When there is a crisis, PR practitioners are the people you seek out to help solve it. But in the face of the Bell Pottinger scandal, questions over ethics in the work of PR have been raised. How does the industry prove that it has the best professionals to consult and advise companies on ethical behaviour in the instance of a dilemma? Essentially, do we always practise what we preach?
PR is a ‘historically tarnished’ industry according to some scholars, and membership bodies are non-compulsory, meaning their code of ethics has no strict enforcement policies. For example, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in its code of conduct makes just one mention of ethics, saying: “Members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations agree to… ensuring that services provided are costed, delivered and accounted for in a manner that conforms to accepted business practice and ethics.”
Similarly, the US based Institute for Public Relations defines ethics as “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.” This appears in an advisory statement. Research conducted at the turn of the century shows most practitioners looked at a code once and never picked it up again.
So if the scale of the problem seems endemic to the industry, and PR really is “historically tarnished”, are advisory guidelines going to be of much use in the long term? Companies may flock to sign up to external bodies in the wake of a crisis, like Bell Pottinger collapsing, but how long does this last? Does the industry require legal regulation?
While the issue of regulation is up for debate, PR companies, and their clients for that matter, are on the offensive to prove they have ethical boundaries at the heart of what they do. PR campaigns have become about social change as much as good reputations, and if the goals of the client and the audience are the same then it’s an ethical win.
Ethics has appeared higher on the agenda, and simply by talking about the issue and advising clients openly how to employ ethics in a better way, PR practitioners prove their own ethical credentials. PR practitioners like Cutting Edge have their own internal guidelines as advice for their clients, and the industry. Richard Edelman, CEO of leading global communications firm Edelman, sums it up perfectly: “We operate effectively only based on public trust. This must be earned every day by advising clients to do the right thing, then to communicate the client’s position in a clear and transparent manner. We must laud the best behaviors and criticize publicly those who fail to live up to the ethical bar.”
PR companies are self-regulating: this is good for the work the industry does and the people it serves – both clients and the general public. It’s not a bulletproof policy however and when corruption or poor ethics occur, the industry as a whole must denounce the bad and praise the good. Only by acting in unison can PR practitioners up their game and improve the “historically tarnished” reputation of the industry.