THURSDAY 9 MAR 2017 12:41 PM

OPINION: ETHICS FIRST FOR PR

Public relations cannot stand by and watch media ethics dissipate, Jason MacKenzie says in his first column as CIPR president for 2017

The ethical conduct of media organisations was brought into sharp focus last month ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Ten days ahead of Trump’s appointment as the 45th US President, BuzzFeed released a dossier containing allegations that Russia was “cultivating, supporting and assisting” the billionaire’s election campaign. The article contained an astounding caveat, “The allegations [within the article] are unverified, and the report contains errors.”

BuzzFeed took the unorthodox decision to publish allegations it couldn’t verify. The decision inspired a frenzied debate surrounding the responsibility of modern media organisations to report truth and corroborate facts. BuzzFeed editor, Ben Smith, defended the move arguing that readers had the right to decide for themselves. In the same week, a CIPR Twitter poll revealed 65% of people believed BuzzFeed made the right call. I’m with the 35% that disagreed and I can’t help but feel the outcome of that poll would have been different had Trump not been its subject. There’s little room for emotion and political persuasions when it comes ethics and upholding professional integrity. BuzzFeed was wrong to publish the dossier.

Substantiating facts is a prerequisite of professional journalism. While the media landscape continues to fragment and evolve, this doesn’t relieve journalists from their duty to seek truth. In the UK, journalist standards are governed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Society of Editors, whose codes compel them to act ethically.

The need for reporters to maintain ethical standards has never been greater. During the US election campaign, BuzzFeed itself revealed that fake election news stories generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets, combined. This evidences the scale of the challenge. Anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can be a publisher in 2017. Journalists in every corner of the media must practice and promote augmented professional standards to distinguish themselves from those who have little interest in the pursuit of truth. Their ability or failure to do so will have seismic implications.

Why is this important for communicators? Professionalism begets professionalism.

As PR professionals, we’re in the reputation business. Our ability to build successful long-term relationships for organisations and clients is dependent on honest and truthful communication. That’s how we build trust and define our role in the value exchange. Newspapers and online publishers play a key role in that process and their integrity must be defended. As communicators, we must do our part to contribute to the development of an ethical media landscape.
Ethics and professionalism go hand in hand. For public relations, the CIPR is uniquely positioned to progress professionalism and promote ethical conduct, not least because all our members sign our code of conduct. Just as editors adhere to the NUJ or Society of Editors’ code, PR professionals validate their commitment to ethics through the CIPR code.

Our industry must adopt a clearer and more robust approach to ethics. Our profession has no room for double standards. We must commit to ethical practice and be tough on those who fall foul of our expectations.
Members of the CIPR and the institute’s chartered practitioners are leading the industry’s march to professionalism. More members than ever are proving their commitment to professional excellence by becoming chartered practitioners. That’s why we’ve announced two new Chartership Assessment days in March and April. If you’re serious about ethical conduct and professional standards, I’d urge you to join them.

Jason MacKenzie is president of the CIPR

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