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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Why word of mouth is still top

Yes even in this modern day I still believe that word of mouth is one of the most important tools for promoting and the sustaining of reputation for an organisation.

A lot of businesses especially those too small to warrant spending hundreds of pounds on advertising and promotion, rely on word of mouth to promote their organisation. But it’s not just these businesses who are benefiting from this age old promotional tool, even multinational corporations are reaping the rewards of the modern day word of mouth. Word of mouth marketing or WOMM as the jargon generators have labelled it, has become a fully fledged marketing tool.

Word of mouth is still effective in its traditional form. Conversations between people are incredibly powerful, especially when imparting knowledge. If a customer has had a positive experience in a shop and the next day they tell a family member or work colleague about their experience, they have instantly positively promoted this brand. The opinion of somebody you know and trust is hugely influential and best of all for the businesses it is free. Of course it works both ways, if the experience was a bad one then rather than promoting the brand it will have a negative effective, and potentially loose you customers.

Today word of mouth doesn’t just come from face to face conversations, the popularity of social media and user generated content has meant that WOMM can now be done online as well as offline. Blogs have become a very influential tool and if you break down the concept of a blog you come back to a word of mouth conversation, only in this case the conversation is done online and can be potentially heard by millions of people worldwide. For this reason bloggers are frequently targeted by PR officers to write about a product or brand, so that their word of mouth can be turned into a positive promotion. As with the traditional means of WOMM, online word of mouth can also be detrimental. If a popular blogger has a bad experience with a company and writes about it, it can do a lot of damage to that brand. It’s not just blogs that facilitate online WOMM social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter can also be used.

With the popularity of word of mouth growing, WOMMA the Word of Mouth Marketing Association was set up. An independent organisation for the ethical and effective use of word of mouth marketing, WOMMA wants to ensure that this practice isn’t misused and exploited. WOMMA’s biggest battle is the ethics of the practice and their stance is defined by their 3 principles:

  1. Honesty of Relationship: You say who you’re speaking for
  2. Honesty of Opinion: You say what you believe
  3. Honesty of Identity: You never lie about who you are

Essentially they believe in complete transparency when using word of mouth, something that other PR practices could take note of…

People love to talk it’s human nature and the conversations we have often shape our opinions of the world, word of mouth marketing has harnessed this and molded it into a marketing function. WOMM is a fantastic promotional tool and can be even better for reputation management, this of course is only true if your basic brand or product is good. It is a risky tool to rely on, as word of mouth is really down to other people’s opinion of your organisation, however if you are confident with your corporate identity and the products or services that you are offering, then this shouldn’t be a problem!

Platforms and channels, not just a type of shoe or a place to watch TV…

With all this talk of social media and the digital age it’s important to understand the jargon. So those of you that thought Platforms were a type of shoe from the 70’s making a come back or where you stand to get your train from, I’m afraid to say that’s not what they’re talking about!

Although not a shoe, Platforms are something tangible unlike their channel counterparts (which just for reference aren’t where you watch your favourite television programs). By reading this now you’re in fact using both a Platform, you’re computer or internet enabled device and a Channel, this very WordPress site. The internet itself has revolutionised all industries, including Public Relations but now that it is so easily accessible and has a huge variety of websites and social media networks it has just got even harder to control.

There are 5 core elements that are said to ‘drive’ online PR and the advent of powerful Platforms like the iPhone and Channels like Twitter add to the importance of these 5 elements:

Transparency – as I’ve mentioned before Transparency has become essential for organisations, especially in the digital age. Nowadays anybody could take a photo on their phone and have it uploaded onto Twitter ‘outing’ a company’s bad behaviour or unethical practices before they could bat an eyelid. Now more than ever it is important for organisations to be honest with their public before something is leaked and sensationalised creating a worse situation for the organisation that if they were up front from the start.

Agency – this highlights the use of user generated content. The public are no longer just consumers they are also producers of their own media. Channels like Wikipedia have set the trend for sites that allow it’s users to contribute to the content that it provides. This is great for consumers as they can voice their opinion of an organisations for all to read, however this presents some obvious obstacles for organisations as they have no control over what is said about them, another reason for them to practice Transparency.

Porosity – much like transparency and agency, porosity is the leaking of information but usually in this case unintentionally. Now that organisations rely heavily on digital communication channels such as email, Intranet, SMS and social media, it is inevitable that confidential information can find it’s way to the wider public. This can often be bad for obvious reason, but sometimes hearing the real voices of the organisation (especially when the information is not scandalous) can be a good thing for a company’s reputation.

Richness & Reach – richness is the amount of content that the internet can hold and reach is how many people can view this information. For organisations that means that everything about them can be available for all of the world to see. With Platforms like internet enabled mobile phones that means that the public can access this information from anywhere at anytime. As with the other 3 points this has it’s positives and negatives and just confirms the benefits of Transparency.

So every time we use our iPhone (other internet enabled devices are available!) we are exercising the use of an important Platform (the device not the shoe) and when we then use our iPhone to Tweet what we’ve just had for breakfast, we have demonstrated how quick and easy it is to use the Channels that our Platforms enable. Most important to remember as somebody in the Public Relations industry is the 5 drivers of online PR. These serve as essential reminders of the opportunities that the internet and it’s Channels can provide as well as the potential damage that it can cause an organisation. The obvious answer to avoiding the negatives from these 5 drivers is to really take head of the first point and practice Transparency wherever possible.

The Importance of Being Transparent

Despite the ever growing popularity of social media and user generated content organisations still insist on holding back the truth from the public!

For a long time it seemed that organisations didn’t always believe that honesty was the best policy. Companies would frequently bend the truth’ or completely withhold information from the public in order to ‘save face’. Before platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, this could be easily managed however now that user generated content and social networking sites are becoming some of our main sources of information, organisations need to realise that transparency really is key.

Just within the last couple of months there have been incidents that highlight that information can no longer be with held from the public. The case of the super injunctions where public figures obtain court orders to stop scandalous stories being sold to the press about them. Ryan Giggs’ injunction became the country’s worst kept secret after it was leaked on Twitter about his long term affair. Most recently Blackberry’s horrendous handling of their system failure, where RIM declined to acknowledge the severity of the situation to their customers, caused many people to loose faith in the brand. Had Blackberry been upfront and honest from the start they could have come out of the situation a lot better off.  Social media played a big part in both of these cases whether it be in leaking the information directly or as a platform for consumers to relay their negative feedback on an organisation.

It used to be that you just had to worry about journalists digging through your dustbins but now we are in the age of social media, everyone can be a whistle blower. A company’s reputation and brand value can be hit a lot harder if a scandal is leaked through Twitter instead of the CEO coming forward and addressing the public directly. The internet really has made it integral for companies to to be up front with their consumers, it now costs organisations more with holding information than it does just being honest from the start.