PR Compact: an ethical dilemma

When the most famous person in PR sends out a call to action it behooves us to listen - but the ethical line in the sand should be a case of common sense for most people.

Richard Edelman calls the PR industry to order at The National Press Club in DC.
Richard Edelman calls the PR industry to order at The National Press Club in DC.

Richard Edelman set the cat among the pigeons this week with a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. that called for a more robust approach to PR ethics standards.

The best-known PR person in the world characterized the current industry regulation as a "crazy quilt of PR standards" that will no longer suffice in the wake of the Bell Pottinger episode in the U.K.

He proposed a new four-part PR Compact whereby PR professionals must insist on accuracy, demand transparency from clients, engage in the free and open exchange of ideas, and require all staffers to take a free universal ethics training course online.

He also called for the formation of a coalition led by the PR Council and the Arthur W. Page Society to act as an industry watchdog in the U.S. and partner with groups around the world on global standards.

Edelman pointed to a meltdown of trust that was driving his remarks, although his stance this week differs slightly from what he told PRWeek last month, when he suggested the PR industry does not have a widespread ethics problem.

Back then, he said PR pros are not defined by Bell Pottinger, or the "lowest or worst behavior," adding: "There may be some who choose to try and do that to us, but actions speak louder than words. This is not a crisis for the whole industry."

Edelman said senior leaders in the PR industry are "very conscious" of the role and responsibility of public relations, pointing out incidences such as Weber Shandwick pulling out of a contract with Egypt earlier this year and Ketchum ending its relationship with the Russian government.

PR Council president Renee Wilson called Edelman’s latest call to action "bold and exciting," adding that she’d "be happy to partner with the industry in any way to reinforce what we stand for."

The Council hasn’t had to expel any of its members yet, but Wilson says it would take similar action to the PRCA in the U.K. if one of its firms acted unethically or misbehaved like Bell Pottinger.

Members of the Council could be removed for violating the PR agency trade body’s bylaws or acting contrary to its mission, triggering a four-step disciplinary process that could lead to expulsion if two-thirds of the Council’s board voted for it.

For its part, the PRSA - to which Richard Edelman is famously not eligible to serve on the board because he is not APR-accredited - can only expel a member if criminal felony charges are filed against an individual.

In his latest blog, Edelman said the PR industry must take care in choosing its clients if it is to be a credible partner and that "not every client deserves representation in the court of public opinion."

This is slightly at odds with PR legend Harold Burson’s line from his latest book, The Business of Persuasion, which launched yesterday, where he says "every entity in our society deserves to be heard, either in a court of justice or the court of public opinion – or both."

He adds that "even the most unpopular or destructive organization has the constitutional right to express its views and explain itself" and "it should be free to employ professional public relations counsel" – but only if its objective is legal and its message incites no violence. But he does follow this by saying: "I have never felt an obligation to represent such clients when they knock on my door."

The Burson credo, or version of Edelman’s PR Compact if you like, revolves around the wishes of his firm’s existing clients and its staff members. If a potential client had issues that were so divisive they would upset these core stakeholders then Burson would decline the business – he cited either side of the abortion issue as an example. For him it was more a business decision than an ethical one.

Edelman said his suggested PR Compact "will ensure PR has a role in guiding the transformation of business": "It is how we will fight for the future. It will help advance our most important goal: a better informed populace."

Ethics are complicated, time-sensitive, and subjective by their very nature: one person’s justified behavior is another’s fundamental faux pas. For example, Weber ended its Egypt contract but the work was quickly picked up by another firm - APCO Worldwide.

Ketchum ended its relationship with the Russians, but the government there is currently shopping around an RFP to promote the country’s cultural heritage. We will see whether anyone decides to take this one on. Burson itself represented Russia during the Olympic Games doping scandal in 2016.

Any stimulus of discussion around this crucial issue is welcome, and the industry should continuosly examine its ethical underpinning and update its practice.

But the bottom line is that most people innately understand what is ethical and decent behavior, and those guidelines should shape behavior in PR, business generally, and indeed personal practice. That’s where I probably agree with Burson’s dictat that the views of his clients and staffers are what ultimately guides his firm’s behavior.

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