News: Public relations association ethics code research reveals major opportunities for best practice updates

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AS September is the public relations (PR) industry’s annual ethics month (#PRethics), PR associations worldwide are encouraged to revisit their own published ethics codes, as a newly released independent analysis reveals major opportunities to close documented gaps toward best practice.

The research goal is to raise global PR industry standards, starting from a quantified basis of common ground.

Available for free download, “The State of Ethics Codes in the Public Relations Industry: A Global Analysis” features data collection by the London-based Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), specific to published ethics codes from 24 PR member associations across a diverse range of nations worldwide, on six continents. The study was fully funded by a grant from PR industry veteran Mary Beth West (pictured).

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The IBE incorporated nearly 50 individual criteria points and categorized its PR industry code analysis under a variety of headings, such as structural elements, user-friendliness, content, leadership role / governance structure, and enforcement.

The IBE’s independent analysis found that while all 24 PR member associations included in the study offer published codes of ethics and that all include “Honesty” and “Accuracy” provisions – which is a good starting point for any association – a vast majority (83 per cent) could opt to take new, specific measures toward demonstrating “strong elements of good practice,” reflective of the IBE’s criteria.

According to the IBE’s findings, “the results of the (IBE) bespoke scoring system applied suggest that 17 per cent of the codes possess strong elements of good practice, 29 per cent possess elements of good practice but lack in other areas, whilst 54 per cent of the codes show significant room for improvement.”

“It is likely that many codes are ripe for review,” stated the IBE’s report, also noting that – as a starting point – “Most codes are deficient in being un-dated.” Of those 11 codes (of the 24 total analyzed) that included timestamps of a most-recent update, nearly half were marked as having been updated prior to 2019. (IBE-recommended best practice is for ethics codes to be “revised every three years – and dated accordingly.”)

The issue of PR industry association codes likely being vastly outdated to the demands and rigors of professional communicators working in increasingly complex technological and social environments underscores a potential “resting on laurels” challenge, according to West.

In the report’s preface, West wrote: “The PR industry arguably is failing to keep up with this maelstrom of present-day issues on the ethics front… reflected in part by outdated and insufficient PR member-association ethics codes.

“Many such codes were primarily developed years – even decades – ago, with few or no substantive revisions or addenda to help address and manage more modern ethics issues for today’s professional communicators.

“Consequently, there may be some deserved criticism of ‘resting on laurels’ by some PR associations’ over-reliance on the efficacy, relevance, and currency of their long-standing ethics codes, as originally developed in the distant past.

“Such codes, while outdated, are not altogether irrelevant, by any means. However, they deserve ethics-review councils and bodies within the associations to take a fresh look, engage external perspectives, and objectively identify what’s missing and/or outdated, with this IBE-generated report providing a helpful starting point.”

Among the IBE’s other key findings were that 80 per cent of PR associations analyzed (20 of the 24) claim that adherence to the ethics code is required for membership, but there remains a widespread lack of clarity or consistency on matters of actual enforcement. While stating adherence is required, only 13 of these 20 associations that claim an adherence mandate declare their codes are enforced; one such association of the 20 declares its code as unenforced; and six other associations of the 20 are ambiguous on this point by making no reference either way, which the IBE interpreted as a non-enforcement stance. Of those associations that do enforce their codes, enforcement processes leave much to be desired in the way of best practice. 

According to the IBE report, “54 per cent of associations state that they enforce their code of ethics. Of these, 46 per cent make the complaint process easy and 31 per cent make decisions and positions by ethics committees easily available.” Therefore, the majorities of PR associations make processes difficult for registering complaints and receiving guidance or other decisions.

The IBE reports that “most codes do not provide whistleblower protection, whilst none of the codes provide anti-retaliation provisions.” A failure to protect PR practitioners / memberships who might report observed misconduct poses systemic problems and risks, not only to members but also for association integrity and cultural wellbeing, according to West.

West encourages all PR industry associations to consider independently:

1. Convening an expert panel to review an association’s own ethics code against the standards of best-practice criteria outlined by the IBE;

2. Analyzing the association’s organizational culture as judged by members themselves (survey research can collect quantitative data, trackable over time to measure how ethics is valued as a function of culture, and/or how culture is a function of ethics);

3. Collecting association members’ input about provisional gaps and priority issues – particularly those that might be most relevant within an association’s own region, nation or other geographic area;

4. Hosting online chats during September’s #PRethics Month (and year-round), inclusive of all viewpoints, to discuss and debate ethics-code and enforcement / compliance issues in the PR industry, including those identified in the IBE’s analysis;

5. Developing an action plan toward ethics-code updates, revisions, and a routine schedule of updates every three years going forward, in keeping with IBE-recommended best practice;

6. Communicating progress and any new, finalized code revisions to memberships and the general public, in a spirit of transparency and advocacy for the larger industry’s standards;

7. Committing to year-round ethics conversations, including emerging issues tied to technology, diversity, and governance.

Read the full whitepaper: “The State of Ethics Codes in the Public Relations Industry: A Global Analysis