Ethics in a cross-cultural context: A PR Q&A

Yadi Cao, a Newcastle student from China, and I were put together following a Twitter exchange with Jenni Field, CIPR’s President. Yadi is writing a dissertation and was looking for some input on ethics and PR. As I had chaired the CIPR’s Professional Practices Committee for several years and occasionally give guest lectures on ethics, it seemed an ideal fit.

For anyone looking into the subject I also recommend looking at the ethics-related page on the CIPR website as well as the document “Integrity”, published by the CIPR, which amplifies the Code of Conduct.

Anyone studying PR and intercultural differences should also get to know Geert Hofstede’s work where he developed the four cultural dimensions, which later were expanded to six.

These are Yadi’s questions and my answers.

1 What do you think ethical conduct in public relations mean?

At the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) we believe that to be truly professional in public relations, it is important not only to be technically competent (ie writing, strategic thinking, developing programmes etc) but also to have ethical competence, that is to be able to apply skill, knowledge and ability in accordance with our Code of Conduct.

This has been endorsed by the Professional Associations Research Network which states: “Ethical competence is a key distinguisher between simply having skills and having a true sense of professionalism.”

For CIPR members, this means:

  • Maintaining the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct
  • Dealing honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public
  • Respecting, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practice
  • Upholding the reputation of, and doing nothing that would bring into disrepute, the public relations profession or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • Respecting and abiding by this Code and related Notes of Guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and ensure that others who are accountable to them (e.g. subordinates and sub-contractors) do the same
  • Encouraging professional training and development among members of the profession in order to raise and maintain professional standards generally.

2 Do you think there is distrust of public relations? If so, what reasons are there for that distrust?

First, unfortunately there is still insufficient understanding of what we do amongst the general public. Some people think we are the same as publicists, others that we are some strange unethical “spin doctors”, and others still believe that all we do is write press releases.

Sadly, there are also some unethical PR companies, which have brought the profession into disrepute. One example is the reputation laundering by Bell Pottinger in South Africa in order to further the political aims of President Zuma and the Gupta brothers, which consolidated many people’s views that PR was in fact unethical. (None of the people involved were CIPR members.)

3 What are the most important ethical codes? Why do you think that?

Naturally, as a CIPR member I am obliged to adhere to the CIPR Code of Conduct. In fact each year when I renew my membership I renew that pledge to abide by the Code. So, for me, that is the most important code. I also believe that its breadth covers every ethical problem that I might come across in my work.

In addition, our Charter (which is agreed by the Queen’s office) plays a large part in our members’ ethical conduct as it stipulates that all members have a duty to:

“promote for the public benefit high levels of skill, knowledge, competence, and standards of practice and professional conduct”

and that

“we have to act responsibly and ethically towards ourselves, towards  our employers and also towards society in general.”

Another code of conduct, which I value is that of the Global Alliance: “The Global Principles of Ethics (2018). These are based on 16 universal principles which should apply to any professional PR practitioner wherever s/he works.  These are:

Guiding principles

  1. Working in the public interest
  2. Obeying laws and respect diversity and local customs
  3. Freedom of speech
  4. Freedom of assembly
  5. Freedom of media
  6. Honesty, truth and fact-based communication
  7. Integrity
  8. Transparency and disclosure
  9. Privacy

Principles of professional practice

  1. Commitment to continuous learning and training
  2. Avoiding conflict of interest
  3. Advocating for the profession
  4. Respect and fairness in dealing with publics
  5. Expertise without guarantee of results beyond capacity
  6. Behaviours that enhance the profession
  7. Professional conduct

4 Please tell me about an example of where you experienced and thought about the cultural differences in the ethics of public relations?

Being sensitive to different cultures is extremely important and what may be thought ethical in one country may not be so in another.

For instance, in many countries it is quite normal to ask a woman how old she is. In the UK that is considered very rude and indeed, in some cases, it can be illegal, as for example in a job interview in the UK. I will usually explain that in Western culture it is not considered polite to ask such questions and people usually don’t mind if I do not answer!

An interesting example of different cultures was when I was lecturing to a group of Chinese students. I was explaining about ‘whistleblowers’. These are people who discover that their company or boss is acting in an unethical or possibly illegal way and, if they are unable to stop the behaviour privately, are allowed – and are even protected in law – to speak out about this. If they come across unethical practice in their work, it is their duty to report it and prevent it. My Chinese students found it strange that an employee should ever criticise their boss or company publicly and even to be encouraged to do so.

