Happy Pride Month! No doubt we’ve all seen a flurry of rainbow flags hit our social media feeds this month, along with several hit inclusive campaigns in the media. Some of my personal favourites include the gender-neutral shaving campaign from Harry’s and Flamingo, and Absolut Vodka’s out and open campaign.

What do these excellent campaigns have in common? To put it simply, they engage in brand reputation shaping, rather than so-called ‘rainbow washing’ – using rainbow colours and imagery to suggest to consumers that a brand supports LGBTQ+ equality, without backing these campaigns up with concrete action.

When done right, Pride Month can be a special time to uplift the actions your organisation is doing for the LGBTQ+ community all year round, contributing to an overall inclusive reputation. But when done poorly, Pride campaigns can at best look cheap, and at worst, reflect tokenism.

Why leverage Pride Month for inclusive campaigns?

It’s easy to see why brands choose to jump on the Pride bandwagon for their campaigns. Globally, the LGBTQ+ community possesses a whopping $3.7 trillion in purchasing power. Brands looking to increase their revenue want to market to LGBTQ+ consumers and can be led to believe that Pride Month is the appropriate time to do so.

This isn’t a million miles away from the truth. Events like Pride seek to uncover the stories of marginalised communities, which is evidently a noble cause. And as is the case with Pride, often such dates have historical relevance, marking events that may otherwise fly under the radar.

The issue therefore isn’t that brands are honouring Pride Month. On the contrary, the more people that celebrate Pride, the more effective the month becomes. Marking Pride becomes an issue when it’s done only to drive sales in one specific month, and when LGBTQ+ inclusivity is not part of an organisation’s longer-term reputation programme.  

How can organisations do better this Pride Month and beyond?

It’s clear that a one-off, tokenistic Pride Month campaign isn’t the right way to go when it comes to building an inclusive company reputation. Instead, businesses should focus on implementing genuine, year-round strategies to support marginalised communities, and match these efforts with appropriate PR campaigns. Here are some concrete examples for organisations to consider:

  • Do work with the LGBTQ+ community to create inclusive campaigns. PR and comms professionals may be the ones strategizing and writing, but it’s your LGBTQ+ colleagues who are most qualified to speak about LGBTQ+ topics.
  • Don’t stick a Pride flag on your website and call it a day. Not only does it appear tokenistic but can be seen as co-opting the deeply symbolic and personal meaning behind LGBTQ+ symbols.
  • Do consider donating a portion of your profits to LGBTQ+ non-profits. This especially goes for those introducing Pride or otherwise LGBTQ+-themed products.
  • Don’t release Pride campaigns without building an inclusive company first. Offer training on diversity and inclusion or create a staff LGBTQ+ network and ensure that any marketing efforts are backed up with concrete action.

Crucially, building an inclusive reputation begins within. It’s all well and good talking about your support of the LGBTQ+ community externally during Pride Month, but if your LGBTQ+ employees and customers do not receive your support all year round, it doesn’t appear authentic. Ultimately, shaping and managing a reputation involves taking accountability for actions and demonstrating strong company values, consistently.  

Want to learn more about shaping a brand’s reputation? Check out The Firefly Guide to Shaping Your Reputation.

At this point, most of us will have seen the latest Netflix-induced cultural phenomenon – The Tinder Swindler. If not, you’ll likely have heard about it through friends, news outlets and every existing social media platform you happen to be active on. But here’s something you’ve maybe not thought about: what can the Tinder Swindler teach us about comms, PR and branding?  

Boy meets girl, boy scams girl… 

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid knowledge of the new Netflix documentary entirely, let me summarise it for you…spoiler alert! A man meets women on the dating app Tinder, presenting himself as extremely wealthy with a lavish lifestyle. He embarks on relationships with these women  and then, a few months down the line, he convinces them that he is in imminent danger from his ‘enemies’. He then persuades them to send him money so he can escape – only, he keeps needing more. Using this method, he’s defrauded his victims of an estimated $10million.  

