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Finding the courage to unmask the clowns

It’s Halloween, so there will be a few spectres on the prowl tonight. As for us, practitioners charged with building and sustaining the relationships our organisations need to maintain their licence to operate, I wonder if we are looking hard enough, beyond the shadows of current behaviour, into the future of ethical behaviour in public relations practice.

Globally, it’s fair to say that it’s been a year of muddy operational waters, increasingly polluted by the language of fear drip fed around the world and punctuated by a variety of scary international clowns. Kindness, tolerance and basic humanity are - seemingly - in short supply. The old adage of ‘love thy neighbour’ appears to have been replaced by ‘stir up and package as much hate and intolerance as you can’.

While #EthicsFest has provided insights into approaches and practice and it is helpful for everyone to see how ethical codes can be applied as ‘living documents’, I wonder how equipped we are to tackle the ethical challenges ahead - data collection (manipulation and misuse), artificial intelligence and the rule of algorithm, cyber conflicts and the management of human-robotic relations to name but a few.

Such challenges may seem absurdly removed from our current reality - ghosts from futures yet to come - but even five years ago, today’s ethical challenges concerning social media, online engagement and abuse of technology were yesterday’s scary clowns.

Internationally, ethical codes and guides are being revisited. The Global Alliance is currently reviewing its protocols, Finland has recently launched a Council of Ethics for Communication and other countries around the world are involved in their own discussions. The commonality for every code or protocol is our behaviour, with - to echo Finland’s approach - honesty, respect and reliability at the heart of the recommendations.

Yet I wonder if that’s enough. We can behave well, we can operate with good intentions but if we are not completely in the picture, if we don’t have all the information, if we fail to properly assess the operational environment we both inhabit and are moving towards we will be working in isolation, unable to encourage the development of good organisational behaviour or advocate on behalf of our internal and external communities.

Ethical practice demands that we hone our skills, develop our knowledge and abilities. It also demands that we should ask the hard questions, challenge the organisations we work for and apply our minds to developing organisational behaviours that work towards societal good.

Truly ethical practice demands courage. The courage to question and challenge, investigate and explore. It is perhaps the most important virtue a practitioner can possess as it equips us with the ability to stand up for what is right and be consistent in our application of values such as honesty, respect and reliability. As we review our codes, courage should be the stitching that holds them together and, sufficiently equipped, we can unmask the clowns and disperse the shadows.

By Catherine Arrow.

Catherine Arrow is an international public relations consultant, educator and writer. Immediate Past Secretary of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Catherine is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a Founding Chartered Public Relations Practitioner and a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ).

For many years she has been deeply involved in professional development design and provision, sharing knowledge and skills with fellow practitioners across all competencies, including digital engagement, issues and crisis management, research, measurement and evaluation. She was instrumental in establishing regional public relations training provision in the UK and also designed, developed and introduced the PRINZ RIVER Continuing Professional Development programme in NZ. Catherine is currently involved in the review of the Global Alliance Ethics Protocol and social media guidelines for New Zealand practitioners.

Alongside her own consultancy, Unlocked PR, she lectures and speaks about public relations in New Zealand and around the world. Her career has spanned both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and in 2012, she was presented with the PRINZ President’s Award for exemplary contribution to the profession.


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