5 What do you think about “guanxi” in Chinese public relations? Do you think it is ethical or unethical? Please give your reasons.

(Guanxi can be defined as a special type of human relationship which is based on trust. Guanxi focuses on mutual favour exchanging, which is also can be understood as a reciprocal relationship)

According to the CIPR Code of Conduct members should respect, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practise. This is balanced, however, by a culture in the UK where giving gifts is often criticised and sometimes even forbidden. Many leading daily newspaper journalists are, for example, not allowed to accept any gifts from PR people. Moreover, if a piece of coverage is paid for, then this must be made clear to the reader. This is also the case with ‘influencers’, who are often paid to review products.

“Guanxi” is not unethical. It simply stems from a very different culture from that of the UK.

6 Do you think “guanxi” may cause the ethical conflict within the cross-cultural context?

Yes, I believe it can and one should remain very aware and sensitive to cross-cultural differences.

However, this must be done without jeopardising one’s own ethical behaviours. I know two people, one the boss of a very large Indian company and another who worked for a charity in China, who told me how they both explained at the outset that they could not give gifts or payment of any sort and that this was accepted by the people in the local countries.

7 What do you think about “gift-sending” and “travel expense”? Is it morally acceptable? Why do you think that?

I prefer to talk about ethics rather than morals. Morals tend to be personal while ethics are the way society behaves in any given country.

A leading South African PR boss, Robyn de Villiers, who gave an annual lecture for the CIPR a couple of years ago, explained how she had resolved the dilemma of “gifts”. She was planning a press conference but was told that all the journalists expected travel expenses. Partly this was because they were paid very little and could not cover stories without payment. She decided, therefore, to organise transport for everyone to the conference.

If possible, one should try to look for work-arounds, which will not cause offence but allows you to stay true to your own ethical stance.

8 Currently, more and more corporations have started to attach importance to CSR (social corporate responsibility) and conduct philanthropic projects, to improve the brand’s image in the public. What do you think about this phenomenon?

I would argue that if a company is doing this simply to improve its brand image, then it is simply “green washing”. That has very little value, is often disbelieved by their customers, and in the long run does little for their brand. Any philanthropic involvement needs to be authentic.

Society is changing. Our values have shifted and this can be observed most clearly in the “Generation Z” young of the world who are increasingly aware of their surroundings and of the environment and want companies to act responsibly and to show strong ethical values. They also expect them to treat their staff and customers well. Investors are also scrutinising companies far more and you act unethically at your peril.

You need look no further than the recent scandals at Boohoo, the well-known clothing factory. The national newspaper, the Sunday Times conducted an undercover investigation and found that the company was paying employees less than half the minimum UK wage and had no lockdown or distancing measures for Covid-19. At the same time the senior executives were promised huge bonuses if market value reached a high figure before 2023.

When this came to light, investors reacted fast. The share price crashed by 35 per cent in two days and wiped £1.1m off the company’s market value.

The role of the stakeholder has become inextricably linked to companies. As Richard Tsang, Chairman of Strategic Public Relations Group, says Covid19 has changed the way we need to respond and corporate companies need to find a system to prioritise stakeholder groups. “Prior to the pandemic, physical contact allowed corporates to know and engage their stakeholders, however, with the current restrictions, corporates now need to find new ways to understand and reach out to their stakeholders.”

He goes on to explain that stakeholders have increasingly high expectations. “External factors such as government policies and economic fluctuations can significantly affect how a corporate can continue to develop its business and enhance its reputation. Certainly, geopolitical and political changes can likewise influence a corporate, for better or worse, depending on its stance. And this holds true as well with the attitudes of stakeholders, whose love-hate relationship with companies can directly impact on the sustainability of the latter.”

These days every company should think long and hard about its purpose and make sure that its actions support its overall purpose. If a key part of company’s purpose is to act in the best interests of society and its stakeholders, then philanthropic projects may simply be the best expression of its values.

Eva specialises in communication programmes with particular emphasis on reputation and issues management, stakeholder management and strategy development. She works in the UK and internationally. She is a Founding Chartered Practitioner, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, board director, was Chair of CIPR International for three years and now is Chair of the Coordinating Committee. An occasional guest lecturer, she has also contributed to An Introduction to Public Relations, published by Pearson, and to CIPR’s Platinum - a collection of essays to celebrate CIPR’s 70th anniversary, and regularly runs webinars.

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