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Is it right or is it legal?

October is the “Ethics” month – if it were up to me, I’d make sure that ethics in public relations gets more air time, not just one month a year. But, better once a year than not at all.

This is my first blog for PRCA, and I hope it won’t be the last. When it comes to ethics and evaluation, we should all be “membership” neutral: we are all members of a community of practice, far bigger than any one membership organisation alone.

I’m grateful to Francis Ingham - PRCA Director General - for inviting me to write this article following a recent #PRTalk chat. And no, it’s not going to be about Bell Pottinger – I shared my thoughts on this almost 3 months ago.

I’d like us to reflect a moment on the connection – or not – between ethics and law. Does “legal” automatically imply “ethical” and vice versa? Do we, the PR practitioners, have any moral obligations? Should we only be concerned with the legality of our actions?

Two weeks ago, I had tea with a very special friend and someone I admire quite a lot (he is not a client, nor does he work in PR). We were discussing the Bell Pottinger issue, and I’ll try to quote, from memory, what he said at one point:  

The beauty of the Common Law is that, it could be argued, if something is not clearly spelled out as illegal, it may be legal, and thus no laws may have been broken in the act. Ethics is highly subjective and not punitive.”

Ethics and law are not joined at the hip – on the contrary. Today, with reputation management being so closely intertwined with loss of business, the legality of the actions undertaken by businesses and individuals pales in comparison to the ethical expectations from them.

Let’s look at British Petroleum (BP) and the Macondo oil spill – that infamous interview of Tony Hayward wanting his “life back” almost collapsed the American operations of the business. There is another component of this immense mistake, apart from the clear mismanagement of the communication activities during this crisis: the ethical angle of it. Men died, families were left waiting for their loved ones to come back, hundreds of thousands of wildlife dying or dead, shrimping and fishing industries in the Gulf and Louisiana brought to a sudden halt and the only thing that mattered to Tony Hayward was “getting his life back”.

I often say that the ethical behaviour of individuals and companies comes to fore in times of crisis. After all, we all have a moral compass that guides to a higher or lesser extent. And this moral compass has nothing to do with the legality of our actions – if we could get away with something, would we do it?

Another example comes to mind – remember last year’s “Panama Files” scandal where thousands of offshore accounts were exposed, David Cameron’s father’s being one of those? Is it illegal to have an offshore account? Of course, not. Is it appropriate (as in moral) to benefit from one if you’re the Prime Minister of a country where everyone is taxed to death and beyond? Some would say yes, others would say no.

And the last example I’d like to share with you – there are many out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had plenty yourself – is Ashley Madison (adult site) scandal that held the front pages for quite a while here and abroad. Is it illegal to have an extramarital affair? Of course, not (unless you’re a woman in Saudi Arabia, that is). Have any laws been broken by those who have? None. Have behavioural and moral rules (aka ethical) been “broken”? Yes, they have.

This brings me back to what we do as Public Relations practitioners: let’s not hide behind “I’ve done nothing wrong”, “my/our actions were totally legal”. Don’t even advise your clients to use these arguments unless specifically asked about their legality.

Today matters are far simpler, yet much more complicated for us and those who use our services. The only question whose answer actually matters is: “Have you done the right thing?”