Truth, trust, honesty, goodwill and reputation: we all like to think we stand by these principles. But with public relations routinely described in the media as 'spin', which can, in turn, be interpreted as shorthand for 'deceitful practice', the PR industry has an image problem in some quarters.
US corporate scandals on the scale of Enron, and subsequent legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, appear to have concentrated minds in the UK on issues of transparency, compliance and accountability. To illustrate the point, the London-based Institute of Business Ethics, founded in 1986, says it has added one-third of its 80 corporate subscribers over the last two years.
This is at least part of the reason why last year's IPR/Department of Trade and Industry survey led the IPR to conclude that an ethics module should be part of its continuous professional development programme.
Braced for cynicism
Ethical elements are already included in the IPR's training framework, particularly in its sections on corporate social responsibility (CSR): prioritising stakeholders, aligning CSR with corporate objectives, community relations and environmental impact are all there. And, although no decision has yet been taken on whether the IPR will offer 'ethics' training courses per se, president Anne Gregory is clearly braced for some cynicism on the matter.
Clearly, not everyone is impressed. 'Maybe this is a Church of England initiative,' one senior PRO told PRWeek. 'Religion collapses and PR takes over.'
But Gregory will not find this cynical view everywhere. Kaizo CEO Crispin Manners runs the PRCA's ethics committee and was co-author of international PR group ECCO's so-called 'Stockholm charter', a page of best practice guidelines for PROs. Of the seven points, four have a broadly ethical dimension: confidentiality, integrity of information, delivering promises and conflict of interest. On the last point, for example, Manners says: 'You cross the divide between good and bad practice when you don't disclose things. If you're approached (by a client's rival), you should share that approach (with your client) and seek their approval. If they decline to grant it, you're faced with a very clear commercial decision. If they grant it, you're fireproof.'
This is exactly the sort of business dilemma for which the IPR hopes to provide a clear checklist. Gregory believes people need guidance on how to make difficult decisions - often under a lot of pressure - within an ethical framework. There is very little formal training in ethics in business, but because PROs are very exposed at the edge of organisations, often interfacing with the public, they need a level of security. 'So we are trying to embed a clear way of thinking for the industry,' says Gregory.
A sceptical Alex Sandberg, chairman of College Hill Associates, believes training PROs in a code of ethics is unnecessary. 'The wider world of business - covering legal and accountancy firms, say - doesn't seem to have felt the need to develop Ten Commandments,' he says. 'The business playing field already distills ethics - the idea that we have to teach our executives what's right and wrong could indicate we're not competent to advise. And if you're not being ethical with your own people, you won't have a company to run in the first place.'
Covered by best practice
Indeed, aren't we all taught from an early age that if you lie, you get found out? Surely ethics is already covered by the tenets of best practice.
At Derbyshire County Council, for example, all the work of the press office comes under the guidelines of local government communications and is in keeping with the IPR code of conduct, explains the authority's head of press and PR Jenny Tozer. 'Perhaps if organisations took more action against those who breach their own guidelines, people might take these codes of conduct more seriously,' she says.
There is a more fundamental question for the IPR to answer: can ethical practice be taught at all? Can you feasibly write a code full of every conceivable thing that might happen? The fact of the matter is that 99 times out of 100 you know when you're pushing the boundaries of ethical behaviour.
'The short answer is yes, you can teach about ethics,' argues Fishburn Hedges head of corporate responsibility Martin Le Jeune. 'The chairman and the CEO need to show they're in favour of ethical training, but it is about more than writing ten points on a piece of paper. You need to communicate it in an imaginative way, often through case studies. You need to keep it refreshed and lively. Business ethics is simply an aspect of corporate responsibility.'
'Many people's understanding of ethics is heavily influenced by the behaviour of senior managers,' says Friends of the Earth head of media Nicola Jackson.
'A clear understanding of the importance of ethics is essential for anyone who works in this industry. However, they must understand that a course won't make PR for an unethical product or company become ethical.'
Starting at the top is key
These are issues that ethics trainer EQ Management has taken on board.
Managing director Deborah Smith points out that ethical training often starts with raising awareness of the growing importance of ethical issues in business generally. It can then move on to understanding society's impressions of a company or sector's integrity and the key ethical challenges.
Training can then evolve into more formal sessions, usually starting at the top with senior management.
Many of EQ's clients come from the more 'controversial' industries, such as tobacco, oil and pharmaceuticals, and courses include discussion of where and why ethical conflicts arise, how people should think through dilemmas, and the usefulness and limitations of codes of conduct.
'We are used to having to help people in organisations confront things they would rather not have to think about,' says Smith. 'Dealing with denial is a key issue in business ethics training.'
Nevertheless, Le Jeune claims there is nothing that makes PR uniquely unethical. 'You don't have to start from the premise that PR has to work harder to be ethical,' he says.
There is also the cost factor, as Robert Beckett, director of Communication Ethics and co-ordinator of the Institute of Communication Ethics, points out. 'There is a common perception that you can do a day's training, or even two,' he says. 'But it's a continuous process. You need to develop ethics training as a regular part of business life. It needs to happen every month of your career, because that's how fast things change and how fast you change.'
Training PROs in ethics has been welcomed by some parties, but derided by others in equal measure. Whether the introduction of more training modules on ethics will erode the image problem PR still retains in some quarters remains to be seen.
THE EXPERT'S VIEW
Robert Beckett, director of Communication Ethics and co-ordinator of the Institute of Communication Ethics
'A short definition of ethics is "examined values", and the importance of relationships in business is based on values. PR has its own ethical issues: the spin culture, manipulation of news, its links with journalism, for example.
'The model I use suggests the ethics of a situation are determined by your standpoint. The PR industry has a political requirement to be seen as a righteous citizen. Transparency of the media will be a big story over the next few years. What happens when a PRO, with their applied ethics, bumps into a journalist, with their own? These silos must not be isolated from each other and against change.
'The most important thing is that you don't put a 22-year-old graduate into ethics training, who then says: "I understand the principles, but you're not abiding by them." That leads to cynicism.'
WHAT I DID ON MY ETHICAL TRAINING COURSE
Paul Fenby, public affairs adviser to a US oil company, completed his IPR diploma last year after doing day release studies once a month
'We looked at personal ethics, the philosophical background to ethics, what it means and how you'd apply that in an organisation. It touches on broader areas such as professionalism and standards of behaviour, and runs into the area of CSR.
'The course was a mixture of case studies and theory, touching the dilemmas that might face individuals and examples illustrating them.
'On the corporate side, an issue such as Enron would come up. The topical one at that time was burying bad news. Is it ethical? Do the ends justify the means? We found ourselves going down the path of what PR is and the role of the publicist versus the PR professional. How much you were able to take out of it depended on what your previous interests and experience were.
'I work in the oil industry, in a large multinational where ethics is fundamental to daily business. Every year we go through training in ethics, so for me it was interesting to consider some of the more philosophical background to the whole subject.
'Perhaps if you worked for a smaller company, or in a PR consultancy, you would be under different pressures. Ethics does come down to personal judgment. But training can teach you some techniques and give you a way of thinking about the issues and problems. It can't be prescriptive.'