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Ethics – The Red Wolf of PR



This week, an associate sent me a video of a young Black gymnast being overlooked at a medal ceremony in Ireland.

She’s standing in a line with her (White) peers and is the only one that’s ignored, even her teammates are confused. My heart breaks as I watch her happy moment and her confidence ebb away because the penny has dropped and she knows…

The footage of this video has gone viral around the world with gymnast Simone Biles, winner of seven Olympic medals, reaching out privately to the girl who has not been named.

As a person of colour, and an aunty who has nieces of a similar age that compete in gymnastics, watching the poor treatment of this sweet young girl sparks outrage.

What would I do if it was my young nieces? How can this even happen in this day and age when the world is watching? What spin will Sport Ireland use to repair this reputational damage? How is this even right (ethical)?

The Irish Independent on Sunday quoted the girl's mother anonymously saying she believed Gymnastics Ireland had failed to publicly apologise and she intended to take the matter to the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation in Switzerland.

The Guardian reported that Una May, the CEO of Sports Ireland, allegedly said the judge who ignored the only black gymnast in the competition line-up had got the medals “tangled up”. You can watch the footage of the medal ceremony here and decide for yourself.

This line of response was not well received by the public – it sounded disingenuous and garnered mistrust. Saying sorry should have been the first step to reconciliation. Reparations are in progress.

Bringing this full circle and back to #PRethics Month, PR professionals are meant to be advocates for ethics in PR – look up any professional code of conduct for PR and it will tell you the same thing.

We’re a trusted source of counsel who are often called upon to be the “voice of conscience” for an organisation. In moments of comms crisis however, it may not feel like that when the pressure is on and PR people are paid (or reminded that they’re paid) to save an organisation’s skin.

Trust in the news - The Press Gazette reported that new research reveals the UK has one of the lowest levels of trust in news as well as one of the highest levels of news avoidance. The 2023 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that trust in news in the UK was just at 33% – joint 12th lowest among the 46 markets studied.

Interest in news meanwhile has sharply declined from 70% in 2015 to 43% this year. Neither the war in Ukraine nor the cost of living crisis had led to sustained interest and trust levels in news.

This is important as PR professionals feed the news to journalists through their press releases, photo opportunities, media responses, interviews, tip-offs, and events etc. According to Burrelles (media data services industry), It’s important to base facts on a “rock solid foundation” of truth.

Adding that: “Being honest cultivates trust, credibility, and authenticity. Trust is an essential part of any relationship, and after all, public relations is about relationship-building (among other things).

Codes of conduct

Most professions have an ethics code of conduct, including PR and communication –

PRCA, CIPR, IoIC, and many more.

The International Communication Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) say high ethical standards are critical for PR organisation as clients and the public rely on truth, facts, statistics “and most importantly trust”.

As part of its commitment to raise professional standards and build trust, the ICCO has brought together professionals from around the world to raise ethical standards of the public relations industry internationally.

This has been achieved through collaborative working, progress, and positive action in ethical PR practice on a global scale.

Now, 41 national and regional associations within ICCO have come together to create ten binding principles in the Helsinki Declarationwhich challenge communications consultancies and PR professionals to “speak up for ethics”.

These binding principles are:

1.    To work ethically and in accordance with applicable laws.

2.    To observe the highest professional standards in the practice of public relations and communications.

3.    To respect the truth, dealing honestly and transparently with employees, colleagues, clients, the media, government, and the public.

4.    To protect the privacy rights of clients, organisations, and individuals by safeguarding confidential information.

5.    To be mindful of their duty to uphold the reputation of the industry.

6.    To be forthcoming about sponsors of causes and interests and never engage in misleading practices such as “astroturfing”.

7.    To be aware of the power of social media and use it responsibly.

8.    To never engage in the creation of or knowingly circulate fake news.

9.    To adhere to their Association’s Code of Conduct, be mindful of the Codes of Conduct of other countries and show professional respect at all times.

10.To take care that their professional duties are conducted without causing offence on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, origin, religion, disability, or any other form of discrimination.

Conclusion - Sometimes it seems like ethics in PR is very much like the red wolf – rare, endangered, not easy to spot, yet we know it’s out there somewhere and we welcome it.

When applied effectively, ethics in PR is the antidote, prevention, and cure to PR crises. Even in PR around EDI (equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion), ethics is the binding agent that gives all these components authenticity and integrity.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Ethics Hotline

If you’re struggling with an ethics dilemma then call the CIPR’s Ethics Hotline. It’s aimed at PR professionals and recognises that at some point in your careers you may be faced with an ethical dilemma.

The Ethics Hotline provides free and confidential advice and support. It’s open from Monday to Friday (9am to 5pm) on +44 (0)20 7631 6944. The CIPR has also created an ethics CIPR Ethics Decision Tree to guide you “if the right thing to do isn’t clear and you don’t know which course of action to take”.