Maintaining the Highest Standards Will Earn PR’s Trusted Status

This July, Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, will appear on the big screen in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, bejeweled with a cluster of cameo appearances by assorted celebrities.

I’m happy to confess that I’m really looking forward to this feature length version of the champagne-fueled, satirical take on ‘90s consumer PR, which is guaranteed to raise a smile.
But, what I’m not looking forward to is the dredging up – almost celebration – of the bad perception of a certain brand of old PR which portrays practitioners as superficial, fluffy, and false. One would hope that, given much work done to professionalize the industry in recent years, this old view would have been consigned to the stuff of legend.

At least, there is a more defined difference now between publicity and professional communications. And that’s a good thing. Strong communication is the key to good business, good government and good relationships.

This is why I’m fully behind professional communicators pursuing the highest standards and it’s something that I’m determined to instill in my team, in those starting out in the industry that we mentor and encourage, in my clients, and in anybody else who’ll listen.

Grunig’s* theory of two-way symmetrical communication has been assisted by the development of digital and social media. It involves listening as well as telling. We no longer push messages onto the audiences from whom we want to provoke a response. Social media has given us a new means of holding conversations with stakeholders and influencers – both by starting new dialogues and responding to issues and challenges that arise.

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The PR Profession Needs to Buy Fully Into Two-Way, Ethical Communication

That‘s good. But we shouldn’t just be engaging in this new way because we might otherwise get found out. The PR profession needs to buy fully into two-way, ethical communication. This is stuff we all know about, and we should be leading the way. We need to influence and persuade our organizations or clients to take this seriously, not just to say what they do but also to do what they say they do; to be authentic – a million miles away from Edina Monsoon. To echo Robert Phillips in Trust Me, PR is Dead it means changing behavior before unleashing words and by basing everything we do in radical honesty and transparency, rooting the organization in action, not in words. These are trust-building behaviors that embrace the crowd.

And in this way, we can be real change agents. There can at last be some tangible public good from public relations.

It can be challenging to ensure that we give clients or senior colleagues the best advice especially if that means sometimes pushing back on requests and managing expectations. But it is essential that PR practitioners act with the highest ethics and integrity so that public relations can rightly justify its deserved status as a profession.

Ultimately such professional behavior will earn us more recognition and respect, giving us a seat at the board table, giving us the ability to enhance and influence corporate strategy, and bring a new objectivity to corporate decision-making.

Code of Conduct: Not a Bad Place to Start

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations has done a lot to support us here with its excellent Code of Conduct by which members are bound and can sense check or benchmark themselves if in any doubt as to the ethics of their practice.

It’s a commitment on practitioners’ part to maintain the highest standards of professional endeavor, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety, and personal conduct; to be honest, fair and respectful to others, to uphold the reputation of the PR profession and to encourage the professional training and development of PR people.

Then there are the all-important four Cs for PR businesses – capability, capacity, competence, and conflicts.

The code is not a bad place to start. Ethics is of central importance to the PR industry; it’s important that all practitioners act responsibly and ethically. Our advice has to be trusted if we are to be successful, so our actions must be appropriate at all times. CIPR members also engage in professional development with the institute, where ethics is a core module of all qualifications and ongoing CPD activity is required from accredited or chartered members.

We improve the reputation of our industry by setting the highest standards, championing two-way ethical communications activity and constantly learning new skills, acquiring expert knowledge, and developing new communication channels.

‘Two Pairs of Eyes’ Policy

For example, at Orchard our team operates a ‘two pairs of eyes’ policy on all content and advice to clients to ensure there is no client or media pressure on individual team members to act in a way that is contrary to the CIPR’s ethics policy guidance. Also, as Orchard has expanded so has our client list to the point where often we have two or more clients in similar areas of business. We have proactively instituted procedures for managing such conflicts.

Continuing professional development should be at the core of a professional agency and a key part of any professional PR practitioner’s career journey. It differentiates us from non-CIPR members/agencies, and from our competitors in other areas of marketing; generalists who don’t have the specific skills and knowledge that we’ve gained from studying.

At Orchard CPD plays a key part in our commitment to all our staff developing their careers. Our new joiners register for the CIPR’s advanced certificate as soon as they are able, and our experienced practitioners complete their CPD records every year. We have two chartered practitioners and two accredited practitioners. Eight of our 12-strong team completed their CPD records this year. But CPD is not just about badges or certificates; it is about professionalism, ethics, and accountability.

It is a disciplined way of ensuring that we all make time to think about our profession and to keep pace with industry developments and standards. It is CPD that enables our clients and colleagues to see us as trusted advisors who uphold the highest standards, follow a code of conduct and will always give the most appropriate, relevant, and ethical advice.
CPD produces more rounded PR practitioners as participants are encouraged to explore a variety of different activities to complete their record: attending events, networking with other practitioners, and reading books and study guides; all enable the accumulation of invaluable skills and knowledge.

There’s a new wave of transparency and accountability, of professional and ethical behavior sweeping through the PR and communications sector. It’s not before time, and all of us who are employed in this important industry should be evangelical in our efforts to ensure it is embraced by both practitioners and clients.

I, for one, fully back the drive towards the highest standards attainable for PR and communications professionals, honest and fair engagement and the creation of a culture where organizations adapt and change as a result of stakeholder feedback in return for trust and respect, ultimately fulfilling both parties’ objectives.

*J E Grunig, noted public relations theorist