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PR Ethics: Can you trust your judgement?

Don't miss our upcoming Social Media Week Bristol event, where Claire Walker FPRCA, CEO, Firefly Communications, and PRCA Professional Practices Committee Chair panellists will debate if a compulsory ethical code should govern how professionals and influencers use social platforms. Find out more here.

Since the 2017 Bell Pottinger scandal, questions have been raised over ethics in the PR industry. Concerns over transparency, authenticity and communication have pushed the industry to tackle these issues and PR professionals now must abide by an ethical code that ensures the industry is kept accountable.

Bored yet? I hope not. Ethics in the PR industry is a serious subject – and as soon as the subject becomes personal, the interest levels rise. The Bell Pottinger case has highlighted bad ethical judgement and there’s no question that inciting racial hatred is an indefensible and unethical one.

But putting the Bell Pottinger case aside, let’s concentrate on how we, as PR professionals, can stay out of hot water and establish a good ethical backbone for our approach to PR.

Testing your ethical backbone

How often might PR ethical problems come up and test your own judgement? You may well be surprised. How about exaggerating facts, blowing a non-disclosure agreement, not mentioning affiliations, understanding where loyalties lie, offering career favours? There might also be integrity challenges like how accurate is accurate, dealing with implied bribery, managing deception, or handling conflicts of interest.

Have your ears pricked up yet? Perhaps this has now got a bit more interesting – and dare I say, relevant? It’s the classic ‘for example’ rule we use in media training. As soon as you say those two magic words ‘for example’ people get what you’re talking about. So, using ‘for example,’ the PRCA code of ethics can relate back to what might be going on in an agency or an in-house department most months, weeks or days.

I chair the PRCA professional practices committee (which is the committee that deals with complaints) and I am the PRCA’s trainer on ethics. Over many years I’ve tried to help PR and marketing professionals (from students to MDs) appreciate why having strong ethical judgement is so important and how your ethical awareness can be tested.

Most PRs don’t set out to deliberately misinform or deceive but, as the PRCA code outlines, they also need ‘to avoid doing so inadvertently’. You may be in breach of the rules without realising and, sorry, no, ignorance is not a sufficient excuse. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘ethical’ practice only relates to the public and the media, the same rules apply to other PR professionals and your colleagues. We all know the phrase ‘give credit where credit is due’ and in PR this is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, so make sure you recognise who did come up with that great idea.

So then, just how sound is your judgement? Consider the below questions and statements to find out:

·         Question:  Your client, or someone in your organisation, has asked you to weave what you suspect is a lie or an untruth into a press release as you have no proof points to substantiate the claim. Are you obliged to follow those instructions? Answer: YES/­­NO

·         Question:  Your agency or in-house team is a member of the PRCA, but no-one made it clear what the Code stood for, and therefore you did not realise you were in breach of the Code, you cannot be held accountable to the Code. Answer: TRUE/FALSE

·         Question:  Your director says that adherence to the PRCA code is the in-house team’s/ agency’s commitment and not an individual’s; therefore, it’s OK to breach or bend the code if you want to. No individual who breaches the code can be disciplined.  Answer: TRUE/FALSE

·         Question: A spokesperson has confided in you that they will probably be leaving the company very soon and joining a competitor. An interview is being set up using that person as the spokesperson. Should you tell the PR manager or anyone else on the PR team about the spokesperson’s career plans? Answer: YES/NO

I hope this quiz was easy for you, (correct answers below – how many did you get right?) but these are just four examples of the 40 dilemmas I use to test people’s judgement, their awareness of the Code and their common sense in applying it to their everyday PR challenges.  

The PR ethics debate is ongoing, and as the industry faces new challenges our approach to ethics flexes. But the premise stays the same, PR professionals must have strong ethical judgement and be able to handle ethical decision-making to ensure the success of their clients and the industry as a whole.

If you would like the opportunity to help shape industry ethics on social media, come along to the debate I’m chairing during Bristol’s Social Media Week titled, Social Ethics – long overdue or the end of social freedom, and share your views on PR ethics.

Answers: Both no, both false