It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we forget some things – for instance, how ethics and professionalism should be at the very heart of what we do, not close to the bottom of it.
Less than two years ago, in 2017, Francis Ingham – the Director General of PRCA – took the world of Public Relations by storm when he announced the termination of Bell Pottinger’s membership of PRCA:
I remember thinking back then – which later I had the opportunity to tell Francis in person – that never had the faith in and public perception of PR as an industry, profession, community of practice, academic study, you name it, relied so much on one decision: whether to punish and call out unethical behaviour, or to brush over it and say it’s business as usual.
PRCA did do the right thing, and the rest is history – Bell Pottinger collapsed, the agency’s clients couldn’t distance themselves from the scandal fast enough, the agency’s staff was mostly recruited by other PR agencies and so on. I remember being dragged into all sorts of discussions on Twitter and asked ‘what are you going to do about it?’.
There wasn’t much I could do about it other than try to understand what happened, explain as strongly as I possibly could that Bell Pottinger was the exception to the rule (was I naïve?) and that Public Relations is driven by strategy, leadership, ethics, Codes of Conduct, professionalism etc. The silence of the PR community, before PRCA publicly announced its decision, was deafening. I couldn’t keep quiet anymore, and I’m glad I didn’t – after me, more and more colleagues starting speaking. And I’m very glad they did.
There is a lot of money to be made by doing the dirty, secretive work of despots, tyrants, rogue governments and factions, intelligence services, money launderers etc. As the retired head of a large international PR agency recently told me, ‘You don’t need PR if you didn’t do something wrong’. What????
Everyone needs PR – businesses, NGOs, Governments, academia etc. – we all have ‘relations with our publics’ and when you do something wrong, there’s a sentence for it; it’s called ‘I’m / we are sorry’. There is the social purpose and responsibility many organisations (claim to) have, the desire to have a more open and inclusive dialogue with wider categories of stakeholders, the necessity to really own a social licence to operate and so much more to what PR can and does do.
In 2017, and in the beginning of 2018, we were slowly starting to openly speak and discuss about ethics – how complex this area is, how there are so many nuances of grey as opposed to just black and white, how some of us would work for some types of organisations but not for others etc. When a topic is really hard or contentious, brushing over it or turning a blind eye to it are not the solution. As a community of practice, we need to explore the dimensions of ethics and be able to discuss about them with the same ease we speak about ‘digital’ and ‘social media’.
CIPR’s State of the Profession was released yesterday and, within it, some really stark findings stand out – do read the full report and see for yourself what these are.
What really stood out for me, and it still puzzles me as to how this is possible, is the fact that ‘Unethical Public Relations Practice’ is no longer in the Top 3 challenges facing the industry: it now fell three positions, ranking 6th. That is something really worrying especially when we are still:
- accused of astroturfing and fake grassroot campaigns;
- causing clients significant reputational damage;
- creating deep fakes to further political agendas;
- struggling to understand the impact of Artificial Intelligence and chatbots;
- unsure who or what we should be supporting and believing in;
- unable to be in charge of our own and our clients’ data;
- far from understanding the complexities of state-sponsored disinformation.
I took CIPR’s survey last year and I remember that my first three choices for this section of the survey were the unethical PR practices, not being seen as a professional discipline and lack of analytical skills.
We cannot have a representation at Board level without being seen as a professional discipline and without demonstrating that we can analyse the documents / case studies we are being presented with; and we can’t provide trusted counsel if we don’t understand the ethical complexities of an issue or crisis our employers or clients are facing.
It is very easy to do wrong, scheme, threaten, attack competitors’ reputations, create wars and, generally, do really bad and nasty things with the set of skills we all (or many of us) have. Doing good or bad is and will always be an individual ethical choice. To do good is much more difficult than to do bad. Even for clients whose reputations are in tatters, if there is a genuine will there for a positive change, it can be done. Let’s try to do good and do the right thing.
Article image credit – Dan Whale, unsplash.com