Communicators have a duty to behave ethically

There can have been few weeks when the subject of ethics in PR and journalism was higher on the news agenda.

There can have been few weeks when the subject of ethics in PR and journalism was higher on the news agenda.

The WikiLeaks saga is covered elsewhere and the essence of the ethical debate it raises about the dichotomy between press freedom and national security will run and run.

In England, there is much gnashing of teeth about the role of a current affairs documentary aired by the BBC days before a crucial vote on the nation's bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2018. The program alleged corruption amongst FIFA delegates – the delegates voted with their feet and chose Russia. Cue national outcry at the “betrayal” of England's national interest by its government-funded broadcaster.

PR has also had a difficult week from an ethical point of view. Greenpeace filed a lawsuit in Washington on Monday alleging PR firms Ketchum and Dezenhall Resources, and their clients Dow Chemical and Sasol North America, used "unlawful means" to obtain confidential information about the environmental group.

Separately, PR firm Dewey Square Group admitted it had been hired to send letters that turned out to be fraudulent to regulators on behalf of a client. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission referred the letters to the Justice Department.

And the Small Business Administration is being forced to hand over information on potentially damaging PR contracts awarded by it to APCO Worldwide, which the American Small Business League says diverted billions of dollars a month in federal small business contracts to Fortune 500 firms and other global businesses.

Three very different cases, all with their own individual characteristics, but all of them raise the common theme of ethical behavior in PR.

Ketchum says it is taking the allegations very seriously and is digging back into its records to shed more light on events that happened over a decade ago. Ketchum's Social Responsibility Report on its website highlights its “strong position on ethics in communications, all of which emphasize absolute transparency and disclosure in all venues.” And it has a code of business conduct that all employees vow to adhere to when they join the Omnicom-owned firm.

In many ways, Greenpeace will feel it has already achieved its objectives by raising this issue into the public consciousness. There is little doubt the episode casts PR and communications in a bad light, and it is to be hoped that there are not further revelations to be uncovered that will do more damage to the image of the profession.

If PR is genuinely to be perceived as central to the strategic leadership of brands and corporations, it has to operate in an ethically sound manner – and it has to be seen to be doing so.

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