Ethics in the PR industry: Are you a spinner, smoother or soother?

Ethics in the PR industry: Are you a spinner, smoother or soother?

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

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...

  • It ensures we are accountable for our decisions
  • It rounds up and exposes the cowboy operators who do not comply
  • It’s important for the outside world to see, hear and know that we enforce accountability and behave professionally

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

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