Starting the conversation about ethics in the procurement process

27th February 2018 by Sarah Callaghan

Back in March some big names pulled out of YouTube advertising because their ads were being linked to extremist content. We have seen the Google brand knocked again more recently, in light of adverts appearing on videos linked to child exploitation scandals. Once again more big players have pulled their advertising.

Whilst removing their advertising was clearly the right move, what is the right level of responsibility for brands to ensure they are paying for services that are ethical and above board? Should they have properly checked where their advertisement was being placed? Or that media adhered to their values? How far do the checks and balances go?

PR professionals purchase services on behalf of our clients. We not only have to ensure that our own behaviour adheres to ethical best practice but that our suppliers’ behaviour does too. Any procurement decision we make on clients’ behalf could have a wider impact on their reputational brand. We have to make sure each transaction does not encourage or permit fraud, bribery, corruption or human rights abuses and is environmentally sustainable.

The dangers of assumption

Whilst the communications industry is one built with an emphasis on relationships, that still does not excuse professionals solely relying on the trust that comes with these relationships. We still have to remain diligent in the face of ethics.

How to remain diligent is a tougher problem though. Ethical practice will have to be to some extent scalable and larger organisations with more complicated supply chains will spend more time and focus on it. For example, Edelman launched a FY17 Citizenship Report which focusses in part on its Sustainable Procurement Policy.

Post the Bell Pottinger scandal, as the shaken PR industry spends time looking internally at its own processes, we are seeing organisations leading this charge. Looking at the PR Procurement toolkit (a joint initiative between the CIPR, the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, the Central Office of Information and the PRCA) it appears that the procurement process is also in need of a review. Having a look over this it seems fairly outdated and does not address the type of ethical issue we have seen more recently.

Both the CIPR and PRCA have evolved their ethical courses in recent months in order for agencies and in-house professionals to arm themselves against unethical behaviour. Members are reacting to the change and measuring themselves against the groups’ codes of conduct. But these examples are larger organisations that have professionals dedicated entirely to procurement and suppliers, from organising activity with freelancers and suppliers, setting up advertising and paid opportunities or even renting an office space. How can smaller outfits, without teams dedicated to this, ensure they also have the ethics fully ingrained in their procurement process?

Making it a necessity

Ultimately ethics cannot be a written standard and codes of conduct are often dismissed for being too ambiguous or vague. They have to be adaptable and responsive to changes in social rules, the standards of ethics change drastically. For example, imagine if the Weinstein scandal hit the headlines in 1960 – would it be given the same degree of interest? Similarly, just 5 years ago YouTube advertising was not a thing in the same way it is today. As times flex your ethical standards have to be able to respond.

At Flagship we recently held an ethics session with Professor Roger Steare, the corporate philosopher and visiting professor in the practice of organisational ethics at Cass Business School in London. It was tough and we were faced with a series of ethical predicaments I really hope I do not ever have to face! But it made me realise that ethics needs to be a conversation; ongoing, transparent and open.

This should be the case with your procurement practice. PR professionals should be equipped to ask the relevant questions, whilst your suppliers, buyers and service providers and you should be in regular contact, to make sure any trust is not blind.

Whilst there will be some providers that completely overhaul their processes and update their supplier questionnaires to question the ethical standards of anyone they work with in their supply chain, this is a fairly big ask for most agencies. Instead we need to ensure everyone in the organisation is trained as fully as possible to ask the right questions and recognise when the procurement process is not as ethical as it should be. This could be anything; from a venue to a freelance copywriter, or from a production company to your serviced office space.

Start the conversation

According to the CIPS sustainable procurement means considering “the impact of environmental, economic and social factors along with price and quality”. As a purchasing communications professional you need to take the time to understand the fundamentals of ethical behaviour when selecting and managing suppliers as well being aware of your own, your employer’s and your client’s responsibilities at all times.

Speak with your colleagues, clients, management and suppliers about your procurement process. Go and start the conversation today.

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