One of the first things that we’re taught as PR practitioners is that we must conduct ourselves as ethically as possible, especially considering that we’re expected to be the moral conscience of the organizations we work for. This would be a lot easier if we, like Pinocchio, had Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder telling us what to do all the time. But instead of him we have codes of conduct which establish a series of norms designed to guide the manner in which we carry out our work. The question is: How effective are they and how can ethical behaviour among practitioners be encouraged?
Many experts, including Morris and Goldsworthy, see PR codes of conduct as unenforceable and voluntary because:
• They don’t impose severe punishments if we don’t abide by them
• They have no control over non-members (the majority of PR professionals)
• Most of the spokespeople for the profession and set an ethical and professional example within it are seldom active members of trade associations.
Most professional associations themselves recognize that their codes are enforceable only to a degree. However, what should be taken into account is that most codes do not aim to impose their statements on anyone. They strive to enhance the reputation of the Public Relations profession, help build trust between this field and others, provide education and research and serve as moral and professional guides. They carry out the mission that they intend to perform, and therefore, could be considered as effective. This is still not very practical though.
So what can be done to inspire ethical behaviour among PR professionals? Some of the solutions proposed include rewarding whistleblowers, best practice, innovation and creativity and, as Harrison suggests, explaining the benefits of membership to practitioners and its safeguards to clients. The accreditation of Public Relations practitioners, already in place for members of the PRSA, has also been recommended as a way to guarantee professionalism and ethical conduct, but it is controversial mainly because it is a process usually reserved for professions with a very specific body of knowledge (such as medicine or law), and is therefore many consider that this is unsuitable for PR.
It might be more reasonable to encourage agencies and clients to adhere to codes of conduct, and in turn they could enforce and analyze compliance on the part of their employees and sanction unprofessional behaviour. As Dowling recommends, it could be useful to include the ethical standing of an organization in its vision or mission statements, as they are applicable to, and independent of, any individual working there.
In any case, no matter how many solutions are proposed, this is an industry which, as any other, is made up of people trying to do the best job we can. We will make mistakes and we will have doubts because none of us are perfect. Ultimately, we each have to use our common sense when making decisions and decide whether they are moral or not. In other words, we have to trust ourselves (and be trusted) to be our own Jiminy Crickets.