You might be thinking: sorry, how does this tie into PR and comms again? I’m getting there, I promise.  

Honesty is the best policy 

Let’s talk about image. The Tinder Swindler was an extremely convincing communicator when it came to his image. He portrayed himself as charming, genuine and immensely wealthy – and his victims believed him. But, of course, this was a complete lie. A lie that was ultimately exposed. And, while some might view having a Netflix documentary made about you as a form of success, he’s now known globally as a con artist and his face is not one that many women will be swiping right on anymore.  

The lesson we can all take from this is that honesty is integral when it comes to any branding or comms strategy. Putting a false, romanticised version of a company or brand out into the world may bring some initial success. But without honesty and integrity at its core, any comms plan will eventually crumble.  

PRs are your partners  

Now we know our clients aren’t out to con anyone – as most companies aren’t! That’s not what we’re implying. But it’s certainly not unheard of to get wrapped up in the excitement of appearing in the press. And sometimes, in an effort to achieve this, companies can lose sight of what it is they should be communicating, and how.  

It should be a shared responsibility between the company itself, and the PR agency they partner with, to manage this. Lots of PRs are yes men, and of course there’s an element of this required in any service industry. But it’s also vital that we remember our role as partners and advisors. Companies need PR agencies that will keep them honest, challenge them when PR, comms or branding strategy is overstepping the mark, and provide push back where necessary.  

Substance over splash, always  

For instance, companies can often fall into the trap of wanting to overhype all and any company news, whether it’s a genuinely interesting new acquisition or simply a change of office. The press quickly grow tired of exaggerated news of success and so, as PRs, it’s our job to call out when hyperbole might be in play and push back on forcing this news out to sceptical journalists.   

Another area companies can get carried away with is employer branding. With the current employment market the way it is, every company is naturally keen to appeal to candidates. But it’s vital to remember – before launching into any awards, speaker opportunities, or weighing in on any news – that the work actually needs to be done internally first. A company that is 90% male should do tangible work on improving inclusivity before commenting on International Women’s Day, for instance.  

PRs should be ready and willing to point things like this out, helping keep our clients honest and on the straight and narrow. This partnership will lay the foundation for a strong PR and comms strategy, with truth-telling at its core.  

There was a quote from Matt Damon earlier this month in GQ where he expressed his feeling on the return to Hollywood: “It has just been a lot, like from zero to hundred again. I was excited to kind of reengage with the world, but I forgot how fast it moves.”

It’s the same story across every industry; and comms certainly had a hectic summer.

This September, The London Underground saw the busiest Monday back since the start of the pandemic, as the rush hour roars back. Bars, restaurants, and cafes have bustled to life with eager customers; the wait for a table at your favourite spot is back. A frenzied summer of global dealmaking and transactions has set records, with almost $4 trillion of deals already signed on the dotted line. The job market is busy, with the second highest monthly increase in new employment coupled with a booming number of vacancies.

Headlines are dominated now by funding news, companies committed to growing their workforce and launches of new innovations. It’s exciting, it’s hectic, but it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what we’ve just been through.

When the pandemic blended our professional and personal lives, we learned valuable lessons in authenticity and vulnerability as the world changed around us. Whilst we ride the wave of economic prosperity and reopening, these resilient characteristics will be vastly beneficial.

Zooming out to see the bigger picture

As the crisis of the pandemic hit, conversations became more meaningful as we all stood on common ground. It facilitated more open and authentic discussion as we chatted home lives, mental health, and everything in between. Not only did we see inside people’s homes, including their bookshelves, but opportunities for more introspection and empathy across every industry were revealed.

Some changes were hugely impactful on our daily lives and some more subtle, but we developed a wider and more thoughtful perspective, reframing what we see in the ‘picture frame of life’. A crisis often helps us develop a wider point of view as we question the way we live and what is important to us. However, for many people, it was a challenge as industries ground to a halt or plans were cancelled completely. For those lucky enough to have job security and the freedom and space to dream big, zooming out to see the bigger picture can present brilliant opportunities for improving growth and communications within your organisation.

