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Should public relations be proud of its ethical standards?

17th September 2015


For an industry that is all about harnessing reputations, it is ironic that PR doesn’t have a great reputation itself for being ethical. As Sarah Hall, managing director of PR agency Sarah Hall Consulting Limited says: “People often say that PR has a reputation issue and that’s hard to disagree with”. The problem, says Hall, is that PROs don’t do enough to promote the positives of PR, plus there is often confusion in the public’s mind who seem to think PR people are all publicists.

Discussing why he thinks the public mistrust PR people, Robin Lander Brinkley, founder of agency Maxwell Communications, says, “I have always understood why those outside are sceptical of ethics within the PR industry. Whether it be a corporation being exposed as doing something that is contrary to their public persona (countless examples in the banking industry in recent years) or a public figure denying something that is later proved to be true, (dare I mention Max Clifford?) it makes the public think our role is to ‘cover up’, ‘make excuses’ or ‘mislead’ them.”

Lander Brinkley gives an example of how even potential clients can be confused about what PR is about: “Once, I was called in by a company and it became clear the expectation was for me to get the client out of a situation by ‘getting rid’ of the problem. I explained that my role was to ensure that the client had the opportunity to explain themselves and the ability to do it in a way that anyone with interest understood what they were saying.”

Sarah Hall points out however, that not everyone thinks badly of PR, as within the business community, “many companies expect the same standard of service as they would from any professional service sector such as accountancy or law.”

In the opinion of Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR, it is unfair that PR does not have a good reputation with the public, as it is more ethical than a number of other professions and business sectors: “Let’s face it, in recent years we have had scandal after scandal from those who society has put on a pedestal. The Catholic church has been tarnished with the revelations of long-term child abuse. Our MPs have also been under the spotlight for both fraudulent expenses claims as well as s number of MPs who have been implicated in child-abuse stories.”

Turton lists other sectors who should be ashamed: “We have companies of accountants who help millionaires to avoid paying tax, which might all be completely legal, but is it ethical to encourage those with the broadest shoulders to contribute the least?

“And, let’s not forget the utilities companies that effectively operate as a cartel because as much as the government suggests we should shop around for the best deal there is very little to separate the prices of the major players.

“Finally, we have the charity sector, with some of the best-known organisations whose fundraising teams have hounded people to death. For all those charities that are genuinely trying to make a difference they have been tarred by the same brush and as a result this sector has a lot of work to do on its collective reputation and to rebuild trust with the generous British people.”

PR is not always perfect, but it has a lot to be proud of. Turton concludes: “I am not suggesting that the PR profession is whiter-than-white, but in general I think that we do maintain high standards of professionalism and we should be proud to be a part of this dynamic sector.”

As well as constantly maintaining professional standards, there are some other steps PROs can take to help promote the ethical standards of PR. Sarah Hall suggests a few ways forward: “As an individual or comms team, clearly setting your stall out in terms of professionalism and being a member of a professional body like the CIPR and PRCA helps. We’ve certainly won work by being able to demonstrate that the team is qualified, committed to continuous professional development and is accountable to a code of conduct.

“We all can do more to change perceptions and that starts with using our influence to help organisations make better decisions. To quote PR guru Tim Traverse-Healy, we need to demonstrate we are concerned with ‘truth, paramount concern for the public good and genuine dialogue‘.”

How the PR industry bodies defend and promote ethical standards in PR

Francis Ingham, director general PRCA:

“Many professions have had their share of reputational damage over recent years, so I do not think that it is fair for the PR industry to be singled out in this regard. In fact, from my observation of the PR industry, it behaves in an extremely ethical manner in the main. I think that as long as we continue to promote transparency, then the industry will continue to improve its professional and ethical standing. But the best way for a PR practitioner, a PR agency, or an in-house team to prove their high ethical standards is to join a professional association like the PRCA, which has a code of conduct that all of our members must follow.

“The PRCA is preparing to launch a broad industry focus on ethics and professional standards, and has a number of activities planned which it will soon be announcing.”

Alastair McCapra, CEO CIPR:

“In last year’s State of the Profession survey, 96% of respondents said it was important to them to be considered professional, but two-thirds thought that meant ‘satisfying the client’. I tried that answer out on the presidents of two other chartered bodies and a couple of CEOs of other Institutes, and their reactions varied from bemusement to noisy laughter. It is hard to think of any other group of practitioners who would define professionalism in so naïve a way.

“The CIPR has done very well in building up a formidable disciplinary process for hearing and dealing with complaints against members, but most other professions place greater emphasis on helping members avoid getting into serious ethical problems rather than on exposing and punishing them after the event. We’ve also been too reluctant to speak out against bad practice in the industry in general terms, rather than waiting for a compliant to be brought against a specific member.

“2014 was the first year we ran Ethics Month, and that will be a regular feature in future years. This year we’ve made ethics a compulsory part of our CPD system. We’ve also established a confidential Ethics Hotline for members facing dilemmas and needing someone to talk to.”



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