Every month is ethics month
In September the CIPR threw its weight behind the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Ethics Awareness Month in a bid to inform and educate members, and the broader profession, about ongoing public relations ethics. There were round tables, new guidance documents, Twitter discussions and a policy change aimed at putting ethics at the heart of personal development.
Code of Conduct for professionals
The CIPR's Code of Conduct for members is at the heart of our disciplinary process whereby any member of the profession or the general public can raise a complaint against one our members if they believe they have broken any element of the Code.
We take the professional conduct of our members very seriously. In 2013 our regulatory consultant spent more than 2o0 hours of time on disciplinary procedures.
But no matter how effective the CIPR’s structures are in holding members to account; what really matters is what is known as ethical competence - a defining element of professionalism.
This is much more than just signing up to the Code, acknowledging it once a year on renewal, and in between time paying it no mind.
Ethical public relations practice
Ethical competence is based on a foundation of regulation and on the individual’s knowledge and technical competencies. It means that the individual can apply their knowledge and technical ability ethically. And there are many are examples of how ethical competence should be put in to practice.
The use of research, surveys and statistics is a matter of integrity, as well as ethical and technical competence.
Surveys and statistics can build powerful stories, but all messages, statistics and claims made in communications should be supported by proof and a robust and reasonable rationale for the claim.
Falling short of these standards brings not to just an individual’s professional conduct, but also public relations, into disrepute.
Burying bad news is not just unprofessional – it's as good as a cover-up. public relations professionals work in the public interest, as well as in the interests of their clients or employers. Important information that could influence public choices should be managed carefully, but should definitely not be suppressed or withheld from public scrutiny.
Professionals should always deal fairly with the public and sometimes that means putting the public interests ahead of the client. Not taking this into consideration, and acting against this principle, is unethical.
This should be the same whether we’re talking about creating fake profiles and followers on social media, to dealing fairly and honestly with journalists to the treatment of interns.
Managers and leaders in public relations have a duty to create a culture in which ethical conduct is the norm, and not just simply acknowledge the existence of a Code, but live by it.
CIPR to make ethics a compulsory CPD module from March 2015
So how should ethical competence be validated? Disciplinary process is a blunt instrument.
At the moment, we require members who sign up to CPD to gain 60 points across two ‘streams’ broadly around knowledge development and volunteering.
From March 2015, when the new CPD year starts, we will make it compulsory to log at least five points’ worth of professional development activity relating to ethics.
I believe that if we’re ever going to get serious about changing the perception of public relations in the eyes of clients, employers and the general public, it is important for them to know that people who claim to be professional in public relations pay more than lip service to their Code of Conduct.
Changing our CPD structure to build ethics is a step towards making it a standard competence.
The only way is ethics.
This article first appeared as a column in Communicate Magazine.