‘Dressing up the truth is not an option,’ why ethics matters in PR

When I worked in house, I had a copy of the CIPR’s code of conduct on my wall. It was, if you like, my insurance policy. It was also a major talking point, especially when I worked for the NHS. Consultant doctors were always especially interested in it – and it afforded me the opportunity to talk about my professional standards. I enjoyed many varied conversations talking about ethics with my medical and nursing colleagues.

Now in my agency, I take a copy to my clients and explain what it will mean to our contract of work.
It also meant that I was exceptionally clear in my own mind that there were things I would not be prepared to do. Ignore information that was told to me. Cover stuff up. Turn a blind eye.

Next month sees the CIPR once again take an active role in Ethics Month. If we are serious about being taken seriously – then the only way is ethics. How else will we ever move from the shopping list approach; ‘bring in the communications person I need a newsletter and a photo shoot’, ‘let’s get communications involved we need to get stuff out there’…..to being seen as a strategic management discipline.

There is only ever one version of the truth – and it is the role of professional PR and communicators to help organisations tell it.

Sometimes we have to hold their hands and mop up the tears, the truth can be hard to tell and working in the NHS is was often painful and difficult too. But as my mother would say it’s always better out than in.
Sometimes, we shout it loud and proud from the roof tops. The work of campaigning organisations to change policy, for example the legalisation of same sex marriage in the US was a time to truly celebrate the truth – that love has no boundaries.

Sometimes, we have to persuade organisations, clients and individuals that telling the truth is not just about doing the right thing, but about being seen to do the right thing. Thinking how to be clear, concise, relevant and direct is vital. Dressing up the truth is no option. Any senior colleague, or client, who tells you ‘oh it’s just too complicated to explain’ is, in my painful experience, hiding something or afraid. It is your role to help them see that it’s always better out than in.

Sometimes the role of a professional PR is to tell the truth into an organisation. I have sat in many board and senior management meetings and heard myself saying, ‘Do you really believe that course of action is wise. If you make that decision, this is what will happen.’ And once, I had to add “….and if you make that decision, I will have to resign, because I cannot defend it, it’s against my code of conduct”.

So next month, join us to discuss ethics and maybe think about printing off the code and using it as a conversation piece in your place of work. It definitely will get people talking.

See the CIPR’s Ethics Month programme to get involved.

Sarah Pinch FCIPR, MIoD is MD of Pinch Point Communications, President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2015, and a Non Executive Director of the Health and Safety Executive.

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