PR industry 'needs to raise its professional standards'

A senior figure at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has told Press Gazette that the PR industry needs to raise its professional standards if it “wants to be taken seriously”.

Phil Morgan, director of policy and communications at the CIPR, said the organisation was about to undertake a comprehensive review of its code of conduct, partly in response to recent scrutiny of lobbying and the industry’s ‘dark arts’.

The review will look at how it can make the the world of public relations more transparent by promoting the principles of ‘honesty, integrity, transparency and fair dealing with the public”.

Last month a Lords committee investigating the future of investigative journalism in the UK concluded that public relations practitioners in the UK should be made to abide by a ‘stringent code of behaviour”.

While the vast majority of journalists are covered by the Editors’ Code of Practice (press) or by Ofcom (broadcasters), only a minority of PR professionals are signed up to the CIPR code of conduct.

The House of Lords communications committee was responding to concerns over the adverse impact of the PR industry on investigative journalism.

It was also concerned about the ‘disproportional growth in the number of PR professionals acting deliberately as gatekeepers”, fearing this could ‘frustrate or impede the investigative character of day-to-day journalism”.

Several examples of questionable PR practice have been highlighted recently.

Guardian journalist Nick Davies told the Leveson Inquiry that while it was unusual for press officers to ‘engage in knowing falsehood”, when they were under pressure some “certainly will lie to reporters in order to protect their organisation”.

Yesterday Press Gazette reported on how Number 10 stonewalled and misled journalists working on the so-called ‘Horsegate’row.

And in December The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposed the alleged use of ‘dark arts’ by PR firm Bell Pottinger to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.

Public relations is ‘very much an unregulated activity’

The Lords committee suggested the CIPR’s code of conduct could provide the model for future regulation, but only around one in six PR professionals are signed up. The most recent estimate from PR week puts the total number of PRs in the UK at around 61,400, but current membership of the CIPR stands at around 9,500.

This is what led to the committee’s conclusion that the PR industry was ‘very much an unregulated activity, and there is currently no comprehensive system of self-regulation”.

The report highlighted the ‘real need” for the industry to strengthen its internal system of self-regulation.

To address this concern it recommended PR practitioners ‘should abide by a stringent code of behaviour’which could be derived from the existing CIPR code, or something similar, and which ‘might be overseen by a third party.’

Morgan told Press Gazette that the committee’s reference to its code of conduct was a ‘good acknowledgement that our code is where they want it to be”, but he rejected the suggestion of statutory regulation by a third party.

‘Because we have a code of conduct and we believe we are capable or regulating our members, we believe self-regulation should be the default option,’he told Press Gazette.

‘Hiding behind an acronym’

‘There are a lot of people out there who do public relations work who would not refer to themselves as being public relations practitioners working in PR because the taint that surrounds it,” he said.

‘I personally think the profession needs to be more positive about it and use it in a more positive sense and not shy away from it.”

The CIPR does receive complaints from journalists who have allegedly been lied to or misled, Morgan says, and points out this is covered by the CIPR code. One clause says that PRs should ‘never knowingly mislead clients, employers, employees, colleagues and fellow professionals”.

‘That would very much cover it [misleading journalists],’said Morgan. ‘Also it would be covered by misleading the public in a general sense.

“When a public relations professional thinks about a relationship with a journalist they should be thinking, at least in part, about the relationship their organisation has with that paper.

‘So if they are misleading the journalist they are consciously, in an intentional sense, they are misleading the journalist’s readership as well. So they are in effect, I would suggest, misleading the public.”

If a PR is found to have breached the code the CIPR has the power to expel members from the institute.

At present, however, it admits that it does not receive many complaints.

While the CIPR was unable to provide figures for the number of complaints received, it did provide a breakdown of the number of hours billed by its regulatory consultant, the person responsible for looking into alleged breaches.

In 2009-10 this was 121 hours but in 2010-11 this increased four-fold to 400 hours.

‘You always get caught in a lie’

Morgan also challenged claims made by Nick Davies suggesting that corporations and public bodies are investing more money in PR to prevent journalists reaching the truth.

‘I would reject that as a characterisation of public relations and what it’s there to do. From our point of view a professional public relations practitioner will work in the public interest.

‘From a best practice point of view… If Nick Davies calls up your organisation and says I’m investigating this story, the best way to handle it is to invite the investigating journalist in and work with them, consciously making sure they are exposed to all the material they are looking for.

‘It’s better to try and work with the situation that try mislead. You always get caught in a lie. There are PR practitioners out there who would hear me saying that and say, yes but in effect there are times when… and all this sort of stuff.

‘But from a best practice, normative point of view, it’s never right.”

He also accepted that ‘not many’PR professionals have the CIPR code of conduct written into their contracts.

‘It’s rare but hopefully it’s declining in its rarity,’he said. ‘It’s becoming more common for people to require people to be a member of the CIPR.

‘If the industry wants to be taken seriously it needs to raise its professional standards… and that means clients, employers and others looking at the levels of qualifications and the ethical badges that individual carries, and says that ‘I’m a professional, I’m chartered, I’m covered by a code of conduct.”

‘It’s up to the bodies as well themselves to make sure that ethics is written through everything like a stick of Blackpool rock,’he added, warning that PRs who actively promote the so-called dark arts ‘need to think very carefully about that”.

‘We consciously reject the notion that spin is anything positive in public relations,’he added. ‘Spin is what you do when you do when you can’t think of anything else to do. Spin is tactical public relations. It’s answering questions on the hoof .

‘It’s trying to make the best out of a bad situation, it’s all of these things that you shouldn’t find yourself doing as a professional . The term spin doctor, I consider it to be slightly insulting that it’s applied to our profession because our profession is so much more than spin.’

‘Honesty, integrity, transparency’

The CIPR’s code of conduct review is also a response to a ‘growing professionalism within the industry”, according to Morgan.

‘Public relations practitioners are themselves becoming more qualified, there becoming more interested in the practice of public relations and they want this to be reflected in the ethics that their profession meets,” he said.

‘Where you have highly professional, highly educated practitioners they want it known that the organisations to which they belong like the CIP R have codes of conduct that reflect the currently best practice positions within public relations, so that their clients, their employers and the general public can have complete confidence in the standards that this industry works to.”

There will be a particular focus on issues of transparency. Morgan pointed to a ‘general culture shift talking place’over last 30-40 years for more transparency, citing the Freedom of Information Act and the upcoming statutory register of lobbyists.

‘What we have an opportunity to do now is to take the principals of code and really boil them down the very bare bones of it, and making it very, very clear by what we mean by the principles of honesty, integrity, transparency and fair dealing with the public.”

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