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Does PR need to clean up its act?

10th January 2013

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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