The only way is ethics #PRethics

The debate in Committee Room No 10 / pic by Kate Matlock

Committee Room number 10 in the House of Commons in London was the setting in the evening of July 7 for a vibrant debate on a big topic, formally titled “Wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions.”

Organized by The Debating Group and sponsored by the CIPR, the motion was proposed by Stephen Davies and seconded by me; and opposed by Stephen Waddington and seconded by Claire Walker.

About 100 people formed the audience, many of whom contributed opinion and running commentary on Twitter as each of the four speakers made their cases for the motion and against it. Once the formal addresses had been made, debate chair Alastair McCapra opened the debate to the floor where 18 people offered their perspectives to the debate.

It was a most interesting few hours. Opinion during the motions seemed pretty evenly divided, which seems to me to be fairly reflected in the commentary on Twitter. But when it came to the moment of voting, we were firmly defeated – 55 votes against the motion with only 28 for it.

Yet those stark numbers hide one reality, which is that it’s clear to me that this topic is not as black and white as it seems, offering only agreement or disagreement as your options. It is phenomenally nuanced, with so many shades of grey, and where almost everything you might say needing to start with “It depends.”

It’s also clear that the two opposing sides to the motion were far closer in thinking and belief than it may seem. Closer in the view that the topic is largely about people’s behaviours rather than about the wearable tech – meaning, what the tech enables people to do and so what they do or don’t do with it – and largely about providing codes of conduct that would be the roadmap for PR practitioners’ behaviour in how they use wearable tech.

I wholly support that idea although I’m far less optimistic that PR practitioners will simply abide by a code of conduct and not do bad things. If some PRs can’t get even the basics right, why should I have confidence that they can be trusted to do the right thing on their own with something far more important? Having a code is great, but it needs by-example leadership and professional behaviour to make it work at all.

Hence the “it depends” idea where I firmly believe that there won’t be an ethical nightmare as long as we – the profession, consultancies and clients, and individuals – take firm and clear steps to make the landscape anything but an ethical nightmare. We must do this, actively and proactively, collectively and individually.

Unlike my fellow speakers in the debate, I didn’t make a prepared speech. Instead, I prepared talking points from which I highlighted my perspectives to support Stephen. For the purpose of this narrative, let me highlight the bottom line of my argument:

Is there (or will there be) an ethical nightmare for PR, marketing and communication professionals?

I have 3 answers…

Yes, if…

1. Yes, if we do nothing to raise awareness and educate our publics on the SWOT of wearable tech.

2. Yes, if we fail to recognize the critical importance of the trust consumers place in our clients, in our employers and in governments that their behaviours are ethical.

3. Yes, if we fail to take advantage of the opportunities to advance our profession at the vanguard of understanding the ethics, scope and scale surrounding the enabling technologies that are before us, and what they will do – and do not – for our clients, our employers, consumers and businesses, and society at large.

Will we do this?

You tell me.

And here’s the argument in detail by the lead debaters:

My complete notes on Scribd:

I’ve seen some great reports and commentary about the debate, notably:

And of course, the curation of all the tweets, etc, in Storify by Gabrielle Laine-Peters:

And finally, credit where credit’s due – hard to resist a pun on the word ‘ethics’ as I use in my headline above. “The only way is ethics” is a play on “The only way is Essex,” a popular (?) reality TV show in the UK. So, full credit to Wadds for first use in the debate!

Being inclusive about PR ethics

changingalightbulbOne of the great things about the Ethics Awareness Month initiative from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is that it helps focus clear attention on a core issue in the profession that, in many people’s minds, needs that attention.

It doesn’t matter a bit that the PRSA’s initiative happens to be organized by the professional body that represents practitioners in the USA. To give full credit to them (as well as recognize some good common sense at work), it’s very open – anyone with a point of view and some good ideas on ethics can contribute no matter where they are and whether they’re a member of the PRSA (or any other body) or not.

One feature of the initiative is the weekly tweet chat anyone can participate in around the hashtag #prethics. I took part in the first one on September 6 organized jointly by PRSA and the CIPR in the UK. It was a great discussion.

I wrote about it and the copy of my post that was syndicated in the CIPR’s The Conversation blog attracted some discussion in the comments.

Discussion on this topic is terrific, just what we need to have wherever it takes place. I hope the exchanges of views to my post contribute to some measurable course of action on this topic.

Yet it seems to me that there’s a risk of slipping into a cul-de-sac over territorial rights, being side-tracked by a debate about which professional body should lead the charge on the ethics debate.

