Interview: Ethics – the organisation’s conscience

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IN August 2021, I had the great fortune, writes Orla Clancy, to interview Francis Ingham, director general at the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and chief executive of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), and Dr Patricia Harned, chief executive officer at the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI), which was established in 1922 and is the oldest not-for-profit organisation in the ethics and compliance profession. 

The ECI undertakes large scale research projects to understand practices that help business leaders to ensure that their employees operate with integrity in all their operations. They seek to identify emerging issues, risk factors and practices that mitigate those risks. As part of Ethics Month, the PRCA and ECI announce in Strategic that they have joint forces to launch a new research project to capture the global state of ethics and compliance in the public relations industry. “The fact that we’ve set up an Ethics Council signifies a desire from practitioners around the world to have common standards and to create a community of PR ethics conversation,” said Ingham. 

“For ethics and compliance, PR and communications is an important partner. We will undertake research among the global public relations and communications community to get their take on the ethics issues they face, to what extent are they observing conduct that oversteps the line, how they handle those situations and what resources are available to navigate them,” added Dr Harned.

As a PR professional, I’ve always believed ethics mean different things to different people and I was interested to hear what ethics means to Ingham and Dr Harned. “It’s about doing the right thing, but within a construct,” said Ingham. “People use the words ethics and morality in an interchangeable way, but they mean different things. Everyone has their own sense of morals, but ethics is a construct that is broadly agreed by the community in which you are working or living.”

“People are often simplistic about things. I’ve always said that there are black or white situations, but the majority of them are grey. You can use your own personal sense of morality, but professional bodies and the law provide guidance about what is in the mainstream and what is not. People’s sense of morality can differ from the mainstream so having a rules-based system that is broadly accepted gives everybody certainty around it. Our code of conduct in the PRCA is to tell the truth and have regard to the public interest. Sometimes they can conflict, which is the grey area. Professional bodies need to take a stand. When our members sign up to PRCA, they know they are adhering to the most rigorous PR code in the world.”

Dr Harned told me that she came into this field by accident. Her background is in education and her training is in the area of character development. Her firm belief is that we are always learning and improving our character and our ethics are always changing. “Our ethics can change in different directions and ideally we improve our character, commitment and our ability to live out our values. Compliance tends to focus on rules and regulations and what you should not do. Ethics is about doing what is right, how we behave and conduct our business.”

PR is often described as the conscience of an organisation. Why do they believe ethics is so important to the PR industry and PR to ethics? “I’ve always taken issue with this statement as every organisation should have a conscience – everyone around the boardroom table and everyone throughout the whole organisation needs to recognise when something is the wrong thing to do. It should be part of the culture,” said Ingham. 

“Communications professionals can shape the culture and formulate the values of an organisation. You can help frame the narrative and the messages about what an organisation stands for, but it needs to be lived throughout an organisation. This period has shown the ethical gap that exists for a lot of companies between what they say are their values and how they behave, and the public can see when they don’t marry,” he said.

Dr Harned said, “PR has a critical role in every organisation. In a lot of ways they give a voice to some of the convictions and decisions of the business at very high levels. Increasingly, as we see the influence of human rights priorities in Europe and ESG across the world, especially in the US, a lot of business leaders are turning to PR professionals to help them determine the commitments they will make about the environment and key social issues. This helps them demonstrate how they are governed and what practices they have in place to ensure good governance. Ethics is critical to the role of PR as they help company leaders to articulate what they stand for.

“There are plenty of issues that PR practitioners face daily. In that sense, ethics is very relevant to the profession to ensure that, as a PR professional, you are upholding the profession and as an individual you are keeping your commitment to your own personal values,” she said.

During the past year, I’ve observed that the PR industry has demonstrated more ethical practices globally. I asked both Ingham and Dr Harned how, from their experiences, ethics differs post-Covid. Dr Harned shared that since 1994, the ECI has produced an annual Global Business Ethics Survey, a primary research study that looks at key trends in the industry. The 2020 study provides insights into the impact of Covid-19 on environments.

“Tone at the top is huge – it’s incredibly important in setting standards for an organisation and helping employees to understand how they should behave,” she said. “One of the biggest things that helps employees to hear or perceive tone from the top is how leaders handle crises. And we have never had a crisis like we have had in the past year. 

“One of the things that businesses have done very effectively in the past year is communicate with their employees about how they support them to help them to continue to do their work despite the ever-changing environment. When it comes to ethics, those are the communications that matter the most to employees. In a way, Covid-19 has given businesses an opportunity to reinforce to employees what their priorities are and that has had an effect on ethics in the workforce.”

Ingham added that Covid-19 was a game changing moment for ethics. “Covid has thrown how organisations communicated and behaved into the spotlight and this spotlight on ethics has been harsh, in a good way. It’s given communications an opportunity to highlight rights and wrongs. For many companies, all they’ve had in their armoury is how well they communicated. Chief executives have, during this period, realised that their most valuable asset is their reputation, and they are investing in it. Our industry has become more strategic, less tactical. More communications advisors are now in chief executives’ offices and around the boardroom table because they have proven the value they bring.”

Dr Harned expanded on this by discussing why she believes unethical practices exist within some organisations and what business leaders can do to transcend these practices and be more ethical. “There are bad actors within every organisation who take advantage of the system,” she said. “Our research shows that on average 50 per cent of employees in a 12-month period will have observed behaviour that is a violation of their company standards or the law. Another reason is that there may be pressures on employees to perform and they feel they must cut corners. The third reason that wrongdoing happens in companies is that there are cultures in place where people are afraid to come forward and report what they know, or suspect, is wrongdoing. When misconduct is happening in an organisation someone always knows about it and they may often be afraid to come forward.”

When it comes to clients, Ingham said it’s important to stand by the decisions you make about who you work with. “You have to work with them in a professional and ethical manner. You can have controversial clients for whom you do non-controversial work – and vice versa – but you have to be ethical.”

In a recent interview for the #MsInterPReted podcast, Ingham said, “I truly passionately believe that our industry needs codes of conduct that are enforced… our expulsion of Bell Pottinger (due to a controversial contract in South Africa) proved that the industry has standards. We will never again have a story like Bell Pottinger because people in the industry don’t do that sort of work now and they won’t do so in the future.” Elaborating on this and how it has positively impacted the industry, Ingham said, “That was a defining moment for our industry for a couple of reasons. The introspective one, had it been 10 years before we wouldn’t have felt confident enough to expel them, because we didn’t have a broad enough base of members to be controversial or to be brave. Because of the size of the organisation, we had that confidence.”

“Secondly, a lot of top executives believed the expulsion would go away. What they failed to grasp was that public expectations had moved on and that everyone can express their opinion and it’s not just a matter of a couple of headlines in a newspaper. It also revealed that clients don’t just expect to receive good advice, they want to work with people they are happy to be associated with because it’s all about reputation. Members saw what happens when you fall foul of the code of conduct. It’s had a long-term impact. We launched in Africa last month and every agency that has joined in Africa mentioned Bell Pottinger. It has set the tone and set the standard for the industry. It shifted what was considered acceptable, people saw the consequences of doing ill. It proved the power of our industry – power for both bad and good – which is why codes and ethics matter.”

One thing for sure that emerged from my conversations with Ingham and Dr Harned is that there is an increasing appetite among organisations globally to listen to their conscience. They are prepared to take ethical action and know that unethical behaviour has consequences.