The claim by Larry Elliott, economics editor of the Guardian, that “Ethics are dead” in relation to the BAE saga, highlights the difficulties for those in public relations in terms of personal and social responsibility.
Ethical PR practice may seem an oxymoron to some, but as part of the professionalization of the discipline, ethics has become a core element of the syllabus for those studying at University or CIPR qualifications. It is also at the heart of the Institute’s focus on its code of conduct.
But how do you encourage ethical practice – rather than idealistic rhetoric – in the face of real world forces that encourage a more “pragmatic” attitude? Are hard and fast rules to “good behaviour” essential – or are the ends more important than the means?
Can governments really expect individuals and organisations to do as they say in terms of being responsible citizens rather than doing as they do? Isn’t walking the talk more important?
For me it comes down to values, reputation and trust. If you truly believe something is the right thing to do – then your values mean you take the pain of protecting them. If you have a good reputation, you don’t risk it for a short-term opportunity. If you want to be trusted, then compromising on ethical matters is a sure way to lose all credibility.
Yes, it would have been tough for BAE if they lost contracts as a result of this case. The Saudi government is an important element in Middle East matters. But is propping up a company who needs war and conflict to be profitable – and supporting a government who abuses our “friendship” – worth the fall-out? I suppose it depends on how much store you place on protecting values, reputation and trust.
For those in public relations, being committed to ethical practice involves exactly the same question. As the Irish politician, Edmund Burke stated in the 18th century: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”