Drawing a line on ethics in PR


Like all professions, public relations has codes of ethics that describe behaviours to guide those who practice the profession to differentiate what’s right and wrong in how they do that.

A simplistic view, perhaps, but not far off a base description of what ethical behaviour in PR should be about but, often, isn’t.

So is the route to a more ethical public relations profession one that includes regulation or, at least, certification?

It’s more than just an idea, and not a new one either, as my podcasting partner Shel Holtz argued in a powerful post last week, literally a call to action to address counter-ethical behaviour by some in the profession.

[…] Using online tools and channels that were unimaginable a mere 25 years ago, anybody calling himself a public relations practitioner can engage in activities and behaviors that shame and belittle the profession. That’s our own fault as a profession. We have allowed “public relations” to mean anything anybody wants it to. A recent campaign to define PR doesn’t help, since not only is the definition overly broad, there is no mechanism to hold accountable anybody who operates outside the definition. As a result, anybody can say what they do is PR or communications, regardless of how far they stray outside the boundaries of professional or ethical practices.

In his post, Shel holds up as an example of what he calls “jaw-dropping abuses” the way in which one individual, self-proclaimed “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday, candidly describes his approach to PR, quoting from an interview Holiday gave to the Mixergy podcast.

Holiday, whose day job is director of marketing at American Apparel – and who’s also a Huffington Post blogger in the US – is the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, a so-called expose book published in the US last month that some have called “a primer on how to hack the media zeitgeist.”

Shel argues in his post that if you’re looking for behaviours that aren’t in the codes of ethics from professional bodies such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) – or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK, for that matter – look no further than this book.

I haven’t read the book but the excerpts referencing it in the Mixergy interview that appear in Shel’s post are damning enough to illustrate Holiday’s contempt for such things as codes of ethics by professional bodies.

To bundle some metaphors together, Holiday may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Shel, yet he’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unethical PR practice down the years.

Think of astroturfing half a decade and more ago (and which never went away). More recently, look at the Bell Pottinger political lobbying scandal in the UK last year. And, bang up to date, look at the fake Shell Oil “PR” stunt earlier this year.

Isn’t all that a strong reinforcement, then, for Shel’s call to action? For regulation, or at least, certification?

Or maybe it’s indicative of behaviour shifts in society that require a re-think on what “ethical behaviour” in practicing PR means, leading to rewriting the rules of the game?

I think the latter has more chance of happening than regulation or certification. That’s not to say for one minute that this suggests practices like Holiday’s (which to my eye look like nothing more than a fancy way of describing the end justifies the means, and cunning self-promotion for a book) are okay. They’re not, far from it, in my view.

Yet Shel’s argument is highly compelling and must also be addressed. But, I don’t think regulation or certification is the way, certainly not yet – to me it seems a last resort, when all else has failed, never mind the legal, diplomatic and logistical hurdles to jump if this is seriously about taking it on for the profession as a whole as opposed to a branch of the profession in one particular country, eg, the USA.

It seems to me that this is the moment for professional associations such as those I mentioned earlier to be handed the golden opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, so to speak. Give this a chance! Maybe a last chance for the associations to voluntarily put their member-houses in order as far as ethical behaviours are concerned.

Associations should take their existing codes of ethics and practices, and give them enforcement power – teeth! – and credibility to weed out those members of their associations who don’t abide by those codes.

How difficult can it really be to address this and draw a line? Let’s get started.

(First published in The Huffington Post, August 7, 2012.)

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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.

  1. Gerard F. Corbett


    Our thanks to you and Shel for speaking out so eloquently about the need to eradicate ethical abuses in the public relations profession.
    Your suggestion that “Associations should take their existing codes of ethics and practices, and give them enforcement power — teeth!” is well taken. PRSA tried for more than 50 years to enforce its Code of Ethics. Sadly, the effort was vexed by a lack of cooperation; enormous legal and investigative expenses; significant investments of time, money and resources for investigating alleged violations; and a slow but steadily growing realization that the meager results of the effort in relation to the time and resources required, failed to provide a valuable return on investment for PRSA, its members or the broader profession.
    Simply put, to have punitive power, PRSA must have additional authority conferred on the Society by a government agency, public legislative body or judicial decision, instruction or opinion. Then, to carry out said authority would require massive infusions of human and capital resources. Just look at the resources the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has at its disposal to ensure that advertising is truthful and not deceptive.

    Is certification the answer? Some might argue that certification already exists in credentials such as ABC and APR, without having the desired impact on ethical conduct. Licensing? Perhaps, but here too there are challenges, from inviting government regulation of our profession and the costs associated with it (ostensibly to be borne by the public relations “consumer”), to issues of jurisdiction and free speech.

    PRSA agrees that the public relations industry is being marred by the unethical actions of some of those in the profession. For this reason, PRSA places a tremendous focus on communicating the value of ethics in the profession, advocating for ethical conduct on the part of the profession’s practitioners and offering vigorous professional development and education programs centered on ethical communications.

