News Analysis: Should industry rogues fear CIPR?

The CIPR last week revealed plans to clamp down on bad practice among PR executives. Will the industry witness a bout of naming and shaming, or is the institute's pledge merely hot air? Robyn Lewis investigates.

CIPR president Tony Bradley took to the stage at the trade body's annual conference last Wednesday to reveal it had made a minor - but significant - tweak to its code of conduct. The CIPR  is pledging to ‘get tough' on poor PR practice (PRWeek, 10 Nov).

The policy, already in effect, allows the CIPR to investigate a member it suspects of malpractice or unethical behaviour, even if that person has not provoked a complaint from another member.

Bradley - whose year-long presidency expires next month - says the move ‘gives far greater powers to the president and director-general to investigate possible abuses or malpractice'. Expulsion from the institute would be one possible sanction.

Time to act
During 2005 the CIPR received just six complaints about members - an ‘average' number for a year, it says. These complaints generally fell into the categories of ‘mismatched expec­tations' and ‘intellectual property'. In such cases the CIPR acts as a mediator to try and resolve the issues.

The new code states: ‘Where information of a substantive nature on the conduct of a member has come to the attention of the CIPR, and the D-G or president considers it appropriate... he may proceed as if the matter were a complaint that had been received and he were the complainant.'

The CIPR sees the move as bringing it ‘in line' with the chartered institutes of other professions. For example, Mike Petrook, press and PR manager at the Chartered Management Institute, says: ‘We act proactively when we suspect that a member may be in breach of our code of conduct.'

The Chartered Institute of Journalists also says it would act without a complaint if a member was suspected of breaching its code or bringing the industry into disrepute.

The Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), while defending the strength of its code, only investigates members after a complaint from another member or the public. It does not intend to change its code in the foreseeable future, according to director-general Patrick Barrow. He does, though, welcome the CIPR's move, saying: ‘I think it is entirely right that the CIPR is going to be more proactive when it comes to looking at standards in the industry.'

But he adds: ‘It is our policy to wait for a formal complaint because we think that leads to a more thorough and fairer investigation through the full formal disclosure of two different sets of argument.'

The CIPR says the change to its code went through an internal consultation process unopposed, and believes the industry at large will support it.

Michael Murphy, the respected CEO of Trimedia International, gives a cautious thumbs-up: ‘Stronger sanctions governing behaviour in the industry are a positive move.  The only problem is that most of those who run the risk of incurring action from the CIPR would tend not to be members anyway.' Murphy's point is pertinent. Around 48,000 people are estimated to work in PR, and fewer than 9,000 are CIPR members - less than 20 per cent of PR professionals will therefore be affected by the change to its code.

CIPR director-general Colin Farrington responds: ‘I think that a lot of PR professionals, even if they are not members, still adhere to our code of practice. Plus, we are sending out a signal that there is clear blue water between members and non-members. This gives CIPR membership even more gravitas.'

Industry veteran David McLaren - chairman of Cohn & Wolfe - is nevertheless concerned that the CIPR may lack the resources needed to operate a crackdown. ‘This is clearly a welcome development in principle,' he says. ‘But this is a very big step and an ambitious role to fill. How, for example, will the CIPR manage a thorough monitoring process to spot malpractice with such limited resources?'

Farrington counters this by saying the CIPR ‘won't be scouring the papers daily' to find breaches of the code. He explains: ‘The cases where we would act are fairly obvious to spot and relatively few and far between.'

Provoking complaints
Farrington says one of the factors driving the change was to allow the CIPR to react more quickly to bad behaviour: ‘In the past, when there have been cases of bad PR practice making news, we have experienced delays in receiving complaints.

Presumably this occurs with high-profile cases because everyone assumes someone else has acted. In one part­icular case, no one complained at all and there was nothing we could do.'

So, can we expect future editions of PRWeek to be littered with stories about the trade body naming and shaming the industry's rogues? It does not sound like it. Farrington hopes the CIPR will not have to enforce the new code at all: ‘We don't actually want people to breach the code.'

But he reiterates Bradley's sentiments: ‘It's been said that we are rather toothless; we don't want that to be the case any more.'

In this regard, the new code is a shrewd PR move in respect of sharp­ening up the CIPR's image. But if
Farrington's hopes are met - and no one is pulled up under the new code - critics will certainly question the significance of the development. St James's Square, the industry is watching.

How the CIPR would react to two theoretical scenarios

A. A PR executive is exposed in a national newspaper for lying about his client: e.g. denying a story that turned out to be true...

If he were found to have lied about his client, then that would be a breach of the principle of ‘Integrity' under the code. The Professional Practice Committee's (PPC) decision regarding what disciplinary measures should be taken would depend upon the gravity of the lie, but the penalty would range from a reprimand (most likely made public) to expulsion from the CIPR.

B. A PR executive at an agency blabs to a national journalist about sensitive activities by a former client...

If true, this would be a clear breach of the principle of ‘Confidentiality' under the code. The CIPR would consult with the former client, and see if they wanted the matter to be resolved informally and ascertain their views. Again, the PPC's decision would depend upon the detail, and the penalty would range from a reprimand (most likely made public) to expulsion from the CIPR.

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