Ethical global PR: a case study

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Prize winners: Christine Quigley (centre) with Sophie Hall and Natalie Smith
Prize winners: Christine Quigley (centre) with Sophie Hall and Natalie Smith

This is an article by Christine Quigley.

This year’s Claire Mascall prize was won by Christine Quigley. Here’s an edited version of her essay on ethical global public relations, winner of the £1000 top prize.

Public Relations has a bad reputation when it comes to ethical practice.

PR practitioners are often thought to be liars, manipulators and spin-doctors.

However PR is an evolving global profession and has had to change and improve in order to meet the growing expectations and needs of stakeholders.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability is now a specialist area of PR that is important to an organisation in order for it to be perceived as being ethical.

Ethical practice leads to trust, which helps to build and maintain an organisation-stakeholder relationship which is ultimately the purpose of the public relations function.

CSR has now become an aspect of PR that is increasingly being incorporated into corporate identity and is changing stakeholders’ perspectives of particular organisations.

I also believe in order to be ethical when practising global PR a centralised approach is not acceptable. A number of factors should be taken into consideration before, during and after global campaigns.

  • Culture (customs and values)
  • Language
  • Environment
  • Communication delivery systems

What may be considered unethical behaviour in a Western European country may be viewed as acceptable practice in parts of the developing world. So if not taken into consideration this could cause a communications crisis, brand confusion, loss of trust and credibility for an organisation or a brand.

Here are some examples of some campaigns/slogans that did not consider language differences when launching a global campaign and their messages got lost in translation:

  • Coors slogan, “Turn it loose,” when translated to Spanish read as “Suffer from diarrhoea.”
  • In Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”

Fortunately these mistakes did not do permanent damage to the brand yet they generated bad publicity and made the brands memorable for the wrong reason.

Case study in ethical global PR

Toms is a shoe company. Whenever a customer buys a pair of their shoes they donate a pair to a child in need. They call this ‘one for one’. The company started up with the mission to help children in developing countries, not just to gain a profit.

This to me is an example of ethical PR on a global scale and CSR at its best. It is not just to a way to generate publicity which is often the perception of CSR initiatives – it’s also their business model.

‘Toms’ partners with humanitarian and non-profit organisations who are already established all over the world in countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa and Rwanda. They also help poor children in the USA and South America. These partners must match the following criteria:

  • Repeat Giving – partners must be able to work with the same communities in multi-year commitments, regularly providing shoes to the same children as they grow.
  • High Impact – shoes must aid Giving Partners with their existing goals in the areas of health and education, providing children with opportunities they would not otherwise have.
  • Considerate of Local Economy – ensuring the donated shoes do not have negative socio-economic effects on the communities where shoes are given (for example, by harming the work of local cobblers).
  • Large Volume Shipments – Giving Partners must be able to accept large shipments of giving pairs.
  • Health/Education Focused– Giving Partners must only give shoes in conjunction with health and education effort

This to me shows they only want to be associated with other ethical organisations and that they are addressing all cultural and language barriers by partnering with NGOs who are already established in these countries who know the customs, values and beliefs of the country.

Not only are ‘Toms’ socially responsible they also demonstrate transparency. They have all the press they have received available on their website. They have updated blog posts, pictures and video casts showing their work. This allows customers to see what was promised when they bought their shoes is actually happening, therefore encouraging a trusting relationship.

When researching ethical PR in general I came across some bloggers debating the following statement: “The only way to practise ethical PR is to work in the NGO or voluntary sector, all the rest is corporate propaganda or spin”.

Toms is a perfect example of a company which is not an NGO or in the voluntary sector yet which practises ethical PR worldwide. They are truthful, transparent and socially responsible.

In order to have ethical PR on a global scale it is important for an organisation to be truthful, transparent, accurate and socially responsible. It is also important to consider other factors such as culture, religion etc.

However, as public relations is not a recognised profession like medicine or the law, it is not compulsory for practitioners to sign up for or abide by the ethical guidelines put forward by professional bodies such as the CIPR and IPRA.

It is up to the individual practitioner or an organisation to incorporate these ethical guidelines into their communication objectives and tactics. For me personally, I hope to continue to live by these principles when I begin my career.

Will it take PR to be recognised as an actual profession before we will see more examples of ethical global PR?