Claire Walker’s opposition to “Wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the PR, marketing and communications professions” motion

Claire Walker’s opposition to “Wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the PR, marketing and communications professions” motion

Firefly HQ

Firefly HQ

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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