Opinion: Ethics in the PR industry

Adherence to a code of ethics is essential for the health of the PR industry, says Claire Walker, CEO at Firefly Communications. She suggests four top tips to ensure that high standards are met and upheld. 

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Claire Walker

There was a time, not so long ago, when PR practitioners sat firmly alongside traffic wardens and politicians in Britain’s ‘most hated’ list of professions. Thankfully, we seem to have left the ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and ‘The Thick of It’ days behind us – even if most of us would confess a secret love for Peter Capaldi’s sewer-mouthed character, Malcolm Tucker.

That said, perceptions can change in seconds and if our profession is to show that we have a valid role to play in providing transparent, valuable, insightful and honest content and communications, then we can’t take our eye off the ball.

So, how can we make sure that we are continuing to uphold our professional reputation, while showing the value of PR in the modern business world?

Thankfully, we have guiding bodies to help us and I recommend reading the PRCA or the CIPR code of conduct. For example, the PRCA Code says: “A member firm has a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations. Furthermore, a member has the responsibility at all times to deal fairly and honestly with fellow members and professionals, the public relations profession, other professions, suppliers, intermediaries, the media of communication, colleagues, and above all else the public.”

But above and beyond these guidelines, here are four of my own top tips for ethical PR:

1) Trust your instincts for what seems right and wrong. PRs usually have finely-honed gut instincts and when it comes to ethics, your first reaction is usually right.

2) Once you have checked your internal barometer, think carefully about the repercussions of your actions. Remember that you represent the client but also the PR agency itself, the industry and future client relationships.

3) Ensure that your team is also aware of the code of ethics. Challenge them with dilemmas and carry out ‘pre-mortems’ on client situations to be fully prepared. This is also great for team building and mutual understanding. While we should always hope for the best, we have a professional responsibility to prepare for the worst.

4) Keep learning: Join my PRCA webinar – Ethics in PR on 13 October and see how you fare with a wide variety of ethical dilemmas set out in front of you.

We talk daily about how PR is an ever-changing industry and one in which you’ll never be bored. But this also means that we have a responsibility to respect PR industry standards and adhere to them consistently. This is everyone’s responsibility, from the newest graduate trainee to the most experienced senior director – after all, to quote the philosopher Edmund Burke: ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’.

If we do nothing, before you know it we’ll be back to the days of pink fluffy PR, ‘salmony nibbly bits’ and streams of foul-mouthed profanities. And while it might be entertaining, it drags our industry back into the dark ages.

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