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CIPR decision tree will help members resolve ethical conflicts

As part of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Ethics Festival the Professional Practices Committee (PPC) has launched a new decision tree to help members think through difficult ethical decisions.

We have created the decision tree – which acts a bit like a flow chart – having had feedback from members wanting more tools to help them work through ethical decisions that are rarely black and white.

The PPC recognises that many CIPR members work as independent practitioners, or may at times in their career feel isolated in a role and unable to talk to colleagues. The decision tree promotes the CIPR’s helplines which members can call at any time to talk to a highly experienced adviser. Calls can be in abstract if needed, and discussion can be in confidence. Those at the start of their careers may particularly find it useful to be able to talk things through with someone when faced with a difficult ethical decision.

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Your first thought whenever faced with something that does not feel right should be to consider whether it is against the law, or breaks regulations in a particular jurisdiction. If you are being asked to do, or promote, something illegal then you should refuse. If you are aware that a company is doing something illegal you should ensure that it is being reported to the appropriate authorities, before you then help them communicate through the aftermath. It you are unsure whether something is illegal or not, then your first course of action should be to seek a legal opinion. If you do not have access to lawyers, then the CIPR has a legal hotline for members.

CIPR members are also bound by a Code of Conduct. The CIPR Code of Conduct is broad, principles-based and intended to guide members, their clients, employers and the public on the standards expected of PR professionals.

The Code of Conduct is explained in the new Integrity guidance document, but broadly it requires members to act with integrity and honesty, to fairly represent their level of competence, to be transparent about who they work with and for, and to safeguard confidentiality at all times. CIPR members should refuse any action that drops them below that behavioural standard. If it is unclear whether something breaches the Code of Conduct, then you can always call the CIPR ethics helpline.

While our job is to manage the reputations of others, you must also safeguard your own reputation. The Sweaty-gate scandal in 2015 highlighted the way that one young public relations practitioner became the story after her employers acted unethically. It is a valid choice for a CIPR member to represent any person or company to help them communicate their point of view. However, you should never feel pressured into doing something against your conscience, professional code of practice, or the law. The CIPR will robustly support any member faced with such choices.

Once you have made a decision you should talk it through with colleagues and managers if you are able to. You should still be open to different perspectives at this stage. Sometimes things aren’t black and white.

Hopefully, once you have thoroughly thought through an issue and made a decision your managers will accept that. If they don’t then you should consider other options including speaking to your HR department, or the CIPR. If you work in the UK, ACAS can also advise you about employment rights in extreme cases.

The CIPR decision tree is a work in progress and we’d welcome feedback to help develop it in future.

Like all simple tools, the decision tree may not work in every instance, but hopefully will help you to approach difficult ethical decisions in a systematic way.

Ethical competence requires good judgment, which in turn comes both from experience and training. The CIPR PPC is committed to continuing to support members to achieve ethical competence as a core quality of being a PR professional.

You can find a link to the decision tree and other ethics resources here.

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Jason is managing partner, corporate communications at Nudge Factory. He was the president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in 2017. He is a Fellow of the CIPR and the British-American Project. He is also a Founding Chartered Public Relations Practitioner.

  1. I like this Jason – although I think there is a chance to add an extra leaf to one or more of your branches! You can get advice and support when being pressured to behave unprofessionally from your trade union too, and this may often have important legal and contractual implications. People working in PR are entitled to be NUJ members (and I’d encourage that, obviously). The NUJ can and do offer support to members in these circumstances – with a number of successful high profile examples in recent years. Professional organisations like the CIPR have a vital role to play, so it is not a case of ‘either/or’, but ‘as well’ in many instances.

    For freelancers and those working alone or in small teams, it is often very hard to get advice from colleagues and the financial pressure to do what is asked can seem overwhelming. Having a network of trusted people to talk to (who aren’t potential competitors) can be really valuable in these circumstances and the union is one step removed in a helpful way in this sense.

    It is great to see ethics being taken seriously across the profession. We can hopefully all help each other clamber through the ethical forest and come out the other end smelling of roses!

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