Can PR people have ethics? Can you do the job without them for long? During any career you could be asked to bend the truth, look the other way or plain old lie. So what do you do? The National Union of Journalists - who have a thriving PR section - have some thoughts.
by Phil Morcom
Mixing with journalists who work in print and broadcast, the notion that there not only needs to be ethical PR, but that professional PRs commit to it, can sometimes take them aback. Ethical journalism is that pot of gold under the rainbow where journalism exposes wrongs and uncovers misdeeds, unfettered by commercial imperative or proprietorial influence.
We are lucky in the UK. We have very many excellent journalists, some excellent media and a tradition that can belie oft-repeated the quote:
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
But seeing what
the man will do
no occasion to.
There's a whole array of excellent non-mainstream publications and channels where people are digging around to seek the truth. Mainstream media do their bit too, and the campaigns as varied as the Daily Mail's pursuit of the truth about the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the hacking enquiry come to quickly to mind. With Hillsborough fresh in the mind and Orgreave now under scrutiny, the role of PR professionals is thrown into focus.
The recent declarations by Hayley Court of how she was expected to behave throws a sharp focus on the pressure felt by some in PR as they try to do their job. As my NUJ colleague Sian Jones says: “Media workers should never feel under undue pressure to push a line they feel uncomfortable with and if their employer insists the union is here to represent them.”
What is unethical PR? Like many concepts, you can get lost in the devil of the detail trying to define it, but most of us know it when we see it. There's certainly good advice from the NUJ, CIPR and PRCA, among other organisations. Looking at a few of the courses on offer from universities, the role of ethics doesn't feature as highly as it might as a topic, but academics I know certainly take it very seriously.
At the NUJ we have had plenty of experience helping members stand up for their professional integrity. We've expertise dealing with health sector comms teams expected to cover up for incompetence or poor judgement. We've helped members employed in the criminal justice system to ensure they are not manipulated into unethical and potentially dangerous attempts to mislead. We have helped workers at the end of their tether dealing with unreasonable employers seeking to force them to do things which their professional PR judgement knows to be not only unethical, but also plain bad PR.
That's why the NUJ's Public Relations and Communications Council are running a session on ethical PR at their June meeting in Leeds. We are inviting local PR professionals and journalists to come and share good practice and discuss some of the problems we face and how best to deal with them. If you're interested in joining in, or having the NUJ run a similar event in your area, please let us know.
None of it is easy. Standing up for yourself can be hard, particularly as many in PR work in an isolated way and there is always a fear that redundancy or bullying could result from a failure to submit to unreasonable requests. For some reason the judgement and advice of PR professionals is sometimes not given the same credence or value as that of other professionals - lawyers, accountants, engineers or whatever. But fail to protect your own reputation for behaving ethically and professionally and you run the risk of much longer term lack of credibility.
Having a union behind you and having membership of a professional body can make doing the right thing that bit easier.
Phil Morcom is NUJ PRCC Chair.
Picture credit: Florida Memory / Flickr