On reflection: global ethical principles

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Dr Kevin Ruck and Dr Heather Yaxley welcome the new global principles of ethical practice, but have some questions about their real world impact.

The new global principles of ethical practice in public relations and communications announced last week (22 August 2018) by the Global Alliance (GA), IABC and other bodies are a valiant attempt to bring institutes around the world together to tackle poor practice.

Nine ‘guiding’ principles and seven principles of ‘professional practice’ have been established.

These are intended to be high level principles that are underpinned by codes of conduct. However, they sound very much like ‘values and vision’ statements that are so generic that they have minimal resonance. Indeed, ‘integrity’ (guiding principle 7) is often found in meaningless company values.

Whilst it may seem churlish to question the hard work of the GA taskforce in coming up with new principles, it might have been more productive to address the issue of how to ensure that unethical practice is tackled and reduced.

It is not new wording on principles that is important. It is helping PR people to clearly understand what unethical practice is and to eradicate poor practice. Changing ingrained unethical behaviour is a tough challenge in any environment and the announcement of generic principles is unlikely to have much of an impact. Indeed, the majority of practitioners – including many who belong to professional bodies – will simply see them as ignorable guidelines as there appear to be minimal consequences to non-adherence, as evidenced by the tiny number of complaints made to PR institutes around the world.

Contrast this situation with another profession, that of architects. In the UK. the website of the independent regulator ARB highlights how to make a complaint on the homepage (see screenshot below). It also publishes all details of all complaint cases which you can see here.

Alongside transparency regarding expected ‘standards of conduct and competence’, the visible complaints procedure, and possible penalties, ARB underlines the role of ‘education, training and experience needed to become an architect’.

Earlier this year, the Global Alliance published a global capabilities framework for public relations and communication management following a two-year research project led by the University of Huddersfield (UK). The common global framework comprises four communication capabilities, three organisational ones, and four professional capabilities – including:

‘To work within an ethical framework on behalf of the organization, in line with professional and societal expectations.’

The intention of the capabilities framework is to support individuals, employers and educators in identifying, developing and providing relevant education and training. These two professional projects are steps in the right direction, but if they are to be credible, they need to be widely adopted and demonstrably effective in raising standards.

Frameworks, professional capabilities, guiding principles and codes of conduct are not enough to effect the required culture change for more ethical public relations and communications management.

The following three actions will help drive out unethical practice and enable practitioners to deliver ethical outcomes for their work.

  1. Facilitate compliance – through communication and enforcement of a more visible compliance process. A single website – under the auspices of the Global Alliance and IABC – should provide information for individuals, employers, students, educators, members of the public and other key stakeholders regarding standards of ethical practice, registers of practitioners, confidential enquiries services, complaint procedures, and recent decisions and outcomes.
  2. Invest in ethical inquiry – more open discussion and a wider perspective of ethical – and unethical – practice is required. Establishment of a global Centre for Ethical Inquiry would:
    • draw together existing knowledge (including historical and contemporary examples of ethical and unethical practice);
    • fund research and educative activities supporting professional ethics to bridge the gap between academia and practice;
    • engage with various experts and critics of PR;
    • identify, interpret and offer guidance on issues of ethical debate and everyday practice;
    • build a database of case studies and evidence to underpin ethical practices;
    • develop a credible leadership position globally for PR ethics.
  3. Promote reflective practice – as a foundation for sustainable professional development. Public relations and communication management operates in an ever-changing environment that challenges expertise, authority and ethical practices. Automation and ongoing overlap between areas of professional responsibility will continue to influence the needs and expectations of individuals, organisations and wider society. Consequently, industry bodies need to support their members in developing career mobility within global multi-professional communities of reflective practice. As a well-researched approach to flexible learning, reflective practice provides an ethical basis for sustainable professional development and achievement of evidence-based performance indicators.   

The new global principles of ethical practice in public relations and communications offer an opportunity to start a broader discussion about ethics within public relations and communication management. But without facilitating compliance, developing expertise in ethical inquiry and normalising reflective practice, it is unlikely that the principles will have any real world or lasting impact.