By breaking free of the prior rigidity of routine, we found ourselves to be more vulnerable. Everyone has experienced the past 18 months vastly similarly and vastly differently; we can resonate and sympathise with our neighbours and colleagues. Beyond seeing the glass as half full, we see new imagined and realistic ideals: moving to a new city, a new career change or a new passion.

The power of authentic and human communication

Whilst it may be tempting for businesses to focus on comms demonstrating growth, success, and innovation, it must be balanced with authentic stories highlighting the impact and human side to your brand. The power to bounce back is more paramount than ever, especially how we set forth with this ability.  This can be showcased with reputational assets- thought leaders, delighted clients, resilient workforces- the important part is to continue to build purpose-led authentic communications. Be wary of following what the rest of the crowd is doing  though, and make sure to march to the beat of your own drum. Audiences are sharp and they know when they are being duped with a manufactured story or a cliched idiom. To avoid these blunders, provide your audience with relatable, passion and enthusiastic messaging without overthinking.

Being vulnerable to stand out in the crowd

In a vast sea of communications, stick out withpersonable and honest stories. For example, the file sharing service WeTransfer had a viral, offbeat campaign entitled ‘Please Leave’, narrated by poet Roxane Gay, reminding audiences of their values of putting people first, and the importance of creativity.

You may feel like Matt Damon and have forgotten how fast pre-pandemic life zooms by, but don’t forget pandemic life either. We learnt a lot, and as hard as it was, in many ways it made us better and more human.

The Deliveroo IPO boycott could be far reaching, and have implications far beyond the tech industry as fund managers slate their ethical stances. As experts in reputation shaping for tech-driven business, Firefly and I are watching closely. A growing number of institutional investors* have boycotted the IPO, citing the Deliveroo employment practices as a ticking timebomb which makes the company uninvestible. Certainly, with the recent Uber news of greater legal rights being given to its riders and drivers, there is an element of reputational and legal risk if Deliveroo does not change the business model, and an element of financial risk if it does, as Deliveroo’s profit margin is already very slim. Interestingly, while Deliveroo may yet stumble on this issue of gig economy practices, its competitors such as Just Eat offers full employment contracts to all its UK-based riders. Deliveroo offers a great service which I have enjoyed many times, and it has a highly motivated and award-winning in-house PR team. Hopefully the team has CEO, Will Shu’s ear on resolving or counteracting the reputational damage and criticism. There is no doubt it’s special, exciting and encouraging to see a British business list on the London Stock Exchange. We wish Deliveroo well. We also wish it looks after its workers more fairly. We’ll see what gets served up when shares trade, we’ll share more views after that.

Privacy will be a big theme in 2018. If you’ve not yet come across the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), where have you been hiding? The regulation will come into play in May 2018 – and if privacy and data protection wasn’t already all people could talk about last year, then just you wait for the explosion this year!

GDPR brings a host of challenges for businesses – particularly for marketing folk. But I won’t go into that now, we’ve already covered this in a previous blog post which you can read here.

But one consequence of GDPR is that people will become more aware of the protection of data and their privacy – which has already started to result in people losing trust in some of the major technology providers.

The build-up of mistrust

We are not far off a major breakdown between consumer-business relationships at the rate we’re going. Last year Uber was hacked and hid it, YouTube allowed sexualised remarks to be left alongside content featuring children, Google was sued for gender discrimination and that’s only a handful of last year’s scandals in the tech sector.

Big players can just about ride out this type of negative attention due to their dominance of the market – although many responsible companies have responded and changed in response. But what would happen if this was an attack on one of the smaller challenger brands? It could be their ending.

