Monday, August 4, 2008

A question of ethics

They say that the first three paragraphs of any story decides whether it is read or not. Let us test the theory. Fellow public relations practitioners, there are enemies among us. They are damaging our occupation’s reputation. And they are being protected by inertia.

In a new business meeting recently, I was asked by the MD whether we would accept payment based on the number of stories published - a fair though naive question from someone unaware of the PRIA’s Code of Ethics. The final five words of his sentence however turned na├»vety into concern, “like our current PR agency.”

Perhaps the agency was unaware of the Code? No. It is an agency that is both a member of the Registered Consultancy Group and employs individual PRIA members. Ahh, you seem more interested now but the third paragraph’s end draws near. The agency concerned will remain anonymous, for now. But they can take heart that it inspired this piece. Please read on…

Let’s not kid ourselves. The reality of the PR industry in Australia is that it is a tough neighbourhood. When you have a concentrated number of small businesses (<50 employees) fighting it out for the relative scraps that drop from corporate Australia’s table, there is no room for niceties.

Business is hard competition and should not be lessened or mediocrity will be our fate. The point of this post is improvement not restriction.

We must evolve as an industry to escape this dirt floor scuffle. If we value our role and firmly believe that communications is as important as we tell our clients then we should set our sights higher. To no less than a profession. And this is all about ethics. Or more importantly, enforceable ethics.

For without ethics, we are little more than well dressed beggars in the business world. Condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past 100 years of PR practice and continue to quietly accept ridicule from journalists and other professionals alike.

However it’s not just our own timetable of evolution with which we should be concerned. The true influence of PR will eventually prick the social consciousness. ‘When’ not ‘if’ it does and we don’t have our colloquial ‘shit in one sock’ then regulation will be forced upon us. Just ask any US accountant about Sarbanes Oxley.

Some self-realisation also needs to occur. We must be proud to be more than just toothbrush marketers. Our collective body of work seriously impacts the perceptions of just about every Australian every day. These are perceptions that decide which drug to prescribe a seriously ill patient, the fortunes of any listed company on the ASX, the ultimate success of the next multi-millionaire entrepreneur and even who will govern us.

So how do we evolve?

My hope is that this piece in some way sparks a revolution.

Our existing body, the PRIA, has neither the funds nor time nor legal precedent to go after the enemies amongst us. That is not the immediate answer.

As individuals, none of us have the time to solve the problem alone. But if enough of us care and are willing to be involved then we can progress this passion to more than a few words on a page. All that is required is a group of the brightest practitioners to discuss, debate and ultimately publish how we can move our industry into the ranks of professionals.

So to the agency that sells its ethics for a mere $1500 project – you have your bag of silver. Enjoy it now because you will not be welcome in the professional world.

To the rest of us who thirst for professional status and fairly earned recognition as a valued, responsible and respected occupation, I encourage you to add your comments below.

Your feedback (whatever the flavour) is warmly welcomed.