OPINION: SETTING THE ETHICAL STANDARD FOR PR
Following the PRCA’s Ethics and Professionalism Month, Francis Ingham explains the motivation behind, and reasons for, the Helsinki Declaration for the betterment of the PR industry
I’d like you to stop what you’re doing for a moment and think about the answer to the following question: When was the last time you thought about the ethics of the work that you are doing?
Perhaps it was the veracity of the facts in a press release that you drafted. Or the positioning of a star case study who, it turned out, wasn’t quite who they claimed to be. Maybe you have a niggling feeling that you’ve not been entirely honest in responding to a press enquiry about your client or company’s activities. Did you raise it as an issue with your superior? Did you give it serious thought, but decide that it wasn’t worth destabilising the campaign that has been months in development? Or did you just push it to the back of your mind and get on with the job because you’re likely to be in the office for the rest of the evening if you don’t?
Then, may I remind you about a story with which you may be familiar. In September, the PRCA terminated the membership of Bell Pottinger after an investigation into its work for Oakbay Capital in South Africa. The agency has since gone into administration. This is an extreme example – possibly the most extreme the PR world has ever seen – but it is instructive about any ethical dilemmas you may have faced.
October was the PRCA’s Ethics and Professionalism Month, during which, ICCO, the global communications membership body, launched its Helsinki Principles on ethical practice. The 10 principles in the Helsinki Declaration call on PR professionals:
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.
The principles propose to unite the global PR industry under a single banner of ethical behaviour, taking into account the influence of PR around the world, and the considerable dangers associated with unethical behaviour.
Every single PR practitioner in the UK and indeed everywhere else in the world should be able to sign up to these principles. In these days of fake news, when transparency requirements have never been greater, and with rightfully stronger demands than ever before that practitioners act professionally and ethically, this declaration has come at the perfect time.
I believe that ours is an overwhelmingly professional industry. In the UK alone, over 20,000 PR professionals are happy to sign up to, and abide by, our professional charter and codes of conduct. And on the rare occasions when malpractice occurs, we have taken speedy and decisive action. Our industry has standards, and we should say what they are – the Helsinki Declaration does just that.
Francis Ingham is director general of the PRCA