There’s nowhere to hide – brands must prepare for total transparency

Internal culture is becoming part of a brand’s identity. For a long time now, sites like Glassdoor and social media have given outsiders an inside view of a company’s ‘employer brand’ and culture. But culture hasn’t been exposed in the way we’ve seen it in 2017 – people have actively ‘outed’ poor behaviour and we’ve seen boycotts of services (like brands pulling ads off YouTube) and regulators swoop in (European demanding fair taxes from Google, Facebook and Amazon).

For transparency to work, brands must work on what they deem is the right internal culture because it will live on outside the company. If the marketing team hasn’t spent considerable time with HR in the past, then it’s time to start now.

Marketing and HR must club together

All employees and all customers are advocates of some kind, whether good or bad. HR and marketing must work together, not just at a tactical level to engage these advocates, but at a strategic one, especially given the incredible harm bad advocates can have on a brand.

Alongside HR, marketing must monitor how the company operates and keep a firm hand on the tiller. More than ever before, the inner workings of a company are projected externally – either through social sites like Glassdoor, or more simply, the way that staff talk to customers, partners and each other. This makes it far more important that HR and marketing are on the same page to ensure alignment in the way they engage advocates. And today, every single member of staff is an advocate. This is especially important if there is a cultural change – and if there’s resistance – marketing must help to mitigate that, which often means working very closely with the senior management team.

In a competitive talent market, HR teams and business leaders will have been busy building their employer brand, but in 2018 it’ll be about building employer trust. There are a number of surveys and studies which show the impact of a bad employer brand – mostly focusing on the consequence of your talent acquisition with higher costs to recruit and candidates turning down roles at companies with a bad rep. But in today’s world the impact of a bad reputation is so much higher, as we saw with the Uber and YouTube boycotts.

Marketing has an inherent skill in building trust. With HR, marketing becomes fundamental in navigating the company during this new era of trust. And customers and employees will demand proof of this trust – regulations like the GDPR will make sure of that!

 

 

Until mid-September 2017, Facebook allowed ad buyers to target users who were interested in, or who had interacted with anti-Semitic content[1]. The categories were created by a self-selecting algorithm, which aggregated data based on user activity on pages and feeds, rather than individuals’ profiles, from each of its two billion active monthly users.

In March 2016, Microsoft launched an experimental Twitter chatbot to learn from other users, get smarter and eventually have conversations[2]. Just a few hours later, @TayandYou was spouting white supremacist, pro-genocidal content and was taken down in short order.

This raises two questions in my mind. Firstly, can machines be accountable for their actions? And second, what should you do as a communications professional if they do misbehave?

Why should we hold machines accountable?

Neural network-style systems are programmed and trained to reach outcomes, within certain parameters, such as not letting high-risk people buy insurance or creating a category for advertisers to target once a topic reaches a certain threshold of interest amongst users. These algorithms are usually very complex, as they have to process a significant amount of information about specific users, users as groups, external conditions and do a lot of calculations as a result. But once they’re trained within a reasonable degree of success, many organisations simply let them run.

The problem, as academics and journalists tell us, is that this learning can sometimes be a ‘black box’ that you can’t see inside.

It’s cheap labour; all you have to pay is the operating bill for the server.

Of course, not all algorithms are commercial – one of our clients, SafeToNet, is in the middle of creating algorithms that can detect harmful content online and take appropriate action to prevent children seeing it. The algorithms can also learn ‘backwards’ – for example, once it sees that an exchange between two young adults ends in one sending the other a sexually explicit message, it looks back at the cadence of communication to learn the pattern that lead to the explicit content and help prevent this in future, removing the harm before it occurs.

The problem is the lack of transparency – according to the Huffington Post and Oxford University, putting this in place can often make a system less efficient, because it has to be slowed down enough to be overseen[3]. But I’m in complete agreement with Wired Magazine when it said, ‘it would be irresponsible not to try to understand it’[4] – after all, some of these systems are hugely powerful, have no moral compass and reflect the best and worst parts of the human condition without any concept of which is which.

My opinion is really very simple: no machine, no application, no algorithm should go untested or unsupervised, particularly in the period immediately after release or upgrade. You wouldn’t give a few days training to a junior member of staff and expect them to perform well without a manager, and algorithms don’t have the common sense or moral compass that new employees have.

