Public relations needs a better example

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 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.”

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Public relations needs a better example”

  1. Ethics are not dead among PR people with integrity. In fact, companies which rely only on legal counsel for ethical advice may be the ones dead in the water. The horrendous spy scandal at HP provides a lesson for the corporate world – lawyers alone will not protect your reputation if you do not have a wise and resolute PR head at your company’s executive table. Latest on this, including HP’s rebuttal, at:

  2. I couldn’t agree more – those of us with integrity need to be prepared to challenge bad ethical practice and use examples such as HP to illustrate the impact on reputation. It is important that execs themselves recognise the value of being good, not just in being seen to be good as PR should not be thought of as able to create silk purses from sows’s ears.

    Of course, some “measures” of reputation, such as share prices that are valued at the board table aren’t always immediately affected (although we are seeing more recognition among investors of importance of ethical behaviour post-Enron). It took time for the mighty McDonald share price to recognise the impact of a highly active public in the McLibel case (magnifying a molehill into a mountain) and failure to recognise childhood obesity as an emerging issue until it has become a crisis. This is probably a result of their predominant marketing rather than PR presence at the exec table. Similarly, interesting to see how Toyota with its commitment on the environment is outpacing the US car giants with the widest range of stakeholders (especially politicians and investors). I used to work at Toyota and a major difference to other companies was its genuine engagement with feedback from all possible sources.

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