those complained against often resign quickly and then threaten legal action for defamation. So these voluntary codes are difficult to enforce, even when the PR bodies want to use them. Creating a stricter Leveson-style code is likely to have little impact as most of the miscreants are in the 80 per cent plus of UK PR practitioners who are not members of CIPR or PRCA.“

Industry body chiefs outline the case for codes of conduct

PRCA director general Francis Ingham: “We believe that ethical considerations are critical if the PR industry wishes to move forward. Our professional charter requires all of our members to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations and deal fairly and honestly with others in their professional sphere. Furthermore, the PRCA Public Affairs Code of Conduct requires all of our lobbyist members to declare all of their lobbying activity on a quarterly basis, providing the names of all clients and consultancy staff who have been involved in public affairs during the previous three months for publication in the PRCA Register. Our Public Affairs Register covers some of the biggest names in lobbying from both the consultancy and in-house world, which shows that a large cross-section of the industry is proud to be ethical and transparent.”

CIPR director of policy and communications Phil Morgan: “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."

Written by Daney Parker

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    Much as I respect Tom (a former PRCA Chairman after all), I think he’s just factually wrong here. For the past five years I’ve been at the PRCA, not one complained-about member has ‘resign[ed] quickly and then threaten[ed] legal action for defamation’. And in the 3 and a bit years when I worked at the CIPR, with responsibility for their Code of Conduct, the same was true there. The reason is pretty simple –as soon as a complaint is made against members of either organisation, they can no longer resign as a member, precisely to avoid the scenario Tom suggests. I fully accept that our industry can do better, but we really should stop this regular round of self-flagellation that just drags down our own reputation. By and large ours is a clean, professional industry. We should celebrate that a little more; condemn ourselves a little less.

    Name: Francis Ingham
    Date: 11 Jan 2013 09:17 AM

    Much as I respect Francis, too, the scenario that I gave in my example has happened in one of the UK PR organisations in the past two years. It's a fact, not a supposition or an example. And it happens around the world, as I know from experience leading ethics panels in Australia and examples in the US. The more serious point in my comments is about the erosion of ethical values that is often evidenced, not just in PR. It's called 'gaming' in the financial sector and has led to the Libor scandal, for example. In my world, it is cheating and fraud. Codes of Conduct, however, don't work until a gross violation is made.

    Name: Tom Watson

    Date: 11 Jan 2013 11:07 AM

    Well that's awful Tom. I can assure you and readers it most certainly has NOT happened at the PRCA over the past 5 years,and didn't happen at th CIPR while was there ether.

    Name: Francis Ingham

    Date: 11 Jan 2013 11:10 AM

    Honesty, integrity, transparency, confidence and competence are wonderful words until you try and define them and put 'rules' around them,. Having run an ethical PR agency, I'm brought into ethics, big style, but your ethics and values aren't mine, and mine aren't his/hers. Moreover what's acceptable varies sector by sector. People who've crossed the lines have often done so not realising they had, often finding themselves in a glare of publicity and a ruined career. Rules and regulations are already there, but in 20 years, with 3 agencies other than my own, the only training in legal issues I ever received was inhouse, when I was briefed at the start of my career in journalism legislation, and later by a flotation team. (Not the case with my own team, by the way) Surely that kind of core, basic training should be obligatory before adding further layers for people to ignore? Some sectors are doing better at becoming more transparent (like lobbying) and some agencies are getting better at training, but if we can find a way to license people to practise, surely that's a better initial start (and no, I don't mean the kind of 'sales pitch' sessions we too often see branded as training.

    Name: Claire Thompson
    Date: 11 Jan 2013 11:53 AM

    You know when you're pushing it. Claire is correct that it's very hard to codify this sort of issue, but it's equally easy to know something stinks when you're involved. Before 12 years in PR (corp rep, financial, crisis), I was an investment banker, specialising in emerging markets, and it was the same there as well. Fundamentally this comes down to personal morality and the example set by responsible leaders. Banking's reputation has been destroyed because of a culture tolerated and often encouraged by senior managers. It is vital that PR does not go the same way and it's down to the industry leaders to set the correct example, both in word and deed.

    Name: Paddy Blewer
    Date: 11 Jan 2013 12:25 PM

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