    Is there a better, more effective approach? PRSA is interested in being part of the solution and open to new ideas on how a higher level of ethical conduct should be achieved. But given the potentially far-reaching implications of some of the solutions being tendered, it would behoove leaders from across the profession to engage one another in a conversation about how to proceed to ensure the industry reputation is positive and the professionals act in the best interest of the public.

    There are great potential liabilities in implementing enforcement measures, but so too is there is great pride to be taken in leading by example.

    Best regards,

    Gerry Corbett
    Chair and Chief Executive Officer
    Public Relations Society of America

    • Neville Hobson

      Gerry, many thanks for your comment; I appreciate your sharing your thoughts here on behalf of the PRSA.

      No one said that addressing this huge issue would be easy, that’s for sure! The history you recount regarding lack of cooperation, etc, isn’t a surprise. This issue is a big one, with many different aspects leading to different perspectives and opinion by many people on what to do, if anything.

      So writing a post about it as I’ve done is the easiest part of all.

      I do accept that there are big hurdles that stand in the way of progress such as all the ones you mention. And I also realize that it’s hardly a new topic nor are these new suggestions on addressing it.

      I do believe that professional associations like the PRSA are in the best-placed position to kick-start a genuine discussion on this matter, one that would lead to a commitment to taking action. The action may well mean attempting to surmount those obstacles that lie in the road.

      You have a code of ethics that, among other things, fulfills an oversight role on the behaviours of members, albeit passively. Perhaps re-examining the current code to see if it really is still wholly relevant in a contemporary profession (and society) would be the best start.

  2. Craig McGill

    Neville, as always a good read, but in all honesty, what ya gonna do? Slap people on the wrist? If someone behaves unethically in PR (and let’s extend that out to social media for a moment) there is nothing you can do. Kick them out the CIPR, PRSA or other organisations? Oh noes!

    The big problem is that anyone can call themselves a PR operator. There’s no standard definition/qualification like being a QC or Chartered Accountant – and I don’t know if the industry would want one because it would be an expense.

    You would also need a ton of laws brought in stating that just as accounts “should” be done by trained professionals you would need your PR/Social Media to be done by a trained professional.

    On top of that, there are a) those who will always hire someone regardless of a qualification but also b) many a PR has done some slightly underhand work at some point – even if it’s just passing on a tale about a client’s competitor. Would someone refuse Alistair Campbell as their PR just because he didn’t have some qualification? What about the jobs – like Government PR – where the job can involve a lot of Black Hat work?

    • Neville Hobson

      I hear your scepticism, Craig. Undoubtedly reactions like yours confront every profession!

      You can’t hope to change behaviours of every person here, so don’t even try – focus on your own communities.

      What you can do when setting behaviour boundaries is help everyone understand what those boundaries mean, from the positive and the negative. Be clear on the consequences of crossing them and then enforce those consequences.

      Will it mean tons of laws as you say, or other obstacles that seem impossible? Maybe it does. But we need more than ‘maybe’ about this, hence drawing a line.

      That’s means discussion, as a basic point to start drawing the line.

  3. Phil Morgan

    Fascinating debate. I speak for an organisation with a code of conduct which is actively enforced through rigorous procedures that are both grounded in the profession and include a strong element of independent ‘lay person’ input. Our code is founded on straight forward principles of honesty and integrity and is open to anyone to use to hold members to account for their professional conduct. We hear a number of cases each year and are not afraid of dismissing members when the evidence clearly points to expulsion as an appropriate sanction.

    In my opinion, the voluntary nature of the code, which is frequently attacked as a weakness, is in fact a strength. Yes, people in the profession can choose whether or not to belong to the CIPR, so the code will probably never apply to 100% of the UK PR profession. More importantly though, clients and employers can chose between working with professionals and firms who have committed to accountability and those who have not. If accountability to professional standards is important to clients and employers, chose those who are accountable to a code, provided the codes are meaningful.

    It would be ideal if the CIPR were to provide more commentary on ethical behaviour in the profession generally, but this can be hard when our disciplinary processes demand that cases are kept confidential and that we do not prejudge any outcomes. However, we intend to make clearer statements on professional conduct which should explain our code to the publics who may seek to use it, either as a guide or as a process of accountability.

    • Neville Hobson

      Thanks for your comment, Phil, appreciate your giving the CIPR’s perspective.

      It seems to me that what you describe in terms of the CIPR’s code of conduct puts you in a strong position to build further on the foundation you already have. You could take a strong lead in advocating the essential characteristics of ethical behaviour in the profession and how the CIPR addresses issues that arise.

      This is at the heart of what I meant in my post when I said “Associations should take their existing codes of ethics and practices, and give them enforcement power – teeth! – and credibility to weed out those members of their associations who dont abide by those codes.”

      No needs for regulation or certification (which, in the case of the latter, doesn’t equate to “therefore, not necessary” – another matter entirely).

      Can it really be this simple?

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