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Public Relations

Post – Bell Pottinger, can PR seize the opportunity to become ‘a profession’?

Without doubt, the PR story of 2017 is the expulsion from the PRCA (and subsequent entering into administration) of Bell Pottinger for its now notorious PR activities in South Africa.

Despite initial comments that the problem was solely Bell Pottinger’s (and not the PR industry’s), it quickly became an issue that led to equal parts congratulatory talk about the effectiveness of the code of conduct as well as concerns about how an organisation the size and standing of Bell Pottinger thought that it was beyond reproach

As an industry that has fought hard against accusations of spin and manipulation, the Bell Pottinger story has shown the effectiveness of the PRCA’s Code of Conduct and equally reinforced negative concerns about PR.

It is understandable that the PRCA have made all efforts to promote the effectiveness of their Code of Conduct. For many PR is not a profession but an industry. Unable to regulate those who claim to be PR practitioners or penalise those who ignore its ethics.

This case has show that the industry has teeth and is not afraid to go after anyone. Even those thought to be untouchable.

In fact, I believe that we are now a step closer to a single Code of Conduct.

There has been widespread coverage of the verdict laid down by the PRCA. However, we have a situation in which the CIPR cannot confirm or deny that a complaint is being investigated re Bell Pottinger.

The only way we know if there is a complaint is when the CIPR announces its findings. So we have no idea when this might be, if ever. Plus what would the implications be if the CIPR’s Code of Conduct absolves individuals working for Bell Pottinger of wrongdoing?

A single code of conduct means that both bodies would have the same procedures and penalties against individuals and agencies/depts as well as underlining shared values and all members would have the same obligation to be ethical, honest  and  transparent.

The distinction between the two bodies are blurring with both offering individual membership and corporate affiliate/agency membership.

The CIPR’s Charter might make this difficult in the short-term but the fact that the PRCA can talk about a complaint made against a member and the CIPR are unable to confirm or deny whether there is a complaint is ridiculous.

This should have been a watershed moment for the entire UK PR industry.  Highlighting how it deals with unethical practice on an international scale.

But what we have seen played on the pages of PR Week and in social media is a difference of opinion in which various players have issues not with the expulsion but what happened in the aftermath.

Some PR practitioners believe the PRCA have used the expulsion as a launch pad for a recent membership drive. Conversely, the PRCA are unhappy with PR practitioners who are ‘unregistered’ and have not joined the push for a robust industry association for the entire (PR) industry. Or to use their words:

“There are two kinds of PR practitioner – one who is ethical, who abides by a code of conduct, and is proud to be regulated. The other who is not. Which side are you on?”

This is unfortunate language.

By drawing a line in the sand, a point has been missed.  And it is a major point.

There are approx. 71,000 – 82,000 people employed by the UK PR industry (depending on whether you accept the CIPR’s or PRCA’s figures).  Between them the CIPR and PRCA, have 32,000 members -less than half the PR industry.

So, by the PRCA’s definition, the majority of the PR industry is unregistered. And unregistered = unethical.

Describing over half the industry as potentially unethical (that’s the implication behind the language used) is not a way to bring the industry together and that is the missed opportunity at this moment.

The PR industry is partially regulated. Anyone can set up a stand by the side of the road and call himself/herself a PR practitioner but sanctions can only be applied to a few. If we cannot achieve regulation, we have to convince over 40,000 people it’s better to be part of the CIPR/PRCA than without.

The “either you’re with me or against me” approach is not appropriate as it will naturally raise the hackles of some who may want to join but do not respond to such language.

The push by the PRCA highlights the need for robust ethical behaviour through membership and the CIPR campaign for more Chartered PR practitioners tackles the need for improving standards of senior PR practitioners.

If over half the industry is not joining, we need to understand why it is not resonating with them and then tackle the reluctance of half the PR industry to being a member of either body.

This is an excellent opportunity to build a consensus around the need for a greater membership of the bodies and a joint code of conduct to improve the behaviour of PR Practitioners.

That is the real dividing line.

Keep the status quo or invest in a PR industry that will one day be a PR Profession.

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