Bell Pottinger saga sparks calls for global code of ethics - but are these realistic?

The fallout from the Bell Pottinger scandal and the agency's subsequent demise has sparked a debate about whether the PR industry needs a global code of ethics.

Does PR need a new global code of ethics? ©ThinkstockPhotos
Does PR need a new global code of ethics? ©ThinkstockPhotos

Last month Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest PR agency, called for a new set of ethical standards that are "universal, consistent and well understood across the industry".

He said: "The time has come to adhere to a single set of strong standards, and to hold all of our people accountable to them."

Edelman is not alone. PR trade body The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management has also called for the industry to develop a new global code of ethics. The GA, which represents 160,000 PR practitioners and academics, first introduced a global code of ethics in 2002.

The code, whose signatories include trade bodies such as the CIPR and the PRSA in the US, was last adapted in 2003 but GA chairman José Manuel Velasco Guardado says "the world has changed since then". The GA wants to convene a summit in 2018 to update its code.

Velasco Guardado says: "The most dramatic change is the rise of falsehood. PR has to reinvent the profession from ethics, from the principles and core values. That reinvention is the driving force behind the updating of the GA code. The Bell Pottinger scandal has placed the profession in front of the mirror."

The CIPR’s president, Jason MacKenzie, adds: "It is our profound hope that by working with our colleagues across the world, we can set a new – universally adopted – standard of ethical practice."

The PRCA, however, sees it differently. 

PRCA director general Francis Ingham says an adequate, single code of ethics is "extraordinarily unrealistic for at least the next 50 years".

Ingham, who is also chief executive of international PR body ICCO, says: "ICCO represents 2,500 agencies in 55 countries. Ideas about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ will inevitably vary across those regions and so the idea of one universal code is just unrealistic. 

"If it were realistic, I would propose one right now and we would take the lead on it."

Fit for purpose?

Closer to home, the debate around global ethical standards has led Roger Steare, visiting professor in the practice of organisational ethics at Cass Business School, to question whether the CIPR and PRCA codes of conduct, which offer ethical guidance, are fit for purpose.

Steare, who was speaking to PRWeek at an ethics seminar last month, says the PRCA’s code is "not deserving of an O-Level pass in moral philosophy, let alone a document that helps people make better decisions".

He also questions whether the CIPR or the PRCA has "sufficient expertise" in terms of ethics and philosophy to create adequate codes of conduct.

Asked how the industry should rectify this, Steare, who is not a PR professional, says: "People in PR should recognise that they have an obligation to act in the public interest, not in their self-interest, and should have a set of agreed moral values that help them make tough decisions under pressure."

Following Steare’s remarks, Ingham hit back at the academic, saying the PRCA code is "already robust enough".

He says: "When our code was put to the test we expelled one of the most famous agencies in the world, and it collapsed within a week of us doing so."

The CIPR has also defended its own code.

Its PR manager Koray Camgoz admits there is "no magic bullet" to ensuring ethical conduct, saying the CIPR code is designed as a set of guidelines, not laws.

He says: "Unethical behaviour stems from poor personal choices, which can lead a firm down the wrong path. That’s why offering individual membership is key to improving ethics in PR – each member is accountable for their own actions."

If, as Camgoz puts it, there is no panacea to ensuring ethical conduct, and if adherence to a global set of standards is an unrealistic prospect, perhaps it's time individual agencies did more to weed out unethical behaviour. 

Read next: After Bell Pottinger... do trade bodies have the clout to enforce ethical standards?

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