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.


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.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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