Ethics – The importance of context when communicating internationally

By Crispin Thorold.

One of the most visited sights at United Nations Headquarters is a striking Norman Rockwell mosaic, which depicts the humanity, internationalism, and ethical foundations of the organisation. The piece is both a celebration of the diversity of humankind and a call for us all to abide by the ‘Golden Rule’ which runs across the mosaic.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

For Maher Nasser, the Director of Outreach in the United Nations Department of Global Communications, this message is the foundation of personal, professional and institutional ethics. “The way I would like to be treated with rights, is the way that I should treat others,” said Nasser.

This appropriately lofty ideal, framed a recent CIPR International ethics discussion in which three leading communicators examined the codification and portability of professional ethics in global PR. At the foundations of these ethics are the rights-based principles highlighted by Rockwell and codified through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also central are the various codes of conduct and ethics developed by professional associations, such as the CIPR. Its Code of Conduct requires all members to ‘respect, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practise’.

For those who step outside these boundaries of ethical practice, the consequences can be considerable. Sophie Masipa, the CEO and Founder of Kgommuu International, noted the example of Bell Pottinger in her native South Africa – unethical conduct that ultimately led to the demise of the agency.

Challenges with ethical principles cross sectors, as well as borders. Alongside the need for codes of ethics, there are the rights to dignity for individuals. “As an African when I look at how some of the NGOs promote or garner support for donations,” said Masipa. “Often you see a pic of a child with a fly on its nose. That may be a nameless face, but it still has the right to dignity. […] What are the rights of those citizens? Shouldn’t we be telling stories of impact not of courage?”

For Clare Parsons, Co-founder and Chair of Lansons, ‘purpose’ is central to this conversation. “Most of us understand the notion that you can’t talk yourself out of something that you have behaved yourself into,” she said. “It is now about actions as well as words. Part of our role as communicators is to look at the business […] to reflect them properly and well”.

The questions we ask should include: What is their purpose? How do they stand as a business? What do they stand for? “Ethics creates a frame around that,” said Parsons.

Underlying the whole discussion were the limitations of older ethical approaches and codes in an era when we face the climate crisis, widespread inequality and inequity, and a global pandemic. New dimensions of our relationship with nature, that speak to Agenda 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are needed.

The integration of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles into PR practice is at the heart of the industry’s ethical evolution. The United Nations has been working closely with the advertising industry first on the promotion of the SDGs, but more recently at the UN’s insistence on what can be done to incorporate the commitment to sustainability, equality and inclusion within the SDGs, into the work of advertising agencies as companies and also in their work on behalf of their clients.

“The new code of ethics, the international and global code of ethics, is not just now about the standard of human relations, corruption, etcetera,” said Nasser. “It also needs to extend to our relationship with the environment and our ability to change the course of climate change, which is going to be existential.” According to Maher Nasser this responsibility on communicators calls for a new relationship not just with nature, society and governance but also in the very way that we do our work.

This is having a substantial impact on employers, as well as professional associations says Parsons. “Individuals feel that they join companies, and they expect them to stand for something. In one sense our employees will hold us to account, our [professional] associations that we join should give us direction and help us with that.”

This focus on ‘deeds and words’ as Clare Parsons puts it, is vital as we look ahead to the changes in store with the fourth industrial revolution, and the evolution of AI and other technologies.

“A couple of years ago we were called spin doctors,” said Masipa. “When I think about the future it is about changing that notion. We are crafters, we are wordsmiths, and we are about building reputation. For me the future is about getting to the point where ethics is all about human connection and purpose. The more we move into technology, we have to work harder to convince people what we say is what we will deliver.”

Watching the webinar will give you your necessary five ethics points for your CPD.

Members of the CIPR are also reminded that they can contact the Institute’s Ethics Hotline for free and confidential advice, and support on any professional ethical challenge. It is open Monday – Friday (0900 – 1700 UK time). Call: +44 (0)20 7631 6944.

A wide range of CIPR ethics resources are available here.

Crispin Thorold has worked in more than forty countries leading the communications for global not-for-profits and international organizations. He is currently a crisis communications and issues specialist for the University of Toronto, Canada’s leading and world top 20 university. He started his career with the BBC as a resident correspondent in the Middle East and South Asia.

Leave a Reply