NEW YORK: The Ethisphere Institute and EthicOne are launching a study on ethical behavior in corporations to establish a benchmark of best practices – without the input of agencies.
The study, which opens for submissions on June 14, will evaluate participants’ practices and compare them to their peers, including "the world’s most ethical companies," said EthicOne managing partner David Herrick. Hudson Cutler & Co. rolled out sister agency EthicOne, aimed at helping companies turn ethics into a strategic business advantage, last summer.
A report will be released in the fall, along with case studies, according to a release. This will allow corporations’ marketing and comms functions to share best practices. EthicOne will also provide strategic consulting.
"Forward-thinking corporations are beginning to fully understand the need for strong cultures of ethics, and strong ethics practices, and that includes every function of the organization, including marketing and comms," Herrick said.
Ethisphere CEO Timothy Erblich said this study will serve "as a beacon" for what companies should be doing, how they should be structured, and they should approach things. The Ethisphere Institute, which bills itself as "the global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business practices," is EthicOne’s sole brand communications partner.
Voya Financial and U.S. Bank are founding participants of the study. Herrick said another half-dozen company’s gave input on the study’s development; he anticipates they will also participate.
The study will consist of 50 data points across five categories: values-based leadership; trust and transparency (stakeholder engagement); winning hearts and minds (culture); governance, structure, and authority; and communicating ethics leadership.
Research will take place throughout the summer, including a web survey and in-person interviews.
At a macro level, consumer and market changes have forced companies to adopt more ethical practices and transparent comms functions. But on a smaller scale, the past two years have been marked by explosive scandals, ranging from Bell Pottinger to Cambridge Analytica.
In response to Bell Pottinger’s collapse, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman called for new ethical standards across the industry eight months ago.
At the time, Edelman said the standards set by Page, the Public Relations Society of America, and International Association of Business Communicators "do not safeguard ethical behavior."
"This crazy quilt of PR standards will no longer suffice," Edelman added.
Herrick explained that PR agencies have had "years" to lead on this issue, and they haven’t.
"They have not tried to codify best practices [or make] a good effort at implementing best practices with clients," he said. "And in fact, they’ve had ethical lapses of their own that have really shaken the credibility of the big agency world to lead on this issue."
As a result, Erblich said Ethisphere and EthicOne had to approach the problem from the other side of the aisle.
"We’ve probably seen [agencies] lagging the corporate sector around rallying around leading practices and aspire toward standards," said Erblich. "I think we’ll see corporations force that type of activity from agency world as well."
An update on PR firms codifying ethics
Edelman global COO Matthew Harrington was unavailable to talk about this issue over the phone. He sent over a statement saying PR agencies have been focused on ensuring they’re GDPR-compliant.
Harrington, who is chair of the PR Council, said the organization has been busy making sure its code of ethics and principles are "understood and adhered to by our membership."
"The PR Council board also has agreed to revisit our code yearly to ensure we still feel it is properly addressing the issues of the day," the statement said. "There is recognition that every professional organization should have a set of ethical standards that its members align to and uphold, and that we consistently review and evolve those standards, both collectively as a profession, and within our individual agencies."
The International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO) called for the PR industry to adopt its 10 ethical principles during its global summit in October 2017. The effort was known as the Helsinki Declaration, named after the city where the event took place.
In February 2018, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management convened a summit that included ICCO, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and other leading figures, including Edelman. The groups met in Madrid to discuss the "enhancement of codes of ethics and an agreement on an overarching set of principles to guide the profession."
PR Council leadership expressed interest in participating in an ethics initiative, as early as November 2017, as previously reported. The trade group ultimately declined to participate because its membership didn’t believe there was an ethics problem, or that an initiative should be prioritized, according to a source familiar with the matter.
PR Council president Renee Wilson, who is stepping down at the end of this year when her contract runs out, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In direct response to Edelman’s "PR Compact," the PRSA chapter of New York called for the industry to release its diversity data. Ultimately, only Edelman and FleishmanHillard obliged. Other agencies indicated support, but wouldn’t commit to the initiative.
"I believe that most PR agencies pay tribute to high ethical standards," said PRSA-NY president Sharon Fenster, via email. "And I think the same agencies would acknowledge that business ethics and workplace diversity are inextricably linked. But do they talk the talk and walk the walk? I say no."