OPINION: Honesty on display at Ethics Debate

The outcome of PRWeek's big Ethics Debate earlier this week will surprise, and disappoint, many in the industry. The motion that 'PR has a duty to tell the truth' was defeated, albeit by a narrow margin.

To some outside the industry, this will confirm their worst prejudice: that PR equals spin and deception. But the 350 people present at the debate saw that the reality was more complex, and much more interesting.

In a sparky, and often heated, debate, those ‘on the side of the angels' - Vodafone comms chief Simon Lewis and consultant George Pitcher - argued that PR should be a force for transparency and good in public life. But they were overturned by Max Clifford and the academic Simon Goldsworthy, whose essential premise was one of pragmatism: if you are not prepared to lie occasionally, you cannot do your job successfully.

Clifford delivered the killer blow in his summing up, citing the way he helped win compensation for the victims of the Farepak Christmas fund collapse: he had fibbed to Sainsbury's that Tesco was about to launch a rescue fund, prompting Sainsbury's (and then Tesco) to take the initiative. For Clifford, it showed how a white lie could contribute to the greater good.

Pitcher and Lewis's best defence was that lying is simply not sustainable in the long term, either on a personal or corporate level. One tends to agree.

Encouragingly, the debate on ethics in PR has become much more sophisticated over the past decade. And while the argument will rage on - in this magazine, among colleagues over a drink, at private dinner parties - there is evidence of a new maturity in the industry. The fact that PR people admit they need to lie occasionally is a sign of growing honesty and confidence in what they do.

As Goldsworthy pointed out: are journalists, lawyers - and even priests - not guilty of committing the very same sin in the course of their daily work?

See next week's issue for full coverage of the debate.

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