Image courtesy of flickr user Brian Hillegas

Ethics – an inconvenience or a fundamental business value?

By Eva Maclaine FCIPR, Found. Chart PR, Chair of CIPR’s Professional Practices committee

Ethics, it has to be said, is not a sexy subject. When managers are confronted with the concept of ethical practice all too often their eyes glaze over and they look for the nearest escape route.

Yet any organisation would do well to recognise the importance of a considered ethical stance for without this failure can be spectacular.

We need look no further than to the recent breath-taking example of Wells Fargo. The bank had encouraged their employees to open more than two million deposit and credit card accounts for customers who had neither sanctioned them nor needed the accounts.

During this time shares rose by $30 and the CEO’s stock, which was considerable (6.75m shares), apparently increased by more than $200 million.

When the scam came to light, CEO John Stumpf told the Senate, “I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices”. But what did the company actually do?  Well, it sacked 5,300 low level employees.

An incandescent Elizabeth Warren, the Senator who grilled the hapless John Stumpf, asked him why no senior people had been fired and told him that he should be criminally investigated.

Since then a reputational car crash has ensued, shares have plummeted and two of the employees have filed a class action against Wells Fargo.

In addition, it seems that employees who spoke up against the practice and reported it to the ethics hotline were quickly fired.

This ability to whistleblow is vital for the health of companies and of society. “Organisations must develop their own consciences, and they must have an ethical vocabulary whereby staff can challenge the organisation if it deviates from its own ethic,” says branding and strategic communications consultant Martin Turner, Found. Chart PR.

Where then do PR advisors fit in to this ethical jigsaw? Our role is one of the few in an organisation, which touches all the disciplines: management, finance, production, sales, marketing and human resources.

It is our role to consider the whole picture and offer professional strategic advice, which will benefit the organisation and also society at large. Indeed, CIPR members, by signing up to the Code of Conduct, accept the fundamental tenet in the Royal Charter, awarded to the CIPR, which states that the primary objective for the Institute is “to promote for the public benefit high levels of skill …”

Dr Anne Gregory Hon FCIPR, Professor of Corporate Communications at the University of Huddersfield puts it this way. “A mark of a professional and of professionalism is an unequivocal commitment to ethical practice and processes. This is more than obeying a set of rules and a Code of Conduct; it’s a mindset and embedded way of thinking, underpinned by a carefully thought-through position.”

This professionalism should make CIPR members more valuable to their clients or employers. In the long term, the benefits of running an ethical business touch every aspect of it: contented employees, satisfied clients, customers and shareholder, and a responsive supply chain.

CIPR’s Ethics Festival will run throughout the month of October 2016. It will shine a spotlight on ethical issues, provide guidelines and stimulate thought about this important subject in a variety of media.

Image courtesy of flickr user Brian Hillegas

  1. Thanks so much Phil – and sorry I missed your reply earlier. And many thanks for your useful contribution of the NUJ flyer. Good that we are all pulling the same direction.

  2. You’re spot on Eva. Too often people take short term unethical decisions which have long term consequences which render any short term gains worthless. Pressure on PR workers to behave unethically or unprofessionally is all too common, which is why the CIPR’s commitment to professional practice and NUJ’s ethical standards https://www.nuj.org.uk/documents/should-i-say-that-pr-ethics-flyer/ are so important. As Anne highlights, once ethical behaviour is embedded as a way of working, professional standards are significantly enhanced.

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