In March, Singapore-based blogger influence network, Gushcloud found itself at the centre of a controversy for encouraging its bloggers to smear rivals of its client, telco operator Singtel, through its own network. In August, the UK government was forced to apologise after it emerged that it had used fake case studies to back up a controversial benefits cuts policy.
The growing scrutiny of PR professionals is being driven by consumer demand for greater transparency and accountability from both brands and agencies.
"Every industry and profession has its own specific ethical issues and risks. The PR industry is particularly vulnerable to ethical lapses because it deals with the public at large," says Emmanuel Tchividjian, senior vice president, ethics officer at Ruder Finn. "Being less than truthful about a client product or service can have very damaging consequences."
So just how ‘clean’ is PR in Asia? Part of the problem with addressing this issue is that ethics in PR are loosely monitored from an official standpoint. There is no one body across the region that educates professionals about online ethics and enforces compliance with industry codes.
"That’s partly the problem, as there isn’t one recognised norm for the region, rather there’s a patchwork of national laws, industry codes and company initiatives," says Charlie Pownall, a Hong Kong-based communications advisor. "And then often there is no legislation — there’s no equivalent to the FTC’s (Federal Trade Commission) blogger disclosure rule in most Asian markets, for example — and where it exists the bar tends to be set fairly low."
The issue is further compounded by the fact that business practices vary: what’s acceptable in one Asian country is frowned upon in another.
Chris Millward, general manager at Waggener Edstrom China believes that effective monitoring in Asia is often as a result of the industry getting together and committing to ethical practices. He believes that drastic efforts to address ethics in PR are not required.
"As I’ve watched the industry develop from very basic roots to a high level of sophistication, I’ve seen it self-regulate and improve on its own," he says. "I’ve also seen governments step in to take action and set legal precedents when they are needed."
For its part, Waggener Edstrom ensures it educates its staff about ethical practices. Millward says that ethics can and should always be reinforced, as it is vital for building both a career in the industry and trust with clients and stakeholders at a global level.
FleishmanHillard believes a strong culture of integrity is the foundation for ethical decision-making. The agency has developed an ‘Ethics as culture’ programme to support and promote that kind of business decision-making, by providing the tools and resources it needs to serve its clients in the most ethical manner possible.
Brands have a part to play, too, and need to be willing to adhere to high standards and demand that their agencies do the same, says Rachel Catanach, SVP, senior partner and MD at FleishmanHillard Hong Kong. "There is no room for short-cuts and the more brands and agencies can work together to achieve the highest ethical standards, the less likely there will be ethical transgressions and a wavering moral compass," she says.
Pownall believes that many of the large, global agencies have developed social media policies, tied these into their business codes of conduct, and built ethics into their digital and social media training programmes, helping to reduce the likelihood of dubious advice being given to clients.
Equally, though, he says, these policies often fail to address well-known grey areas such as ghostwriting, native advertising, or in China, the payment of bloggers.
"Despite several crackdowns by Beijing, the problem [of black PR] remains widespread due principally to the relative lack of real-name web registration systems in the country — it is easy to be anonymous online — and the ferociously competitive nature of business in the country," says Pownall.
The fragmented landscape and varying maturity of the PR industry in Asia mean standards with regards to ethics will be very difficult to enforce, if at all. But in light of an increasing number of brands being named and shamed in both Asia and further afield, both brands and agencies will need to adopt a much more careful and conscious approach to their ethical practices — regardless of the regulatory situation.
Make code of conduct simpler, clearer
Genevieve Hilton, head of external communications, corporate affairs Asia-Pacific, BASF
High standards of ethics are important [in the PR industry] because whenever we tolerate unethical behaviour, we incrementally reduce trust in the very communications channels that are so vital to our work.
I do not think that regulatory oversight specifically of the PR industry would be either desirable or effective. Rather, I would like to see the already-existing codes of ethics made simpler
and clearer, and to be disseminated more broadly with sufficient educational support.
In some ways, ethics in PR are actually not particularly complicated (the simple rule ‘Disclose — clearly — who’s paying you’ already takes care of a lot of the issues); the challenges are not in the rules but in the implementation.
What that means is that education and open dialogue are more important than regulatory scrutiny. There are many best practices that will have a positive impact on ethical behaviour.
- Know in detail where all of your budget is being spent, with good traceability (receipts, contracts)
- Brands and PR agencies should work closely together to ensure that the expectations from both sides are very clearly aligned and that there are no surprises; agencies shouldn’t promise unrealistic results
and brands shouldn’t expect them
- Ensure you have a thorough understanding of local market practices wherever you do business, and adjust your brief accordingly
- Don’t let your PR be done by amateurs: employ experienced practitioners, whether in-house or at the agency level, who know how to communicate professionally and don’t need to take short cuts
- Keep in close touch with the international communications community via professional associations
Lack of coordinated effort monitoring ethics
PohLeng Yu, senior vice president, Ruder Finn Asia
Ethics is one of the key values in our culture. We are one of the very few PR agencies with an ethics officer, ethics committee and regular ethics meetings to which all staff are invited. We stand behind our values and seek clients who are compatible with our way of doing business and treating our employees.
There are international professional communication and PR associations such as the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), International Association for Business Communicators (IABC), which serves as ‘watchdogs’ for ethical practices in public relations by their members.
However, there is yet to be a formal body that monitors ethics in Asia as a whole. There are organisations that ensure that PR agencies adhere to ethical codes of conducts, however many of them do not have the statutory power for enforcement.
The code of conduct for most serves merely as guidelines that PR agencies and individuals are recommended to follow. Since ethics in PR depend on every company and individuals adopting the code of conduct, there is no harmonisation of standards as recommendations can be subjected to (mis)interpretation.
Furthermore, there is also no legal enforcement when a practitioner breaches the code of conduct, unlike when doctors or lawyers violate their strict code of conduct.