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My life as an ethics girl in PR

Are you yawning yet? I hope not. PR ethics is a serious subject – and as soon as the subject becomes personal, the interest levels rise. The recent Bell Pottinger case has put bad ethical judgement in the spotlight and there’s no question that inciting racial hatred is an indefensible and unethical one.

On a less sensational scale, how often might these ethical PR problems come up and test your own judgement? You may well be surprised. How about confidentiality dilemmas with recording complex conversations, leveraging one client to benefit another, exaggerating facts, blowing a non-disclosure agreement, understanding where loyalties lie, concerns for public safety or offering career favours? There might also be integrity challenges like how accurate is accurate, dealing with implied bribery, handling deception, bundle discounting, knowing when you can invest, sharing of evidence or handling conflicts of interest.

Aha, perhaps this has now got a bit more interesting – and dare I say, relevant? It’s the classic ‘for example’ rule we use in media training. As soon as you say those two magic words ‘for example’ people actually get what you’re talking about. So, using ‘for example,’ the PRCA code of ethics can relate back to what might be going on in a PR agency or an in-house department most months, weeks or days.

I chair the PRCA professional practices committee (which is the committee that deals with complaints) and I am the PRCA’s trainer on ethics. Over many years I’ve tried to help PR professionals (from students to MDs) appreciate why having strong ethical judgement is so important and how your ethical awareness can be tested.

Most PRs (recent events aside) don’t set out to deliberately misinform or deceive but, as the PRCA code outlines, PRs also need ‘to avoid doing so inadvertently’. You may be in breach of the rules without realising and, sorry, no, ignorance is not a sufficient excuse. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘ethical’ practice only relates to the public and the media, the same rules apply to other PR professionals and your colleagues. We all know the phrase ‘give credit where credit is due’ and in PR this is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, so make sure you recognise who did come up with that great idea.

So then, just how sound is your judgement? To have a good ethical backbone for your personal approach to PR, or how you run your PR team, you need to trust your instincts, know your PR code of ethics and use your common sense. There are some good top tips here from a previous blog piece I wrote, or why not consider these questions and statements below?

  • Question:  Your client, or someone in your organisation, has asked you to weave what you suspect is a lie or an untruth into a press release as you have no proof points to substantiate the claim. Are you obliged to follow those instructions? Answer: YES/­­NO
  • Question:  Your agency or in-house team is a member of the PRCA, but no-one made it clear what the Code stood for, and therefore you did not realise you were in breach of the Code, you cannot be held accountable to the Code. Answer: TRUE/FALSE
  • Question:  Your director says that adherence to the PRCA code is the in-house team’s/ agency’s commitment and not an individual’s; therefore, it’s OK to breach or bend the code if you want to. No individual who breaches the code can be disciplined.  Answer: TRUE/FALSE
  • Question: A spokesperson has confided in you that they will probably be leaving the company very soon and joining a competitor. An interview is being set up using that person as the spokesperson. Should you tell the PR manager or anyone else on the PR team about the spokesperson’s career plans? Answer: YES/NO

I hope this quiz was easy for you, (correct answers below – did you get them all right?) but these are just four examples of the 40 dilemmas I use to test people’s judgement, their awareness of the Code and their common sense in applying it to their everyday PR challenges.

If you’d like to hear more, you can give this recent csuite podcast a listen or why not come on my course, and challenge yourself with the other 36 dilemmas.



Answers: Both no, both false