Opinion: Why PRs must accept responsibility for ethical practice

Opinion: Why PRs must accept responsibility for ethical practice

Francis Ingham, PRCA director general and CEO of ICCO, outlines why the two organisations have made September PR ethics month and what communicators must do to ensure ethical practice.

This month is ethics month for the PR industry, with a programme of activity coordinated by the PRCA and ICCO, and timed to coincide with the anniversary of Bell Pottinger’s expulsion from the PRCA.

I hesitated in typing those two words: Bell Pottinger. Partly because they have been written so often by our industry over the past twelve months. Partly because for those affected by the PRCA’s decision, further discussion doubtless brings further pain.

But any discussion of PR ethics is unthinkable without reference to that company. One year on, the story still rumbles loudly. The inquiry in South Africa into state capture; the reports of an inquiry in the UK too. Bell Pottinger’s decisions, work, the complaint against it, and its sudden collapse are each integral in any conversation about what defines our industry’s attitude to ethics.

Developments in PR ethics

In turning a renewed focus on ethical norms within our industry, we wanted to celebrate the best, to spark some debate, and to call for us each to pursue and advocate higher standards.

The past year has seen many positive developments:

  • Expectations have changed. I do think that agencies are a little more questioning of client intentions than they were. And the change that I have seen over the past decade -of more and more ‘challenging’ clients being turned away- has been accelerated.
  • Rules have been toughened. Several significant PR professional bodies from around the globe have changed and strengthened their codes and processes, taking the moment to embrace higher standards.
  • The UK has shown the way. We’ve always known that the UK and the US are the most well-developed of our industry’s markets. Through its actions, the UK has also shown itself to be industry’s global ethical beacon.
  • International frameworks have been established. Within a month of the PRCA decision, ICCO had agreed and issued the Helsinki Declaration -the world’s first unifying principles of PR practice. And a month ago, the Global Alliance followed up with their own complementary piece of work, aided and advised by us at every step of the year-long way.

Still room for improvement

These are all good things. Very good things. Essential things. And they have all been prompted by the sad events of 2017. But let me be candid. Our industry still has a long journey ahead of it. The majority of our industry remains outside self-regulation; remains outside the professional bodies that lead, serve, speak for it.

We need to demand higher standards from many of our peers. It should be unthinkable to not subscribe to a code of conduct. It should set alarms bells ringing for clients and colleagues alike. But for tens of thousands of practitioners in the UK industry, that is the case – and for many many thousands more outside of the UK.

When practitioners say that reputation is an individual’s or an organisation’s most valuable asset, they are right. So by not signing up to a series of ethical standards, they are undermining their own reputation. It’s time for us to tell those people that better is expected of them.

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