Handling a crisis in AI

But if things do go wrong, how do you handle an AI crisis? Well, in many ways it’s no different to handling other crisis situations – just don’t be afraid of the complexities of AI. The first stage of any crisis, robot-fuelled or not, is understanding the situation clearly. Talk to the experts in the company where problems originated and don’t take no for an answer. After that, we’d recommend traditional crisis communications steps, including:

After the initial surge of adrenalin fades, it’s vital to keep monitoring the situation, assessing the impact, taking action and keeping an eye on the response across stakeholder groups, and across traditional and social media channels.

Above all, when you’re dealing with a machine crisis, the most important thing is to think like a human.

 

[1] https://www.propublica.org/article/facebook-enabled-advertisers-to-reach-jew-haters

[2] http://uk.businessinsider.com/ai-expert-explains-why-microsofts-tay-chatbot-is-so-racist-2016-3

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-ai-can-remain-fair-and-accountable_us_5934ec81e4b062a6ac0ad154

[4] https://www.wired.com/2016/10/understanding-artificial-intelligence-decisions/

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

On a less sensational scale, how often might these ethical PR problems come up and test your own judgement? You may well be surprised. How about confidentiality dilemmas with recording complex conversations, leveraging one client to benefit another, exaggerating facts, blowing a non-disclosure agreement, understanding where loyalties lie, concerns for public safety or offering career favours? There might also be integrity challenges like how accurate is accurate, dealing with implied bribery, handling deception, bundle discounting, knowing when you can invest, sharing of evidence or handling conflicts of interest.

Aha, 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 actually 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 a PR 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 professionals (from students to MDs) appreciate why having strong ethical judgement is so important and how your ethical awareness can be tested.

Most PRs (recent events aside) don’t set out to deliberately misinform or deceive but, as the PRCA code outlines, PRs 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? To have a good ethical backbone for your personal approach to PR, or how you run your PR team, you need to trust your instincts, know your PR code of ethics and use your common sense. There are some good top tips here from a previous blog piece I wrote, or why not consider these questions and statements below?

I hope this quiz was easy for you, (correct answers below – did you get them all 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.

If you’d like to hear more, you can give this recent csuite podcast a listen or why not come on my course, and challenge yourself with the other 36 dilemmas.

 

 

Answers: Both no, both false

“What’s hot for you right now?” I remember asking an IT director at a retail firm, somewhat earlier in my career, looking for an insight into his business, possible campaign content and the like.

“Email,” he replied. “Email is a big priority for us this year.”

I didn’t think that was very sexy at the time, but with hindsight it makes a lot of sense. Technology isn’t all drones, swarm intelligence and hype – and even the worlds of virtual reality (despite the ready availability of headsets), 3D printing and the IoT are a reasonably long way from ubiquitous adoption across the UK. In an age where many rural areas still struggle to get broadband speeds of over 2Mbps, our industry is often guilty of looking at the ‘latest and greatest’, which runs the risk of turning us into a London-centric hype factory, rather than grounded thinkers with a pragmatic understanding of the here and now.

So, which sectors do we think will rise to red-hot levels of heated fame in 2017? Here’s a few of my top bets so far.

Igniting public understanding about Fintech:

The UK has been named a global Fintech hub, and rightly so. We’ve seen a cornucopia of retail banking, investment and information services spring up in the last few years and many of them have been hugely successful. If you’ve not come across the likes of Atom, Nutmeg, Bud, DueDil, Crowdcube, FundingCircle or Seedrs before, they’re all well worth a look – these are the companies which are radically changing how consumers and businesses handle their money.

A lot of these contenders launched a few years ago, but whilst almost any startup can make a splash (A compact doubling as a USB charger? Self-warming shoes?), it takes a lot more staying power to provide services to the financial services industry and thrive over three to four years.

