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Head to Head: Is there room for ethics in PR?

In this new series, Mumbrella invites the industry's most senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week's Head to Head pits Annalise Brown, founder and managing director, Hidden Characters against marketing and advertising consultant Toby Ralph.

This week, debating whether or not there is room for ethics in PR, Annalise Brown says PR agencies and professionals need to call out bad behaviour, while Toby Ralph believes everyone has the right to have their case heard.

Yes, argues Annalise Brown, founder and managing director at Hidden Characters:

One of the biggest issues we face in society, not just in Australia, but globally is that people have lost trust. Trust in politicians, industry bodies and in brands, news and relationships. While this has a lot to do with things out of our control, it also has a lot to do with things in our arena.

Fake news, disingenuous relationships that brands have developed with celebrities and our audiences becoming clues to social media shenanigans. Do we not have a duty to ourselves to instil ethics in everything we do, to ensure we are assisting in fixing the problem?

So what should that look like? We should have clear guidelines around measurement. What success looks like, and our work being linked to tangible, quantifiable results. AVE is a thing of the past and digital and social ‘reach’ figures are meaningless. We should be thinking about how we show our value in solving clients’ business problems. Linking our success to EDM sign ups, website traffic, engagement, brand metrics and ultimately sales.

Brown says “we should be thinking about how we show our value”

We need to call out bad social behaviour. Identifying when influencers have bought their following, brands have unauthentic relationships with celebrities and money is changing hands behind the scenes. The AANA’s influencer guidelines that kicked off in March this year go towards that but there is more as PR practitioners we need to do.

Honesty and integrity are paramount in our field. We need to have open conversations with clients about what will and won’t work. Share our expertise on the campaigns that will solve client business problems and be open and honest about what is and isn’t going to work. In PR there is no ‘guarantee’ of coverage. Making the demand for ethics even stronger. We need to be working with brands that truly align with the ethos of one’s organisation. We need a call to action for more loyalty in our industry and an opportunity to build and sustain long term partnerships.

No, argues Toby Ralph, PR, marketing and advertising consultant:

In the wake of the South African scandal in which a PR company tried to distract attention from their client’s undue governmental influence by fomenting racial tension, the proposition that there’s no room for ethics in PR won’t fly. But more commonly the moral conundrum is ‘should I take this gig?’

Here’s the thing. It’s not about you.

People are smart, and entirely capable of hearing two sides of an argument before they make their minds up. But they must be given the information to make that informed decision. If storytellers refuse to represent the unpopular view, society is the poorer for it. After all unpopular speech is the only speech that needs protection.

Ralph: “If the PR industry refuses to represent the superficially unpopular, unconscionable or unreasonable, then it inhibits information, suppresses free speech, limits thought”

Just as the murderer deserves a good barrister, so the unpopular corporation, the faulty product and the radical idea deserve to have their case heard.

Invariably unpopular arguments have complexities and mitigating facts that deserve an airing, and even if you disagree with their central proposition, for society’s sake surely the Voltairian principle ought take precedence.

The notion that propagandists should only represent products and notions with which they are aligned is quaint, but preposterous. A precondition to promoting McDonalds isn’t craving a McHappy lunch.

If the PR industry refuses to represent the superficially unpopular, unconscionable or unreasonable, then it inhibits information, suppresses free speech, limits thought, provisions mob rule and egocentrically imagines itself so potent that the public will be unable to distinguish between its well-crafted yarn and any larger truth – and what a pompous presumption that is.

Certainly, if you feel you can’t run an argument because it makes you queasy, say no – but please don’t virtue-signal about it, or criticise others that prosecute the case.

What matters is that society hears both sides of the story.

It’s not about you.

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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