New international ethical principles for PR welcomed, education and enforcement required

New international ethical principles for PR welcomed, education and enforcement required

A cross industry group of international PR associations has developed a common set of principles for ethical practice. The next job is education and enforcement.

An enforceable code of conduct is the cornerstone of a profession. It sets out the behaviour and practice expected of practitioners.

In a well-publicised case the Public Relations Communications Association (PRCA) terminated the membership of Bell Pottinger in September last year for a breach of its code. The move resulted in the agency closing.

It led to an industry wide call to revisit global standards by Edelman CEO Richard Edelman, among others.

The International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) proposed a list of ten ethical principles for the PR industry at its annual meeting on Helskini in October. The PRCA and ICCO are both led by Francis Ingham.

ICCO teamed up with the Global Alliance (GA) and in February started work on an industry wide standard.

ICCO represents international PR trade organisations in 55 countries including the PRCA in the UK, whereas the GA represents PR membership associations in 60 countries such as the CIPR in the UK.

The cooperation and drive for standards is welcomed. My agency, Ketchum is a member of the PRCA, and I’m a personal member of the CIPR.

Taskforce to develop global code of ethical standards

A working group led by the GA’s Jean Valin was established along with Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS); ICCO; International Association of Business Communicators (IABC); Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA); PRCA; Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ); Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

The group revisited a project undertaken by Valin on behalf of the GA in 2003, and benchmarked a dozen codes of conduct and ethics for PR associations worldwide.

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It developed a new set of principles is intended as an umbrella framework, and the basis of implementing local country codes of conduct.

“As communicators and PR professionals, we have the potential to influence economies and individuals.  This carries obligations and responsibilities to society and to organisations,” said Valin.

“Ethics must be at the core of our activity. In our world of fake news and concerns over privacy as artificial intelligence ramps us, we are at an ethical crossroads."

Culture, language and standards, are among the challenges in developing an international ethical standard, however the working group landed on 16 principles that it deemed universal and fundamental to the practice of PR and communication management.

Guiding principles

  1. Working in the public interest
  2. Obeying laws and respect diversity and local customs
  3. Freedom of speech
  4. Freedom of assembly
  5. Freedom of media
  6. Honesty, truth and fact-based communication
  7. Integrity
  8. Transparency and disclosure
  9. Privacy

Principles of professional practice

  1. Commitment to continuous learning and training
  2. Avoiding conflict of interest
  3. Advocating for the profession
  4. Respect and fairness in dealing with publics
  5. Expertise without guarantee of results beyond capacity
  6. Behaviours that enhance the profession
  7. Professional conduct
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“This is a powerful expression of what the industry can achieve when it speaks with one voice. The universally agreed principles will help us embed ethics at the heart of PR practice," said Sarah Hall, President, CIPR.

“As a member of the Global Alliance, we are proud to champion the highest standards of ethical practice and believe this is an important step towards improving ethical standards of PR across the world.”

Universal code of ethics

The GA has updated its own 2003 code (opens as a PDF) to reflect the new global principles. It’s a catch all document in the event that a national membership organisation or trade association doesn’t have a code of conduct.

The next challenge is education and enforcement. Industry associations rightly put ethical training at the forefront of their educational efforts.

The latest initiative has generated significant number of case studies and a variety of teaching resources. The working group has assembled a repository of resources such as case studies, podcasts, and newsletters.

Enforcement is a different issue. It’s an issue that strikes at the professionalism debate in PR, accreditation, and the difference between voluntary and mandatory codes of conduct.

The PRCA’s expulsion of Bell Pottinger was the most significant enforcement of a breach of a code of conduct in PR in a generation.

The CIPR acts on a small number of cases against members each year. It recently terminated the membership of two student members for plagiarism.

The CPRS in Canada can expel a member in the case of a breach of professional practice but hasn't taken disciplinary action in recent years while the PRSA in the US favours education.

Image via Shutterstock.

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