These kinds of companies will have a virtuous effect on other, more established companies, showing traditional retail banks and investment companies how to do business better. That’s before we’ve even talked about the blockchain industry, which is slowly changing how transactions – effectively one of the cornerstones of modern society – are conducted and recorded.

Unfortunately, whilst fintech is lauded as a sector, it also poses a challenge to communications professionals. Fintech itself has many press titles dedicated to it, but it is often poorly understood in broader press circles: for example, in a recent video by a blockchain company, the main benefit of its technology was accelerating business transaction times from four days to a matter of seconds. To a consumer, or consumer journalist, this is unexciting: the likes of PayPal allow you to do the same – and has done for years. It is only by educating press about the technology and how it works in reality that comms professionals in emerging fintech sectors will be able to do their brands justice.

Accelerating change in the automotive industry:

After decades of incremental improvements, the automotive sector is finally becoming the bus that just won’t slow down. Hybrid and electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, better connected cars, not to mention the ever-present impact of Uber and its competitors – whilst not all of these will become mainstream in 2017, the UK will soon be glowing red and white hot from the benefits.

There will also be a wave of secondary benefits, including lower emissions and pollutants, significantly lower maintenance bills (electric cars have fewer moving parts, so require less work) and safe roads from smart vehicle detection systems.

However, many large, bold steps are still needed in this sector. For example, there are still too few charging stations in the broader UK for electric vehicles to be truly widespread. Most charging points are clustered in large cities and major motorways, giving a situation parallel to the UK’s broadband, where countryside locations suffer from poor connectivity and low speeds, whilst major cities enjoy a feast of fibre (optic cable, that is). Unless the automotive industry finds a creative solution to this, our electric and hybrid fleets may be stuck at a thirty limit for some time.

In this sector, communications professionals face a different challenge. There have been a number of trials of autonomous vehicles, for example, but the press have been quick to jump on any problems or accidents. This in turn affects how politicians regulate the sector, because it influences public sentiment. Many of these issues will verge on the philosophical, as people and organisations debate the ethics, morality and liability involved with autonomous vehicles – not least of all the impact on the insurance industry!

PR professionals in this area must address these wider industry issues and push for change, smarter regulation and solid commercial partnerships which will motor the industry forward, and not keep the brakes of fear, uncertainty or doubt firmly pushed down.

2017: A year of change

A lot of change was brewing in 2016, but 2017 will be a year of fruition as these developments start to pay off. The UK has invested a significant amount in technology, and whilst sometimes these initiatives can be slow to pay off, the time is finally arriving. In much the same way as our investment pre- and post- the London 2012 Olympics paved the way for our success in Rio last year, the hard graft that the technology community has made in the preceding years will make 2017 a bigger, better year for the sector.

However, to make the most of this, and continue to drive the improvements needed in the sector, communications professionals must knuckle down, identify the areas where they can make the most impact and find partners who will help them to accelerate this change. It is only through the combined work of PR professionals and technologists that we can continue to make the UK technology industry great – and get it the recognition it deserves.

Are you proud of the industry you’re in? I really hope so. Life is too short not to be. We all have a crazed moment of hating and sounding off about certain professions, and generalising a group of professionals or workers as @%?£!’s as (add your preferred assortment of expletives, all insulting).

Last Saturday at 10.42 precisely, I hated parking wardens, when given a parking ticket as we loaded my car with old IT equipment ready to be carted off to our local recycling centre – I was trying to be a good citizen. What I said about parking wardens in my following 20+ rants is definitely not repeatable on the internet. And similar rants are given about estate agents, tax inspectors, call centre operators, bailiffs and the list goes on. I suspect we all find our ‘Victor Meldrew’ side from time to time.

And of course, people love to hate PR professionals because they think we lie and don’t speak openly and truthfully. We are lumped together as ‘Spin Doctors’ and probably given a few other unpleasant names as well. The disgust and distaste is one of mistrust, as “spin” often implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.

The good news is that PR people have fallen down the list of most hated professions but there is still plenty of work to do, continuously.

