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.


AK said...

Passionately put!

Just in case people haven't read it, the PRIA code of ethics clause on this is:

"Members shall refrain from proposing or agreeing that their consultancy fees or other remuneration be contingent entirely on the achievement of specified results."

I wonder if the word 'entirely' might leave it too open to interpretation?

Shahnaz said...

Your post is thought provoking on two fronts. Firstly, the fact that this industry is yet to achieve 'professional' status is a sad reality indeed. While the world of advertising (clearly pay-as-you-go) is well recognized and appreciated, its more credible cousin i.e. PR, tends to be sidelined. That is not to downplay the importance of advertising (god knows I have several things i dont need on account of good advertising) but just highlight the irony of the situation.

Secondly, I agree that the industry is in desparate need of a formal governing body and code of ethics that dictate how companies sell their services. What I wonder about however is whether it can actually be legalised to a point where it amounts to fraud or black marketeering to 'sell' coverage v/s providing a service for a fee. I'm still on the fence on this because I'm trying to mentally work out how this might actualy work and whether we can gain acceptance with it. That said, I'm all for the movement against bad ethics... but before we go down that road, maybe we need to clarify what those ethics are and stand for. In India, I know I haven't heard of anything that resembles a code of ethics. Its just some unspoken law that can be flouted at any time - more so now, when tough economic realities make winning new business harder, clients more demanding and PR agencies more desperate for business to stay in the black.

@EmVicW said...

Sticking my head (perhaps dangerously) above the parapet I have to say while I agree with you, I don't agree with the PRIA code.

[Rushes to explain before being shot down in flames...]

No agency should agree to a payment-by-coverage model, I believe this fundamentally because (as well as other things) it perpetuates the misunderstandings of what PR *is*. PR is not about generating coverage its about building appropriate relationships.

Now, this is where I disagree with the PRIA language. I came from an agency (in Europe) where in seven years we rose to be the second highest earning tech PR agency exactly because our revenues were tied to deliverables. Not coverage. Deliverables. So a certain number of press interviews would take x hours to arrange, and therefore cost x amount. If we didn't achieve it, we couldn't bill it. Whether coverage resulted or not, well, that as always is in the hands of the editorial gods.

Clients loved it. My team were motivated by it. Anyone stung in the past by retainer-model PR saw the light. It made PR success more measureable. Fabulous results were achieved all around.

Therefore PRIA's wording:
"Entirely on the achievement of specified results", I cannot agree with. Specified coverage, yes. Results, no.