Opinion: Ethics – the measure of the PR industry?

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I hear my PR colleagues regularly claim that our function is the conscience of an organisation – or at least, it should be. It sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it, writes Lyndon Johnson. Before we can adopt that role – I’m not sure that we ever will, or that we should ever aspire to hold it – our industry needs to spend some time getting our own house in order. While we, as an industry, talk a good game nobody wants to talk about the fact that we have an unaddressed ethics issue and appear not to either want to tackle it or just don’t have the instruments needed to do so.

Ethics requires a moral code on which to base decisions and, whether we like it or not, the perception of the public relations industry is that the primary driver for most, if not all, the decisions we make is money. I’m not saying practitioners don’t stand for anything else, but the overarching motivation is seen by many to be cash. Whether it’s the first question most prospective customers get asked – ‘what’s your budget’ – to complaints that public relations doesn’t get a fair slice of budgets compared to marketing or digital, the perception of it is hard to argue otherwise.

I’m not saying we don’t wish things were different. Ethics within the public relations industry is like measurement; periodically it becomes a hot topic for discussion. But there’s a lot of talk about the need to do something about it. And then… nothing. After a lot of passionate discussion it gets forgotten about until the next time it becomes something that everybody says we need to do better at, for the long-term benefit of our industry. The problem is that ethics, like measurement, is complex and nuanced. There is no one-size fits all solution; no line that determines ethical conduct from unethical and it requires actions that support claims of operating ethically. 

So how can the public relations industry set measurable ethical standards for practitioners that are easy to follow? Measuring ethics ultimately comes down to understanding the underlying drivers behind the decisions practitioners make on a day-to-day basis and understanding the context in which decisions are made. There is no de facto right or wrong decision, no ethical or unethical choice, no set of principles, code of conduct or pledge that can be applied as a coverall across an industry to demonstrate the ethics of an industry. 

Ethics is the responsibility of every practitioner in the industry; a personal responsibility to do the right thing for customers, stakeholders, and the community at large. It’s the decisions we take, and the underlying reasoning for them that are the measure of whether we as practitioners operate ethically. If brand is what people tell others about our business when we’re not in the room, ethics is what we do when nobody is watching. 

How do we measure ethics when it often relies on decisions made internally? My first suggestion would be for practitioners to make ethics promises in the same way it builds a brand promise that could provide the basis for decision-making internally to guide team members and allow for external scrutiny.

During the pandemic there was a lot of discussion about the importance of purpose – part of building an organisation’s ethical framework. It needs to go further and include clear guidelines on how decisions will be made, and what a decision, based on morals, would look like in specific circumstances. As an example, when I started my businesses, I made a commitment that I would never work on the basis of a retainer fee, and if an organisation wanted to work that way, I would politely decline their business. It’s not been the easiest way to build a business, but it was an ethical decision based on my belief it was morally wrong, particularly for the types of organisations my business was built to support.

We need every practitioner to set up their own statement of ethics against which they can report. In the same way, I’ve always refused to work with any organisation that can’t define the outcome they are expecting from the work they are asking us to help them with. It has meant turning down opportunities from organisations that were willing to give us money, but I believe it is wrong to accept money without understanding whether my company can help.  My ethics on this issue can be measured. 

I also said from the foundation of my businesses that I believed it was ethically wrong the majority of start-ups and small businesses were unable to get help with public relations because of the typical financial barrier to entry, and so I set out to address that. As a result, we decided to start a business that offers free and low-cost advice to start-up entrepreneurs, small business owners and their marketing teams via a physical and virtual walk-in clinic. We’ve also developed tools, systems, and processes to help them work independently, which we make available at no cost.

My adherence to my ethical stance can be measured and this needs to become the norm. The industry talks a good game on ethics, it doesn’t always play it. Stakeholders and key business relationships need to be able to see evidence that everyone in the public relations industry always acts ethically, rather than only defending their reputations when challenged on behaviour that looks questionable.

LYNDON Johnson is the founder of Think Different[ly] Communications and the general manager of walk-in communications clinic Comms.Bar in Toronto. Over the last decade, he has been developing a unifying communications theory and he is the inventor of The Lean Agile Communications Methodology™.