It’s personal. It is down to everyone working in the PR industry to understand that your reputation and the responsibility you carry is built on a strong ethical foundation. When was the last time you read the PRCA or the CIPR code of conduct?  How ethical are you?

Do you confuse ethics with morals? Both relate to right and wrong. But morals are your own principles as to what is right or wrong, whereas ethics is adhereing to your professional code of conduct.

Why does our industry have a code of conduct? It’s because…

There are some perceived grey areas, such as transparency. When is it imperative to say all of the truth, some of the truth or none of the truth? When is it imperative to maintain confidentiality?

The PRCA Code says “A member firm has a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations. Furthermore, a member has the responsibility at all times to deal fairly and honestly with clients, past and present, fellow members and professionals, suppliers, intermediaries, the media of communication, employees and above all else, the public.”

I’ve highlighted the keywords to remember. Any PR professional must be mindful of giving the right advice to any client and not falling into the spin trap of deception and manipulation.

I’ve given lectures on Ethics for the CIPR, I’ve debated at the House of Commons on the subject of Ethics on behalf of the CIPR and I regularly run an Ethics webinar for the PRCA.

My tops tips for being an ethical PR professional are as follows:

  1. Trust your instincts for what seems right, or what seems wrong. Use your common sense
  2. Remember those key words from the overall principle: highest standards…deal fairly and honestly…above all else, the public
  3. Know your code of conduct. Re-read it every six to 12 months or so and be sure you understand it
  4. Ensure your team or your agency or your department is aware of the code. Challenge the team with dilemmas; great for team building and mutual understanding
  5. Challenge yourself: Come on my webinar and see how you fare with a wide variety of ethical dilemmas that are set out in front of you…

For more information about my PRCA course please read http://news.prca.org.uk/prca-training-launches-new-ethics-in-pr-course/

Below is the transcript of Firefly CEO, Claire Walker’s opposition to the motion that “Wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the PR, marketing and communications professions” given during a CIPR debate at the House of Commons on the 7th July 2014.

HoC 1

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

A great deal has been said about wearable technology being an ethical nightmare for communications, marketing and PR practitioners. It would be illogical to deny that wearable technology in itself has ethical issues, but I resolutely oppose this motion being about a nightmare compromising PR ethics.

With 15 years’ service as a member of the CIPR and PRCA professional practices committees, I have dealt with numerous complaints, accusations, appeals and breaches of the respective Codes of Conduct and even stood as expert witness. I am also the newly appointed PRCA ethics trainer. Through all these experiences I know first-hand that our existing industry Codes of Conduct are robust and will stand firm and meet the high ethical standards we set ourselves.

My PR agency, Firefly, has been operating in the UK for over 25 years. We advised technology brands that built the internet and now we advise clients who businesses survive and thrive on the internet. Over the years our clients have broken boundaries, disrupted markets and caused major upheaval – – all in the name of innovation and progress.

In the late 80s a desirable technology was ISDN, an early version of an internet line but ISDN was misunderstood and quickly coined ‘I Still Don’t Know’, then after disappointing expensive implementations ‘It Still Does Nothing’. The benefits of the digital superhighway seemed slow to arrive. But the point here is that new technology doesn’t always deliver on its promises, or on time and the changes it brings may not be what we expected. In the public interest, PR professionals and clients must be truthful about the facts.

House of Commons viewIn the mid 90s we really began to feel the benefit of the internet, and the pressure of this new fast-paced world of work put many ethical practices under strain. We thought that our brains would explode (metaphorically of course) due to ‘Information Overload’ – this was a campaign designed by Firefly capturing the frustrations felt by people at that time. We worked for our client within our industry’s ethical communications framework, bringing independent experts together, and we backed it up with evidence – and this was over 20 years ago. We advised our client on what could and could not be said, all in a fair and honest manner so not to mislead. So in terms of ethics, what has changed in our approach between then and now? Nothing much has changed, except how we collect the evidence. Today, our charity fundraising client, Give as you Live, presented a report on Generation Y, the 18-30 year old next generation of charity givers, at the annual gathering of the Institute of Fundraising. The report was compiled with qualitative interviews, some over social media, and substantial input from a Generation Y psychologist – an independent third party – who rigorously checked sources and ensured that what we were saying was accurate.

