How compatible are PR and ethics?

Ethics. Yes I am going to tackle the topic that sends shivers down the spine of any PR professional that still has a conscience in 600 words.

Obviously 600 words won’t touch the sides of an in depth discussion on ethics, but working within the public relations industry you are surrounded by the subject. Your own ethics, your agencies ethics, the client’s ethics, their public’s ethic and the list goes on. With so many people’s ethics and so many types of ethics needing to be considered this really can turn into a mind field for the PR practitioner.

Ethics have been debated and theorised for centuries and it’s not always as simple as good and bad, but you can breakdown ethics in their simplest form to the following 3 theories:

  1. Ethical Relativism – this theory believes that ethics will depend on the person, their personal views, culture and traditions.
  2. Utilitarianism – this is Aristotle’s view of you must behave in a way that does the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.
  3. Deontological theory – is essentially the opposite to Utilitarianism and is from Immanuel Kant’s school of thought that you should always do the ‘right thing’ even if this could cause harm.

Public Relations has the duty of communicating with the global public on a daily basis. This duty comes with great responsibility for the messages that they are sending out to be moral and ethical. The PRSA has its own Code of Ethics for American PR practices while both the CIPR and the PRCA have Code of Conduct’s that include ethical practice guidelines. These codes mostly contain guidelines that are essentially common sense, Adrian Wheeler states in his article on the CIPR website ‘A question of ethics’ of PR professionals: ‘we must restrict ourselves to behaviours which are fair, honourable and above board.’ This statement simply but effectively sets a foundation for public relations that if kept would mean that the industry would no longer be tarred with the brush of it being a ‘black art’. But as soon as PR moves into the light of transparency, someone within the industry is exposed and casts the shadow back over.

In recent months this shadow has been cast by one of Britain’s biggest lobbying PR agencies. Bell Pottinger and their scandal where they were exposed for editing client’s Wikipedia pages has sent waves through the media and PR industry. Although what Bell Pottinger have done is not illegal, the ethics of their actions have been seriously called into question. Wikipedia is based on the website being an openly editable and free encyclopedia. Although people use Wikipedia knowing that some of the information may not be entirely accurate, it is in no way perceived as a promotional tool and as its guidelines suggest users shouldn’t edit articles that they have personal or business interests in. Some people believe that Bell Pottinger’s actions are not unethical and that editing incorrect information on a client on Wikipedia is fulfilling a duty to the client. But it is this thin line of what is ethical that PR finds itself treading, on a daily basis. With new forms of media like blogs and social networking sites becoming tools for PR practitioners, the ethical use of these media by the industry is continually being revised.

With so many different views on what ethics are, it makes it impossible for a PR campaign to be completely ethical to everyone all the time, but by using your common sense you can often judge whether a campaign is ethical in its widest possible way. With new media like Facebook and Twitter being used as tools for public relations, to ensure that this use is ethical the rule of transparency is key. Although you have a responsibility towards your client you also have a responsibility to the public and communicating ethically and transparently towards them is essential. Public Relations is more than capable of being ethical, it just depends what ethics they are using!

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Audit: find out if your PR is working for you

In my last post I looked at some online programs that you can use to research prospective and current clients and I have also posted about social media auditing and the importance of keeping tabs of your social media presence. These are both important for the public relations of businesses but what about the wider opportunities of auditing?

Auditing is integral for any business and can look into every aspect of an organisation, a public relations audit will specifically look at how you are being put across to the public, your brand value and reputation and in these tough financial times can asses how effective your PR strategy really is. It is often easy to forget that there is a world outside of the online augmented reality we have created for ourselves, so I’m going to briefly look into audit measures for both on and offline PR.

In a general auditing sense there is a cycle that is often followed and in it’s simplest form follows 4 steps: Planning, Audit, Analysis & Reporting. These 4 steps are the basics when carrying out any audit and are easily applied to a PR audit whether it be on or offline.The following are brief guides to some of the points I would include in an audit, they are not every step that should be taking, but in my opinion are some of the most important.

Online

Consistency is Key: it cannot be stressed enough that all URLS, domain names, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter accounts, Google+ and LinkedIn profiles are owned and maintained by the company themselves. There are various stories of companies that have discovered their .com is being used by another person, not only is it confusing for consumers but it can be potentially damagimng to a company’s reputation. This also goes for branding across sites, make sure you have a style book that is available to all employees so any logos used are always consistent with the company branding.

Integration: with new social networking sites popping up every 5 minutes, integrating all of these with your website is a very good idea. There are programs out there including HootSuite that can do this for you, linking all of your social media profiles on one dashboard so you can update them all simultaneously. It really is becoming too easy not to do this.

SEO: search engine optimisation or SEO as the jargon junkies like to call it essentially ensures that when you type your company name or area of business in to Google (other search engines are available) that the top hit is your website, followed by your Facebook, Twitter etc etc.

