Ethics Q&A with new CIPR President

Now more than ever, professional ethics are being thrust into the global spotlight and are becoming a requirement for every industry, profession and individual. Public relations and communications have been leading the way in this respect for decades.

This year the CIPR is supporting the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management in its second annual Global Ethics Month which launched a few days ago on 1 February.

Global Alliance expects a vast response worldwide, with over 60 countries and thousands of professionals participating in the campaign, making it one of the most comprehensive engagements on world ethics the profession has ever seen.

CIPR’s contribution to the month, which I am leading, includes blogs, webinars, podcasts, round tables and daily tweets being issued on ethics. For information on the events follow #EthicsMatter and CIPR newsletters.

To launch CIPR’s participation in the global initiative, I interviewed CIPR President Mandy Pearse Chart PR, FCIPR for her thoughts on ethics and PR.

What do ethics in PR mean to you?

This is about acting in an ethical way in a professional context. For me in my consultancy work it’s being honest and truthful with my clients about the best PR approach for the business, rather than telling them what they want to hear. So sometimes you might need to tell them they should do something – which might even cause them some short term pain – because in the long term it will be much better for their business. In doing that, if you’re pitching for the business, it might mean you won’t get the work.

Like the dreaded AVE discussion, if a client asks for AVEs, I would say that it is not professional best practice and so I wouldn’t supply that kind of information. I would talk them through much better forms of evaluation. If they absolutely want the AVEs then I would withdraw.

I’ve heard some people say that if the client insisted on them they would provide them along with the other forms of evaluation.

I personally feel that if you provide the AVEs, you are perpetuating the idea that they are worth having. It almost gives it validity.

Everyone talks about the importance of ethics in PR but why do you think its something we should engage in?

For me it is part of being a professional rather than just a jobbing artisan. Professionals need to take a certain stance on some issues. Giving unwelcome advice might not be the most profitable thing for me to do in the short term but, in terms of my professional advice, it is the best thing for me to do as well as the best thing for the client in the long term.

Do you have any examples you can give me?

In a public sector context there’s the fact that you are apolitical and there will be quite a lot of times where the politicians would like you to take a more political stance. Legally, your contract of employment prohibits it but there are obviously shades of grey within that.

Working in the public sector with politicians, there nearly always comes a point where you have to say to them: “I’m afraid no, I can’t do that because it would be straying into political territory.” And that is quite a difficult thing to say to senior, well-respected politicians. The ones who are good at their job will actually respect you for doing that and you will in the long term have a better working relationship.

What’s your view about high value contracts where clients specify what they want?

Well, it could be quite tempting just to give them what they want, even if it is not what they need. And that for me is the professional dilemma, particularly if you run your own business, will you step back and say, no, that’s not for me?

It has been said that PR people are the conscience of an organisation? Do you think that is what we should all aim for?

Strategic PR advisers should remind the organisation and the senior leadership team about the reputational impact of what they might decide to do. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that PR people should hold the conscience of the organisation on our own.

It is the responsibility of all the senior leadership round the table. If you’re the only person talking about the conscience, the lone ethical voice around the table, then something is deeply wrong.

Do you think that behaving ethically can sometimes conflict with what is in the best interests of the organisation, which you represent?

You may be advising an organisation that they should come clean about something and that would clearly have an impact on short-term profit. But in the longer term it will create a greater sense of trust and stakeholder relationships, which will be beneficial. So sometimes behaving ethically might have an impact on the immediate profitability but in the long term behaving ethically is in the best interests of the organisation in terms of its future.

What about moral relativism? Are ethics dependent on culture or are they based on absolute values?

There are philosophers who have been wrestling with this over the centuries and this is a topic, which has exercised some of the most brilliant minds. I would tend to feel that there are absolutes. That’s my gut feeling. But my head tells me that it is culturally attenuated. Different societies have different cultural norms on issues such as gifts, hospitality and awarding contracts.

If you are working in Asia, which has many very different cultures, then there will be differences. For instance what we think is an appropriate gift might not be appropriate elsewhere in the world. In the end you have to rely on what also feels right. Is this appropriate within this cultural context? Perhaps employing other members of the family is the norm.

Then also take the example of the fashion industry. On the one hand you’re looking at women who to our eyes may be exploited on very low wages but talking to NGOs they say that working in those conditions is preferable to the life they might have had otherwise. It’s wise to be guided by NGOs who work in that country. But you will still have your own values and your personal ethical position.

Lawyers and barristers will accept the client regardless of what they have done. Should PR people do the same?

This for me is where personal and professional ethics come into play. I have my own personal ethical lines, which mean I won’t work in certain industry sectors. I did that audit in my own mind when I set up my own business. Others might choose differently.

Professionally, though, if we are approached by a client with reputational issues we have a responsibility to ask tough questions before we agree to work for them. For instance the client may say: “I want to be honest and truthful about what’s happened in the past, I want to move forward and improve my track record.”

If this is a genuine decision to change and they are prepared to make that commitment then working professionally with them would seem appropriate. But you would have to ask those tough questions. Do they really want to change or are they just trying to whitewash the past?

We only have 10,000 members of a 70,000 industry and with no barriers to entry to it. How do you think our Code of Conduct has any relevance?

For me it is at the heart of being professional in a professional industry rather than a jobbing craft.

If you look back two centuries ago at medicine it was in the same situation where you had large numbers of people carrying out medical practice surgery, prescribing potions, all sorts of things! There was no professional body setting standards. But as professionals emerged – the doctors and pharmacists – codes of conduct became really important. They differentiated the professional from the man on the street who wanted to prescribe you any pot of pills which might do you good but might do you harm.

We’re not quite there yet but we are getting there. As we set the standards, becoming chartered and travelling on a professional pathway it lifts us up from what I would call the unprofessional charlatan. We have a hill to climb but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on the way up.

Do you think PR is becoming more ethical?

I would like to think it is, given that we keep on seeing issues within political lobbying and issues of green and white washing of clients. I would like to think that within the CIPR we are doing that. But that is where growing our membership, growing our influence and growing the impact of being a chartered professional and making this recognised within industry is important. That is the only way we will make the sort of impact we need to make. Until it’s meaningful to business leaders and they understand the need for professional PR, it will always be an uphill struggle.

Do you have any plans on strengthening the ethics resources available in our CPD?

It’s worth remembering what we already have: the Ethics hotline, a CPD repository of ethics activities, some great existing resources so our newer members have plenty to be getting on with. But we do need to add some more resources at senior level and that will be something we need to build on this year. Then, of course, we’re developing some more resources with the initiative we’re developing for Global Alliance’s #EthicsMatter month. And of course our members have the benefit of also being able to use their resources.

Thank you very much, Mandy.

This article is worth five CPD points to CIPR members. Find out more here.

Eva is a Founding Chartered Practitioner, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, former board director, and was Chair of CIPR International for three years. 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.

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