media update’s David Jenkin looks into the case for a body with regulatory powers.

Public relations agencies have always worked in symbiosis with news media in different ways, but the public has become far more conscious of the presence of outside forces in shaping the news. The allegations of unethical practices levelled at UK firm Bell Pottinger have cast a degree of suspicion on the industry at large.

A need for an oath that binds

Greg Forbes, managing director of Lions Wing Brand Communications, says this incident has highlighted the need for a codified way of working ethically within the industry, as with other professions which are bound by an oath, with consequences for defaulting.

“The broader industry should ascribe to a code, and when someone steps into the realm of seeding messages that undermine cohesion in society, it shouldn’t be tolerated.” He says the UK regulation body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), is absolutely right to institute a disciplinary hearing on Bell Pottinger (a hearing for the case filed by the DA has been scheduled for 18 August), but South Africa does not have a body with such powers.  

PRISA weighs in

In early July, the Public Relations Institute of South Africa (PRISA) issued a release calling for the regulation of the public relations industry – noting that self-regulation was no longer sufficient – and adherence to the profession’s code of ethics, adding that it finds the apology by Bell Pottinger disheartening.

It further stated that members of PRISA adhere not only to the body’s code and standards, but also to that set by its international partnership with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.

“While not all practitioners or consultancies are members of PRISA,” the release says, “We invite every public relations professional to subscribe to our Code of Ethics, which serves as a guide for professional conduct and will, in the long run, ensure that our profession remains credible and recognised as a strategic partner to both the individuals and the organisations that we serve.”

The PRISA code includes a declaration to maintain integrity, accuracy, and generally accepted standards of good taste; a promise not to knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly communicate false or misleading information and to endeavour to avoid doing so inadvertently; and a promise to not engage in any practice that corrupts the integrity of channels or media of communication. 

Powers to regulate

Daniel Munslow, PRISA’s vice president, tells City Press that regulation would give confidence to both practitioners and clients that a formal recourse is available in situations like the Bell Pottinger case. He notes that regulation would allow industry bodies to play an oversight role.

“For an industry body like PRISA to be able to enforce its comprehensive code of ethics, there is a need to empower it to investigate formal complaints received around unethical conduct, and enforce suitable remedial action on members,” he writes.

“This does not mean those who are not PRISA members cannot practise the profession,” he adds, “However, the industry body can only formally investigate its members.”

Munslow states that if self-regulation is not sufficient, perhaps empowering an industry-wide governance framework will be to the benefit of all stakeholders, as ethical conduct is the very principle upon which the communication profession is founded.

Ethics education is essential

Forbes says that there is also a need for a body to play an educational role on ethics in South Africa. Corporates need to provide ethics training for staff in order to be internationally aligned, to meet the rigorous ethics standards that many developed markets impose, he explains.

International PR clients from such countries, particularly in Europe, require ethics policies to be in place before engaging the services of South African companies. However, many local agencies in specific industries first need a far better understanding of the impact their messaging can have, he says.

To illustrate, he points to the way alcoholic beverages have to be advertised in such a way that responsible consumption is encouraged, never excess. Or the way financial services should avoid encouraging consumers to borrow heavily and rather foster a savings mentality. If the message can be misconstrued in any way, it should not be used.

A regulatory body is needed, he feels, because of the damage that public relations can do if exercised without ethical principles. It must not be allowed to occur, he concludes.

Want to stay up to date with the latest PR news? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Public relations firms play an important role in protecting a brands image, and choosing the right one is essential. Read more in our article, How the right PR firm can change your image.