Interview | West advocates for “speak up” culture in PR to move forward in ethics

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Words: Lateefah Jean-Baptiste

Ethics is arguably the heartbeat of public relations. Essential for nurturing trust, integrity, and credibility in everything we produce as PR practitioners. I recently caught up with PR veteran Mary Beth West over Zoom to dive into the state of ethics codes within the industry. In 2018, West sold her own PR firm of 15 years to Fletcher Marketing PR, where she most recently served as a senior strategist.

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With three decades of experience under her belt, her deep-seated commitment to transparency and accountability was forged through her personal experiences of confronting retaliation
. Her interest in ethics and expertise in the area began at the start of her career. “Ethics has been a passion point for me for many years. When I was fairly early on in my career, I started writing columns in my local business journal about ethics topics and public relations.” 

Over the past decade, West has continued to advocate for a “speak up” culture in the PR industry, helping associations adopt stronger commitments toward transparency, disclosure, and anti-retaliation. “In recent years, I started observing to a far more disturbing degree, a lot of ethics issues in the PR industry itself, and it bothered me a great deal because our industry should be moving forward in ethics, not backward.”  

West and I discussed the importance of ethics and accountability in public relations, emphasising the need for ethical standards and compliance. Throughout the interview, she highlighted some important key findings and solutions on how the PR industry needs to prioritise ethics codes. “PR professionals wield significant influence in advocating against unethical practices. We frequently encounter and address observed misconduct. Often, this involves identifying initial signs of cover-ups and the dissemination of disinformation, which may be primed for public release.”

Dust off the ethics codes 

West funded “The State of Ethics Codes in the Public Relations Industry: A Global Analysis” report, conducted in spring 2022 by the Institute of Business Ethics in coordination with the PRCA Global Ethics Council. It included an independent analysis of published ethics codes among 24 PR industry associations worldwide. 

Most of the codes analysed by the IBE lack a timestamp of when they were last updated. Some 45 per cent of those codes that do show any timestamp of the latest revision were last revised prior to 2019. “What took me by the most surprise was that we saw that the primary U.S.-based PR ethics code hadn’t been updated since President Bill Clinton was in office. That was decades ago. So much has changed even in the last few years post-pandemic, and we are not seeing these changes reflected in ethics codes. How can we ask PR professionals to prioritise upholding ethics codes when the industry as a whole isn’t setting an example by establishing specific standards?”

West also emphasises the pandemic’s impact on the industry, particularly regarding ethical procedures being overlooked. “Post-pandemic, I’m sure many professionals due to the immense pressure on companies to perform and survive may have felt pressured to bypass certain ethical considerations to keep their revenue flowing.”

West points to third-party global data by Washington, D.C.-based Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI). ECI’s most recent ethical-compliance data shows that “employees continue to face exceptionally high levels of pressure to compromise workplace standards or the law.”

Not an afterthought

Traditionally, PR professionals are often left out of initial conversations and meetings when strategic decisions are being made. West argues that by relegating PR professionals to an afterthought, organisations make it nearly impossible for them to identify potential ethical concerns early on and thereby prevent bad policy or operational decisions before they can occur.

“PR is consistently disadvantaged in its ability to safeguard brand and corporate reputation due to our exclusion from the inner circles of decision-making. In many cases, management deliberately keeps us in the dark, withholding crucial information necessary for us to provide informed guidance. This lack of internal transparency hampers our ability to address ethical concerns and assess the integrity of the organisation’s messaging, even when it appears truthful on the surface.”

West emphasised that the industry needs to shift its perspective on PR professionals, seeing them not just as the go-to experts for narrative-development and “fixers” after a crisis already has occurred, but as integral partners in proactive communication and strategy. She advocates PR’s full attachment to the organisation’s ethical core. “Clearly, we should never put out an inaccurate or misleading message in the first place. Maybe we need to actually fix what’s broken internally and adjust the policy to prevent any future crises or potential misconduct.”

Reporting misconduct

Reporting misconduct is the only way that organisations will become aware of unethical behaviour and potential bad actors. West argues that this reporting process needs to be made as easy and accessible as possible for PR professionals.

“I really do think that PR professionals need to be trained and need to have professional development resources that will help them in dealing with identifying and reporting misconduct.” West also funded the recent Speak Up survey, managed by The Pulse Business, which revealed a troubling reality – that many employees live in fear of retaliation, even within corporate cultures that claim to champion open communication.

Only 45 per cent of PR practitioners said they would feel really confident about speaking up. Her solution on how the industry could do better? “We need to strengthen our ethics codes to address whistleblower issues and retaliation problems. It’s crucial to promote a speak-up culture that doesn’t punish individuals for reporting concerns. It was quite concerning to see that in the State of Ethics Codes report, almost none of the PR industry’s codes explicitly condemn improper retaliation from an organisation.”

Even with much work ahead, West acknowledges that instances of bad actors in the sector are rare. “I think that while no organisation can be ‘perfect,’ most companies out there are fairly ethical, and they are not in the business of disinformation. However, there are some bad actors out there who will do whatever they have to do in order to profit and/or fulfil clients’ demands.” 

West’s last words? “The PR industry needs to address the critical issue of power imbalances within corporations, where individuals who try to do the right thing often face retaliation. It’s essential to foster a culture of fairness and accountability in the corporate world, with the PR industry leading the charge in promoting these values.” Just before the interview came to a close West mentioned that the Annual PR Ethics Month (#PREthics) this September provides organisations ample opportunity to focus on improving and updating their ethics codes. “After all — how can we make strides in bettering the PR industry if we are not committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards?”