Unfinished business: there is nothing worse than getting to a company’s website and discovering that there is a gaping hole on the landing page or the contact details are missing. This is the same for Facebook pages/groups, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, it is essential that your social media and websites have all the company’s information on and

Maintenance: where possible maintenance to any sites should be done at low traffic times so as not to inconvenience consumers. House of Fraser for example carry out maintenance at 4:00am to avoid loosing customers.

Measurement: In my previous post I profiled some programs that you can use to track aclients, as well as being good for research purposes they are also good ways to measure your social media, collating information including how many followers or likes you have, mentions you are receiving as well in some cases the sentiment behind these mentions.

Offline

On and off: another point of consistency is to ensure that your offline profile is the same as your online. This includes messages and branding, the last thing you want to do is confuse your customers when they are looking for you in the real world after researching you online.

Inside and out: sometimes it is easy to forget that your employees are just as important as your customers. Your employees need to be singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak as the PR campaign for the company is to ensure that the same messages are being put across.

The media and your messages: as with social media measurement and monitoring it is integral to do the same with traditional media. Look into your recent media coverage including print, television and radio and see if the messages and reputation you are trying to maintain are what are being included in the coverage.

Auditing is not a one off and it certainly isn’t a quick task, but it is something that will benefit a company in the long run. It is important to carry out PR audits to ensure that you are portraying the right image to the public as well as knowing that the money you are spending on your PR program is well spent. A lot of these auditing measures can be ongoing tasks which will ensure that you are always on top of your PR activity.

For more extensive guides to PR auditing both on and offline I found the following useful:

Cindy Kim РThe Marketing Journalist 

Kwame Boame – How to Audit Your Social Media Efforts: 20+ Questions to Ask Yourself

What has 2011 taught PR?

I have come across lots of predictions for what 2011 would hold for Public Relations, but nothing on what the events of the year have taught the industry. The events of last year really have shaped the way a lot of businesses now conduct themselves and the PR industry can also learn from the happenings of the last 12 months.

Social Media has shown itself to be an incredibly valuable tool. In 2011 social media sites were responsible for the fall of celebrities (Charlie Sheen, Ryan Giggs etc etc), breaking the news on the death of Osama Bin laden and fueling riots across London and the rest of the UK. Of course everybody within the Public Relations industry knew how important Social Media was before all of this happened…right? Jokes as side, 2011 really has proved just how important a tool Social Media is, and if every PR agency and in house team aren’t putting together a Social Media strategy for 2012 then I would seriously question their PR ability.

Trust in the British Newspapers after the phone hacking scandal broke in early 2011 has undoubtedly dropped. When it was reported that the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, the public was outraged, and rightly so. An already struggling industry really shot itself in the foot and on the 10th July The News of the World published it’s last issue and in September the Leveson Inquiry was launched, looking into the practices of the British press. Newspapers are still an excellent tool for PR, but the industry now needs to readdress how they use this tool in light of the events of 2011 and the findings of the Leveson Inquiry. Theses events have also shown that the biggest empires in the world are not safe, in 2011 the Murdoch family became testament to that.

Mobile technology as with Social Media have been a huge trend for 2011. When RIM went down in October every BlackBerry users in Europe, Middle East and Africa (another lesson for RIM don’t use jargon when speaking to your public!) were left stranded when their emails and BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) stopped working. BBM was also blamed as one of the ways the London Rioters organised themselves during the riots. This shows the dependency that we now have on mobile devices. Public Relations need to make use of this dependency, mobile technology allows you to communicate instantly, constantly and directly to your audience.

These are only three points from 2011 that I think the Public Relations Industry can learn from, I’m sure that there are lots of other lessons learnt from the last 12 months. 2012 is a mixed bag in my opinion, the biggest high is sure to be the Olympics however with the growing discontent of the country (2011 saw various protest, strikes and riots) and the worsening economy the Great British public are going to hard nuts to crack. Public Relations really need to cut the crap and communicate honestly to their audiences, people can see through the smokescreens. I think Social Media is going to continue to grow in importance for the industry, hopefully it will learn to use the tool and monitor it effectively this year. Clients are going to want to know what they are paying for, so PRs need to be able to prove they are value for money.

Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation

It’s all very well creating a stunning PR campaign but what’s the point if you don’t understand why it was successful or in some cases unsuccessful.

It has always been hard for public relations to show the true value of it’s work. The old system of AVE’s (Advertising Value Equivalent) is flawed in many ways, AVE rates on the basis that advertising and public relations hold the same value, this is not the case. An online advert doesn’t hold the same worth for example as an influential blogger writing a positive piece on a product or service. In traditional media such as newspapers there is no value that can put on a positive mention in an article on the front page the same can be said for a piece on the BBC. This is because you cannot buy advertising on the front page of a national newspaper or on a BBC TV station. In my (humble) opinion when people use AVE’s they are just being too lazy to produce a proper evaluation.

With the hard financial times we are currently in people want to get the most out of their money, so now more than ever clients want an accurate evaluation of their PR activity. Presenting them with a couple of press clippings and AVE’s is not going to cut it anymore. It’s important to provide your client with an accurate evaluation not just so they know you’ve done your job, but also to see for yourself what has worked well and what may not have worked so well. It’s also a great way to show how valuable PR really is, historically when times get tough communications departments are the first ones to be cut this is a huge mistake (obviously!) but if you provide the CEO with an evaluation of the work you have done he can see just how valuable PR is to the business.