For wearable technology, similar issues apply, except we happen to have thousands of messages streaming in to our Google Glasses or smart phones and details of what we are saying and doing or buying is being saved somewhere in a pile of big data ready to be mined. Horror stories abound about big data. Is it part of a big brother ploy? Or is big data in fact just a way of brands better understanding their consumers? The difference is important, because fears of big data are already being whipped up into a frenzy. To me, the issue is best summed up by this phrase, used recently by one of our clients: “big data is like teenage sex – everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it”. The truth is, there’s so much data out there even with big crunching technology, trends might be more easily spotted but looking for that very specific bit of personal data is still like trying to find a particular grain of sand in a desert and the fact is it all data held has an expiry date.

But critically and additionally, the public has the power, if we don’t want our data held, we can opt out of it. You just need to get very familiar with your privacy settings.

The truth is we have more processing power in our finger tips than the entire IT department enjoyed in 1980. My elderly father enjoys near perfect hearing with a microscopic almost invisible digital hearing aid, my mother has a pace maker managed by a remote control. I’m tagged with a fitness band and am certainly healthier than before but not enjoying as much weight loss success as Stephen.

But why should faster processing power, greater mobility or wearable technology change the Principles of our industry’s ethical frame work? I don’t believe it should.

The Code says, ‘have the responsibility to deal fairly and honestly with the public’.

CIPR debateWe ask our prospects and clients some simple questions ‘What is your business model, what are your business objectives and are you profitable? Does your technology work? Can I buy it now? Can I speak to a customer?’ Occasionally we are deafened by a stunned silence. But in those exceptional cases, why bring ourselves and our industry into disrepute working for people and organisations that are less than convincing and perhaps not even viable. We have a responsibility to ask challenging questions, and check the facts. We must judge the integrity, fairness or honesty of the prospective client as both our reputations are at stake.

The vast majority of PR practitioners will have signed up to a Code of the CIPR or PRCA, with Principles of practice that are agreed across the industry, have been in place for decades, acknowledging a professional duty to respect, observe and abide by the Code. And the same is true in marketing and the other communications disciplines.

I see no reason why wearable technology should cause practitioners to suffer from amnesia and suddenly disregard the Code and compromise their ethical responsibilities. Wearable technology is, after all, just the latest iteration of a technological revolution.

To give this a wider, historical and perhaps simpler perspective, let’s draw on another industry – travel. The change from horse & cart to motorised vehicles did not change the Principles of vigilance, courtesy, anticipation, giving way and being in control of your transport mode at all times. The Principles have not changed for centuries.

So, in closing, I’d like to draw on our very thorough industry Codes of Conduct The CIPR has 6 principle points, with 17 supporting examples. The PRCA has 4 principle points with 10 supporting expectations of conduct. These Codes do not contradict one other – and they have proven over time to be robust.

During my preparation four key words struck me for their prominence in the Codes and repeated referral in every point I wanted to make – integrity, fairness, honesty and transparency.

These must be non-negotiable watchwords of the Public Relations industry. It is our duty to ask many searching questions before representing a client and to maintain that curiosity asking questions to be sure what we say, what we do and what we try to change is giving proper regard to the public interest.

A big mistake would be to listen to this motion and be distracted by the ethical dilemmas surrounding wearable technology – the most exciting technological trend of the decade.

But our Codes of Conduct are uniquely placed to advise wearable technology clients to uphold good ethical practises in their communications plans, to ensure that they explain things the right way, and all in the public interest.

For Stephen and I, wearable technology is far from an ethical nightmare – it’s a dream opportunity. Let’s embrace it.

Thank you very much.

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