Let’s get the ethics of PR out in the open

Keith Jackson’s unanswered letter to the NSW PRIA chairman

09/05/01 07:26

Dear Jim

A colleague of mine and PRIA member yesterday sought to obtain a list of NSW Fellows from the PRIA office and was apparently told that this could not be given to him on the phone for ‘privacy’ reasons. He was advised to make a request in writing seeking the information for his own use. This he has done. But I fail to see why there is this limitation on how such information should be provided and how it should be applied. Surely this is publicly available information. Accordingly, I have posted a number of questions relating to the College of Fellows in the PRIA (website) members’ forum. I am looking forward to these being answered. Unlike (my colleague), I intend – should I see fit – to use the information publicly.

It seems it is as difficult getting transparency from our industry association as it is from our industry generally. Failure of transparency, as you would appreciate, Jim, can have the effect of placing a shroud around ethical issues. There is no doubt in my mind, although hard evidence is harder to accumulate, that there are serious ethical problems in the public relations industry. As I have pointed out before, these concern me, and my associates at JWM, to a degree where we shall probably withdraw from the PRIA and therefore RCG*. But not without making an effort to explain why we felt impelled to take such a major decision.

The industry grapevine suggests that the College itself has had problems around such issues. Such gossip may be wrong and malicious. It may be true. But, in the absence of information, how are we expected to know? My questions in the forum are a first attempt to seek some hard evidence. Now you and I are busy people. We have our businesses to run. Why should I want to pursue this matter so assertively?

1. Unethical behaviour is wrong per se.

2. Unethical behaviour is inconsistent with membership of the Association – in various permutations, it is proscribed by the PRIA Code of Ethics.

3. Unethical practices deny our industry the reputation it needs to gain the status it deserves.

4. Unethical practices are totally inconsistent with living in a community. They breach the necessary trust.

5. Unethical practices cost ethical companies money. If you’ve ever competed against such a practitioner, as we have, you would appreciate that taking moral short cuts to advantage a client is analogous to one footie team abiding by the umpire while the other feels free to do as it likes – and is allowed to do as it likes.

At JWM we do not accept that the PRIA is doing all it can to enforce its Code of Ethics. If it is indeed active, it should tell people about it. Constantly. We do not accept that some of the techniques imported to Australia by PR firms (such as astroturfing or push polling) are OK and we expect that the PRIA would be working to stamp out such practices. But, in fact, such techniques appear to be de rigeur for some of the industry leaders. We offer transparency around our company and its activities and we expect the same of the industry. Such dubious practices as astroturfing and push polling can exist only when there is lack of transparency. They go to the reputation of our industry – which has an appalling reputation – a reputation that shames us all. I could not envisage a greater problem faced by any group of professionals.

Please feel free to circulate this letter.

Keith Jackson

(*Note RCG is the Registered Consultants Group, an organisation based on the PRIA whose main tasks are to register NSW PR firms, ie, PRIA members, publish a guide to them and run an annual seminar for them.)

From the CEO of an independent Sydney PR firm that quit PRIA

16/05/01 11:14

Keith

I read your piece in “The Well” (JWM’s house magazine) and I agree whole heartedly with everything you say. Some time ago I made a complaint to the PRIA ethics committee based on comments made to me by members of staff and friends not in the PR industry. They were commenting about practices employed by a NSW based agency and in particular one of the principals of that agency. After more than 12 months of follow up and letters requesting the progress of the committee’s activities, I was informed by letter that the person in question had been censured/admonished by the Committee. According to the PRIA ethics charter that means that no further action is taken and the findings are not made public. Given the gravity of the complaint (and the number of young practitioners who approached me about it) and the fact that the person in question is a senior member of the profession, it begs the question as to how serious they really are. This, and several other events, has kept me away from the PRIA and RCG.

From a partner of a Sydney PR firm, a PRIA member

28/05/01 Keith Jackson summarises an e-mail too close to the bone to be reproduced

After the Crikey pieces appeared, Keith received a message from the head of the PR firm Frank Flack intimated Keith was down on because he’d lost a pitch to them. It turns out Frank had screwed up and this piece of gossip was wrong. The two firms had actually been working for opposing sides in a hard fought campaign. Anyway, this fella, who was very friendly, provided Keith with more detail on what had gone on in the PRIA and who was implicated. And then kindly warned him about dealing with Stephen Mayne!

From Keith Jackson

28/05/01:10:04

Yeah, I fondly remember (that) campaign. You guys really had us hopping. It was fun until X threatened to sue our client for defamation! Amusing to reflect on. But no grudges. Life’s too short. My real intent in making the comments I did was to generate some pressure on the PRIA to act more vigorously on matters of ethical concern and to draw them to wider attention. I know that legals can get in the way but non-disclosure and a lack of transparency serve only to make things worse. I hope the PRIA may feel impelled to act positively to improve the reputation of PR. This must be achieved in the open, not in the shadows. Jane Cadzow’s piece in the Good Weekend might be seen as inimical to the industry’s interests – I see it as a necessary part of a process of getting the industry to be more publicly accountable. That said, I’m not holding my breath. And if I have to cop a bit of stick along the way, so be it.

Keith Jackson

From the partner of the forementioned Sydney PR firm

28/05/01:10:04

Keith

I couldn’t agree more. Transparency in what we do is going to be the means of continuing to operate in our environments. The last thing anyone wants is for legislators and media to use our collective heads to grind their particular axes. I have found clients to be the chief roadblocks in opening our doors to greater scrutiny. Without their support it will be difficult to provide the type of transparency (to which) you are referring. Escaping censure from the PRIA owes much more to (the) network of mates than it does accountability. Given the recent exposure it may make the PRIA rue its decision to stay mum with one of its own. And at the end of the day that is the rub about transparency.

From an academic specialising in business ethics at a provincial university

29/05/01 10:50

Hi Keith

I think what you say about anonymous postings is spot on, there is no way to know what motivates these people. While I am sure there are, in at least some cases, justified concerns about the welfare of the whistleblower I think that their claims when anonymous need to be treated very carefully. Glad to see old Milton F(riedman) being cited again. I think he is probably more cited in business ethics than any other author. I wonder if he had any idea that his views would create such a stir and continue to do so 30 odd years later. HIH might make for interesting discussion next trimester.

From the CEO of the Sydney PR firm that quit PRIA

30/05/01 18:10

Keith

I saw your piece on Crikey – very well put. The weekend mag article (Good Weekend piece by Jane Cadzow, 26/5/01) was on the money. It is a great shame, however, that it has to come to this, if the PRIA had exposed the event and the others when they occurred, we would not now be looking like a bunch of legless black dogs. (Every time) it’s the same defence: “I didn’t know what my subordinates/peers were doing so I can’t be held accountable”. A bunch of Nazis tried that over 50 years ago.

ends

If there is anyone else in PR land who would like to weigh into this long overdue debate then just get on the email.