That’s the least relevant matter, in my view. I don’t care who leads any charge as long as this important issue is on the agenda and that a clear course of action emerges. Heck, I’m not a PRSA member nor a CIPR one yet I find the debate wholly relevant to my practice as a communicator and I engage in discussion with peers who are members of these associations as well as others like CPRS in Canada. PR is just one part of my professional communication activity, one reason why the IABC is my professional association of choice for more than 20 years.

What I’d like to see is our lightbulb moment on ethics in the profession – where anyone, anywhere, is part of the discussion – not a discussion about how many PR organizations does it take to change the lightbulb.

If you have an opinion, why not chime in? Here, there or anywhere you feel like. Just connect your comments to the #prethics hashtag.

Related post:

So what will you do for ethics in PR?

The subject of ethics in public relations often provokes strong opinions from people, especially when questionable practices fall under the critical spotlight – as Scott Adams so cannily grasped in this Dilbert cartoon in August.

Ethics in PR issues from the past few years that readily come to my mind range from Edelman’s shattered pedestal over not one but two Wal-Mart kerfuffles in 2006; the anti-astroturfing campaign by Trevor Cook and Paull Young in that same year; ongoing PR spam (very much a matter of ethical behaviours, in my view); Burson Marsteller’s Facebook dirty tricks fiasco this year; and of course the News of The World phone hacking scandal that came to a dramatic head in July and the subsequent role of PR.

While such unsavoury events always provoke much debate, opinion-sharing and hand-wringing about ethics by many inside the industry as well as outside – especially in the mainstream media – not a lot actually happens, really, to credibly address such things in a way that’s scalable. So as fast as one crisis fades from public memory, another one comes along to outrage or entertain, depending on your point of view.

I believe that individual responsibility is the best way to address behaviours and practices within and by the profession where believing in and abiding by codes of conduct/ethical behaviour is fundamental. Yet that can only have a chance of working when it’s part of a framework, something that people are willing to sign up for, as it were, and where leadership by example is the essential ingredient.

I also believe that the industry’s professional associations occupy a critical role in this regard and could make a huge difference in one key area (in particular) – leading by example in education and awareness-raising about ethical behaviours.

I’d accept without question that bodies such as the PRSA in the US, the CIPR in the UK and the IABC from a global perspective already do a great deal through professional development and other activities for members. Yet I think it needs more, something that gives it a firmer push onto everyone’s agenda.

That was the prominent thought in my mind as I participated in a tweetchat (an online discussion via Twitter) on Tuesday jointly hosted by Rosanna Fiske and Jane Wilson, respectively Chair and CEO of PRSA and CIPR.

During the course of an hour, a wide- and far-ranging discussion and exchange of views about ethics and behaviours took place with some excellent views, ideas and suggestions ebbing and flowing in the discussion.

ethicstweetchat

I think we had a good indicator of leadership by the fact that the PRSA and the CIPR collaborated in leading discussion this way on the topic of ethics, as the PRSA noted in its post-event report:

[...] We’d be remiss if we did not address the importance of this Tweet chat and of enhancing ethical standards in PR. It is something that both of our organizations firmly believe in and will continue to pursue for years to come. Simply put: Ethics form the backbone of PRSA and the CIPR. Our respective ethics codes — PRSA’s Code of Ethics and the CIPR’s Code of Conduct — are well established as the profession’s global standards for ethical conduct.

If anyone ever had any doubt about the significant role and value that ethics plays in PR professionals’ levels, Tuesday’s Tweet chat stopped that idle chatter cold in its tracks. We were impressed with the level of commitment and interest among the commenters to better understand and uphold ethical standards. From @thefishareloose Tweeting that “socialmedia and access to Internet is making it harder for people to hide a lie which should help show why #prethics is so important” to @brandjack commenting that “ethical behavior is what gets results” for clients and organizations, the chat demonstrated the level of recognition and respect that ethics now has in public relations.

September is PRSA’s Ethics Awareness Month. Why don’t we all make September our own ethics awareness month by asking ourselves: What am I going to do?

Here’s a start: before the end of this month, read your respective professional association’s code of conduct:

(If you’re not a member of any of these bodies, read the codes anyway.)

Tell your colleagues and/or your clients you’re doing this and will uphold the code’s values. Ask them to do the same. Ask your boss to do it. If you’re the boss, well, you know what to do.

Individual responsibility. And a framework. Sounds good to me.