Drawing a Line on Ethics in PR

Like all professions, public relations has codes of ethics that describe behaviors to guide those who practice the profession to differentiate what's right and wrong in how they do that.

A simplistic view, perhaps, but not far off a base description of what ethical behavior in PR should be about but, often, isn't.

So is the route to a more ethical public relations profession one that includes regulation or, at least, certification?

It's more than just an idea, and not a new one either, as my podcasting partner Shel Holtz argued in a powerful post last week, literally a call to action to address counter-ethical behavior by some in the profession.

[...] Using online tools and channels that were unimaginable a mere 25 years ago, anybody calling himself a public relations practitioner can engage in activities and behaviors that shame and belittle the profession. That's our own fault as a profession. We have allowed "public relations" to mean anything anybody wants it to. A recent campaign to define PR doesn't help, since not only is the definition overly broad, there is no mechanism to hold accountable anybody who operates outside the definition. As a result, anybody can say what they do is PR or communications, regardless of how far they stray outside the boundaries of professional or ethical practices.

In his post, Shel holds up as an example of what he calls "jaw-dropping abuses" the way in which one individual, self-proclaimed "media manipulator" Ryan Holiday, candidly describes his approach to PR, quoting from an interview Holiday gave to the Mixergy podcast.

Holiday, whose day job is director of marketing at American Apparel - and who's also a Huffington Post blogger in the U.S. -- is the author of Trust Me, I'm Lying, a so-called expose book published in the US last month that some have called "a primer on how to hack the media zeitgeist."

Shel argues in his post that if you're looking for behaviors that aren't in the codes of ethics from professional bodies such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) -- or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK, for that matter -- look no further than this book.

I haven't read the book but the excerpts referencing it in the Mixergy interview that appear in Shel's post are damning enough to illustrate Holiday's contempt for such things as codes of ethics by professional bodies.

To bundle some metaphors together, Holiday may well be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Shel, yet he's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unethical PR practice down the years.

Think of astroturfing half a decade and more ago (and which never went away). More recently, look at the Bell Pottinger political lobbying scandal in the UK last year. And, bang up to date, look at the fake Shell Oil "PR" stunt earlier this year.

Isn't all that a strong reinforcement, then, for Shel's call to action? For regulation, or at least, certification?

Or maybe it's indicative of behavior shifts in society that require a re-think on what "ethical behavior" in practicing PR means, leading to rewriting the rules of the game?

I think the latter has more chance of happening than regulation or certification. That's not to say for one minute that this suggests practices like Holiday's (which to my eye look like nothing more than a fancy way of describing the end justifies the means, and cunning self-promotion for a book) are okay. They're not, far from it, in my view.

Yet Shel's argument is highly compelling and must also be addressed. But, I don't think regulation or certification is the way, certainly not yet -- to me it seems a last resort, when all else has failed, never mind the legal, diplomatic and logistical hurdles to jump if this is seriously about taking it on for the profession as a whole as opposed to a branch of the profession in one particular country, e.g., the USA.

It seems to me that this is the moment for professional associations such as those I mentioned earlier to be handed the golden opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, so to speak. Give this a chance! Maybe a last chance for the associations to voluntarily put their member-houses in order as far as ethical behaviors are concerned.

Associations should take their existing codes of ethics and practices, and give them enforcement power -- teeth! -- and credibility to weed out those members of their associations who don't abide by those codes.

How difficult can it really be to address this and draw a line? Let's get started.