The Benefits of a Global Ethics Focus in PR

Francis Ingham, PRCA Chief Executive, for the Public Relations Society of America as part of Ethics Month 2011

Fundamental change sometimes comes from the utterly trivial. And that certainly appears to be the case with regard to trust in the U.K. media at the moment.

The trivial being most people were unaware that their cell phones had an automatic code that allowed access to their voicemail, easily changed, but only if you’re aware of it. And if unchanged, then all of your voicemails are accessible.

The fundamental change is the media regulation, trust in it, wider implications for the political classes and lessons for our industry, too.

Two years earlier, trust in British MPs fell lower even than trust in real-estate agents, as The Daily Telegraph obtained the grisly detail of MPs’ expenses — from second homes purchased to moat cleaning, all charged to the public purse. Consequently, several U.K. MPs and Peers have gone to jail.

Parliament had its revenge, though, when the true extent of journalists hacking into the voicemails of celebrities and normal people alike became clear. Hauling Murdoch senior and junior before them, MPs took pleasure in their witnesses’ humiliation. Now they lead the calls for the self-regulatory structure of the press to be overhauled with distinctly more regulation and distinctly less emphasis on “self”.

“You brought it on yourself” might well be our response. An easy and understandable reaction. However, it is also a dangerous one because media regulation, its ethics and its legal requirements is intimately linked with the future of our industry.

Public Relations’ Role in the Media

PR isn’t a commentator on the media; we are blatantly part of it. When politicians take pleasure in kicking journalists, they see our practitioners in much the same way — as part of the media world. And when the public kick their politicians and are disgusted by the very newspapers they fund, they link us, too. They see us as part of the circus of “spin” and its fabled powers of distortion, be they real or imagined.

The danger for us in this call for more press regulation is that it cannot end there. Considerably more news is conveyed in the social-media space than by print journalists. So it is impossible to draw a line at print, and hence the line must move. That movement was clear during recent riots in London, where the first instinct of the Government was to talk — fleetingly — about closing down Twitter in similar future circumstances. Once that line moves, we will get caught behind it.

The PRCA’s Answer

Like PRSA, we at the Public Relations Consultants Association believe that we lead our industry.

Like PRSA, we set ethical standards, embodied in our Codes of Conduct and Professional Charter.

Like PRSA, we have history — we’ve been around since 1969.

And like PRSA, we represent what we believe to be the best in the industry — over 80 percent of U.K. PR consultants, working in agencies such as Edelman, Weber, Ketchum, H&K etc., and in-house communications teams, such as Proctor and Gamble, Visa and Vodafone.

The challenge of self-regulation, though, is always the same: the people who are content to sign up to standards are not the ones who most need to sign up. And the people who will absolutely refuse to sign up are the ones who absolutely should.

I am convinced the facts back up that assertion. Over the four years I’ve been in charge of the PRCA, nobody has been expelled or censured. And with good reason: our members subscribe to our standards. Our people are not the problem.

This creates a conundrum — the media will ask us, “How many have you expelled?” If we answer, “many,” they will say that is proof of corruption in our industry. If we answer, “nobody,” they will say that is proof we are toothless.

Differentiation is Answer for Self-Regulated Industry

We must show that our members adhere to higher standards than the rest. That they are more trustworthy, accountable, professional, employable, and valuable. We all try this alone, and we all face unique problems. However, I am not convinced any of us can meet that challenge alone.

So here is my offer and my challenge.

The U.S. and U.K. are home to the world’s most advanced PR markets. We share many common issues and much best practice. We should face these issues together, and advance our industry’s standing together.

If that is the case, why do we not take this opportunity to cross-pollinate our disciplinary committees with one-another’s most respected practitioners? To agree on the common set of principles that should guide our members’ conduct? To agree on not just a month of ethics, but a whole permanent programme of it — around how we communicate political messages; sell to consumers; use social media? Why, instead of attacking just malpractice, don’t we also highlight best practice — running, for example annual transatlantic award ceremonies to reward not the most effective campaign, but the most effective and ethical campaign?

If we could do all that, it really would be something to shout about.

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