Image courtesy of flickr user russellstreet

Moved goalposts, same rules – ethics in the digital age

By Gary McKeown

The unfettered voice which the internet affords people is one of central pillars of the online communication in the 21st century. Never before have so many had the opportunity to say so much.

The lure of anonymity and the personal detachment which are often associated with social media – and the no-holds-barred behaviour from punters which can result –pose challenges for practitioners who use online channels for corporate engagement.

However, it is essential to remember that even if the goalposts have moved, the rules of play remain the same for the professional – ethics must be at the heart of everything we do.

During the CIPR’s Ethics Festival, which has been running throughout October, the Institute has been highlighting the central role of ethics in the work of a PR practitioner. It is vital to remember that while those with whom we engage may not ‘play fair’, it is essential for us to stay focused on abiding by best practice.

Some less scrupulous communicators have seen the internet as ripe for inappropriate exploitation.

With traditional gatekeepers now largely dispensed with, phenomena such as online ‘astroturfing’ or ‘sockpuppetry’ can offer an apparent route down Easy Street for those who wish to secure influence without substance.

In truth, while these may seem convenient ways to bypass the hard graft of effective engagement, their use simply reveals a lack of understanding of how genuine communication can shift hearts and minds, and like anything built on dodgy foundations, projects underpinned by these types of approaches will ultimately collapse.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most useful, and the CIPR’s Code of Conduct is a case in point – short, but effective. A lot of what is contained within the code is common sense, but in the increasingly intricate world of communications, it is an essential reference point for anyone working in the PR industry.

Aside from the fact that all members of the CIPR are bound by it, the code helps practitioners keep their bearings, particularly when navigating their way through the choppy channels of digital communications.

Key pillars of professionalism such as dealing honestly and fairly in business, maintaining the highest standards of professional endeavour and integrity, and showing respect in dealing with other people, remain core to ethical communications, regardless of the format.

In addition to challenges faced in day-to-day activities, sometimes PR professionals can find themselves in an ethical maelstrom involving issues much wider than communications, so the Code of Conduct can also help practitioners advise colleagues and clients and ensure that good practice is kept on the agenda.

Of course, when working on difficult issues, it is a challenge to rise above the fray and look at things dispassionately and objectively. A second opinion can be invaluable, so it is worth remembering that if you are concerned about any action you are being asked to take, have any questions or even if you are concerned that you may be at risk of a complaint being made against you, the CIPR Ethics Hotline is on-hand to provide advice. Contact Martin Horrox on 07974964639. Also bear in mind the CIPR’s new decision tree which can assist when faced with ethical issues.

Ultimately, the CIPR Code of Conduct isn’t in place to make your life more difficult – it is there to help guide you through your career in a way which will enable you to make the right decisions, act ethically, and ultimately protect your own reputation and that of your employer and the profession.

In today’s digital communications age, it is essential that we keep ethics front and centre of our considerations.

Gary McKeown Dip CIPR, FCIPR is a member of the CIPR’s Professional Practices Committee and former Chair of the CIPR in Northern Ireland

Image courtesy of flickr user russellstreet

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