Business Essay: Public Relations
Public Relations Code and Conduct: An Investigation to the dilemmas that Practitioners Faced
Write an essay to describe the problems faced by Public Relations practitioners in today’s world
Word Count / Required:
2067 / 2000
This is a fairly easy piece as it gives you freedom to determine what type of problems you want to address in your essay. One very common theme that I encountered during my research is the struggle that the PR people are having between ‘doing the right thing’ and keeping the skeletons in the closet.
As the customer did not specify any strict format for tackling this essay, I decided to just let my points flow through without any headings.
One more tip: you can use the checklist that we have to help you with your essays as well.
For an industry whose main function is to manage reputations, the Public Relations industry has never itself been able to maintain one that can be called positive. Over the years, PR has made headlines for lying, manipulation, and distortion of facts and statistics (Bowen 2007). It is clear that the need to strike a balance between clients’ relationship-management needs and the public’s right to the truth, results in unique ethical dilemmas for PR practitioners, which have often resulted in derailing PR’s position as a reliable industry. To help resolve this issue, many companies now employ PR codes of conducts. This essay analyzes the effectiveness of these codes in achieving their goals, with particular reference to two codes – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Code of Conduct, and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) Professional Charter and Code.
To analyze the effectiveness of anything, it is important to know what is meant by effectiveness, and what determines it. Aronson (Ausenda, 2003) calls effectiveness the ability of an entity to meet its goals, within a relevant period of time. In the context of PR codes of conduct, there are several broad goals that most ethical codes of conduct seek to achieve – to ensure PR practitioners provide honest and accurate information to publics; to eliminate misrepresentation and distortion of facts; to prevent social, economic, environmental and political activities that adversely affect publics; to make business dealings and decisions transparent; and to curtail bribery or other illegal acts that could influence public behavior (CIPR 2012a; PRCA 2013). Shaping all these goals is, of course, the long-term goal of portraying PR as a legitimate and trustworthy industry. We can hence infer that there are three major factors that determine the effectiveness of PR code of conducts – the extent to which these codes are enforced in dealings with various publics, so as to cause trust and legitimisation; the effects of these codes on organizational success, which also demonstrates code success; and how these codes keep up with new trends in business.
The extent to which PR codes are implemented is a very wide topic, and difficult to gauge at best. It is clear that just because a company claims to adhere to a code of conduct, does not mean it also follows it – Enron, which filed for bankruptcy after management’s unethical practices sent it crashing into the ground, had a 65-page code of ethics informing employees of the need to be transparent and ethics-oriented (Burke & Cooper 2009, p. 22). For this reason, Gilman believes that it is essential to ensure that organizational culture is a function of the code you follow – that is, to implement a code, management needs to not just communicate the values behind it, but to make changes in institutions, dealings and practices that will ensure these values can be implemented (2005, p. 31 of 76).
Taking this point forward, Schwartz (2004, p. 1) believes several factors contribute to how well a code of conduct is implemented, including understanding and relevance. Where this is concerned, most modern PR codes of conducts can be considered effective – with the passage of time, more and more companies have made their codes easier to navigate, read and understand, focusing on their relevance to users. British Petroleum’s ethics code, for example, uses simple and engaging language to highlight how the code is relevant to its people, business partners and investors (British Petroleum 2011, p. 2 of 112), while Google provides users with a structured online code, with a hierarchy of links to access more in-depth information (Google 2012). The CIPR and PRCA codes also focus on relevance and ease of use – both are accessible online, and both delineate different kinds of information, for different kinds of users.
Schwartz (2004, p. 1) also believes that for a code to be successfully implemented, it is essential that it encourages people to report violations. The CIPR Code of Conduct has acknowledged this need, designing a complaints procedure where breaches can be reported. This has been effective, though most violations are resolved through negotiation, rather than being referred to the Institute’s Professional Practices or Disciplinary committees (CIPR 2012a, p. 3 of 24).
Schwartz (2004, p. 1) moreover highlights the importance of management support in taking violators to task. If there are no negative consequences of violating a PR ethics code, there is an incentive to maximize profit or gain an edge over competitors by manipulating and distorting facts or figures, or even outright lying. To what extent have today’s codes of conducts been able to provide such a stimulus? Unfortunately, not much. The PRCA seeks to address violations by suspending and terminating members against whom cases of breach are proven, and cannot be otherwise settled (PRCA 2013, p. 9); the CIPR, on the other hand, also considers other penalties (CIPR 2012a, p. 17). However, these organizations’ lack of legal authority to subpoena evidence, as well as the potential for defamation lawsuits, means that none of this has amounted to much (Fitzpatrick n.d.). L’Etang (2004, p. 183) cites that, as membership to organizations like the CIPR and PRCA is voluntary rather than mandatory, most violators choose to resign rather than go through the judicial process. In this way, dozens of incidents that are unethical go absolutely unpunished. Pre-2000, 222 of 232 allegations made to the PRSA were dismissed, many because members chose to leave rather than undergo trial (Fitzpatrick, p. 2 of 3). Clearly, then, these codes have failed to be effective in deterring unethical practices through punishment.
When one talks about the role of punishment, it is important to remember that adherence can also be promoted through rewards. While most PR codes of conduct lay down penalties for ethics violations, the majority of them do not incentivize ethical behaviour. In other words, PR codes of conduct tend to follow the ‘stick,’ rather than the ‘carrot’ approach. The CIPR has constantly worked on addressing this issue – every year, the institute gives out a number of high-profile awards to PR practitioners, not just in the UK, but at ‘all levels, in all sectors, and in all regions.’ (CIPR, n. d.) This has been effective, in that companies have made efforts to design, implement and enforce PR codes of conduct that meet the CIPR’s standards of excellence. The Northumbrian Water Group, for example – a several-time nominee of CIPR awards – utilizes a range of communications mechanisms to improve its public relations (2005, p. 42 of 80).
Part of the discussion on management support and reinforcement is, of course, training. While PR ethics codes repeatedly underscore the importance of honesty, integrity and transparency in business dealings, the extent to which these values are translated into a culture where people know how to recognize and deal with unique ethical dilemmas, depends upon managerial practices and policies. In this regard, managements may offer or pay for different kinds of training. The CIPR itself holds training sessions and conferences for all of its members – in 2012, for example, the institute arranged a series of workshops on ethical lobbying, improving communications in alignment with the CIPR’s PR code of conduct, and measuring the effects of PR campaigns, in Scotland and Edinburgh (CIPR 2012b, p. 5 of 80). The PRCA, too, holds conferences on such topics as the ‘Economics of Reputation’ (PRCA, 2013b).