So now you know how important an evaluation is, how do you produce a good one? Firstly you need to remind yourself of exactly what you wanted to achieve from the campaign, once you have done this you can evaluate whether the campaign was successful or not. Depending on what your campaign planned to achieve will largely determine what evaluation techniques you will use, however below are a few examples of techniques you can use that are more valuable than just AVE’s:

Audience coverage and response the basic of all tools is to monitor whether your message has reached your intended audience and if it has, what their response is to their message. This can encompass some of the methods below, and essentially is the foundation of your evaluation.

Digital Media Monitoring as I have spoken about in previous posts is integral. Monitoring what is being said about you online is incredibly important as consumers value online opinions more and more, it is also a valuable evaluation tool. Keeping track of online conversations during the time of the campaign can be a useful tool for audience awareness. There are various programs that can do this for you including Google Analytics and Lithium.

Media Mention tracking, including the likes of press clippings are still a good tool to use in conjunction with other methods. For audiences that read newspapers the value of pieces in newspapers will be hugely beneficial. In order to understand how beneficial you need to obviously know how highly your readers hold the opinions of journalists and newspapers.

Evaluation is such a huge task there are entire books, research papers, agencies and associations that focus solely on the subject. Public Relations still doesn’t have a universal evaluation process and I’m not sure this is entirely a bad thing. Public Relations campaigns can vary so hugely and like I said depending on what you want your campaign to achieve will determine what evaluation techniques you need to use. I agree there should be some official guidelines on how to produce an in depth evaluation, however I don’t believe standardising the process is particularly helpful. However there is one thing that I think all evaluations need to show, they need to demonstrate how effectively you have reached your audience and how the audience has responded, because if your message isn’t reaching you’re public you have definitely failed! How you monitor this though, is dependent on your campaign

All for one and one for all?

Platforms and channels can be a great tools for promotion, but can all of these tools reach your public? The simple answer is no.

Although generational gaps are closer than ever before, with the dawn of social media and emphasis on online presence dominating media channels, it would be naive to say that Grandma Mavis and little Tommy are reached by the same channels. Clay Shirky would argue that there is no such things as Generation X (the Post WW2 generation not the Billy Idol band!) and it is only new opportunities that have created these gaps, and I would tend to agree. With any new technology there are different stages of adoption, Rogers Bell Curve demonstrates the different stages of adoption from Early Adopters to Laggards and it still accurately identifies how people respond to new technology. In time though people catch up with new technology and they become valuable tools, take television for example. Before TV’s became common place in people’s living rooms, radio’s were the main source of information and entertainment. Slowly but surely televisions caught on and now, 97% of households in the UK have a television (TV Licensing).

You may be thinking, what does this have to do with PR? Well in order to reach your audience effectively you need to know what channels and platforms they are using. Creating a Facebook group to promote your local women’s Institute isn’t going to be as effective as creating a Facebook group to launch a new Night Club in town. Now I’m not saying that nobody over the age of 40 uses Facebook in fact the largest users of Facebook are 40-45 year olds, I’m saying that organisations need to look a platforms and channels and judge whether it is an effective tool for their public.

I mentioned in an earlier post that organisations need to understand the channels (e.g. Facebook) before they start using them. Facebook can be a powerful tool, but only if it is used in the right way. This is true of all types of media old and new, before an organisation goes bull at a gate trying to adopt every new channel invented, they need to take the time to analyse the tool and evaluate whether it is the right channel to use to reach their public. Getting it wrong can be hugely detrimental to a company, in 2009 HabitatUK used it’s Twitter account to promote a promotion they were running. Nothing wrong with this, but in order to promote it they #hashtagged trending topics that bore no relevance to the company and effectively spammed the site. This went down very badly with Twitter users and the company was forced to apologise but this faux par black listed the company’s social media standing.

There are hundreds of different forms of media platforms and channels today and there really is a tool that can be used to reach every type of public. Traditional forms of media including newspapers, radio and television are still valuable, especially when reaching an older audience. Equally online media like Wiki’s, blogs and websites are great to reach middle aged publics and social media like Facebook is great for younger audiences (17-35 year olds). Of course these are sweeping generalisations and more in depth research is easily found especially for online tools (Ignite Media has some particular thorough research).

What PR agencies and CEO’s need to take from this is that just because there’s a new media channel it doesn’t mean that you should adopt it. You need to ensure that it is the right tool to target your audience and if it isn’t going to be beneficial then don’t use it. If you were launching a new night club you wouldn’t place an advert in Saga Magazine (unless it’s a night club for the over 60’s!) and it’s no different with any other media channel if it’s not going to reach your public it’s not worth investing in. It is easy in this digital age to forget traditional media like newspaper and radio but this could be a huge mistake. Essentially an organisation needs to understand it’s customers and what types of media they use, once they have this basic understanding then they can look into the most effective media channels to adopt in order to reach them.