GRI the answer for policing codes of conduct?

This is number 4 of an 8 part series of observations following a study of  ethical, moral and codified guidance provided by a variety of respected Public Relations Associations from the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

“Accountability is a valuable asset both to Members and to those who hire or employ them” proclaims the CIPR in its code of conduct (p. 2). However, the reality may be that it is completely impossible for associations to consistently enforce these articles.

The PRSA and IABC[1] both believe this – and in their codes clearly state that they are not enforcement associations, but rather educational organizations promoting affirmative actions (Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, 2000). The PRSA even publishes a document (James E. Lukaszewski, 2010) why it doesn’t penalize members on its Web site, and admonishes members for being apathetic or for seeking legal remedies to protect against sanctions[2]. The International PR Association is also equally clear in that it “is not a police force.” (IPRA, 2011)

Even oganisations such as the CIPR which publish extensive procedures to ensure a complaint is managed transparently and  provide much credibility to its Code, state that most are handled through conciliation rather than punishment [3].

Further, if there is a legal case then at least one major association will postpone reviewing the matter till after the judgment has been made[4]. This respects fully the competence of the court, and the limitations of the association to pursue the matter themselves – both in terms of their capabilities and resources, as well as their mandate and legal ability to enforce restitution.

The CIPR appears to be the explicit exception[5] and clearly states its position in its Code of Conduct and disciplinary procedures. It is not clear from the other Associations how they would handle such a situation, and they do not prominently place, or publish the procedures for managing a complaint on their Web sites (Global Alliance), (ICCO), (IABC), (IPRA).

In matters which are not legally protected, the Associations appear to have very limited powers, with the option to expel or publicly admonish offenders as being the most extreme threat[6].

Two, the PRSA[7] and Global Alliance (Code of Ethics), ask Members to share their experiences in order to support the education of others.

Only the CIPR[8] and the Middle East PR Association [9]have set out a stall that states they would go further. CIPR has the option of ordering a full or partial refund of fees from a consultant; and MEPRA has fined a member agency and enforced ethical training for its staff as well as other penalties which can all be read on the society’s Web site.

Associations have found their binding Codes of Conduct are impractical to enforce

It is observed that some of the most robust articles or principles are related to confidentiality and integrity – many of which are ruled under national or contractual law. Therefore, if there is a breach, then the associations may not be able to pursue until natural justice has had its chance.

Out of the four ‘common principles’ (referenced in an earlier post) this would mean only two remain in the direct purview of the Association to administer – those of Competence and Transparency – and articles of transparency have some not insignificant risk of legal actions in case of a breach in their own right.

This begs the question – if the articles that may be enforced are in the jurisdiction of the courts, and those articles that are not in the jurisdiction of the courts, may not be easily enforced, what extra value does a Code of Conduct offer to members, employers and the industry as a whole?

Consider this from the IPR:

Most codes of ethics provide no enforcement monitoring or recourse for their infringement, leaving them impotent other than the occasional revocation of association membership. These problems with codes of ethics are not new and they are not limited to the field of public relations. Some scholars (Kruckeberg, 2000) of public relations argue that if practitioners are ethical then no enforcement is needed for the codes of ethics. Other scholars (Bowen, 2004a; Parkinson, 2001) go further, arguing that a simple ethics statement is all that is necessary because good intention is a more stringent guideline than a code of ethics. This debate mirrors the rationale of Plato, as quoted in Parsons (2004): “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws” (p. 67).

So what’s the answer? The global community as a whole would like there to be some accountability and transparency in content creation that is clear from the recently announced GRI Media Sector Supplement. It is also part of various regulatory policy discussions in the UK and the US – for lobbying and social media use.

If self-regulation is to be continued, the PR industry as a whole needs to come together and begin acting seriously. Promoting the GRI’s efforts and developing it to become more relevant and appropriate is one direction – government/society intervention may be the other.

Fighting the flow and maintaining status quo might work in the short-term but other factors, such as damage to the reputation of the practice, competition for PR from other internal departments and non-PR companies, mean its a battle PR practitioners potentially afford to win.


[1] IABC fosters compliance with its Code by engaging in global communication campaigns rather than through negative sanctions.’ (Code of Ethics)

[2] ‘…during 50 years of trying, those good intentions were frustrated, due to a lack of cooperation; enormous legal and investigative expenses; significant investments of time, money and resources for investigating alleged violations; and a slow but steadily growing realization that the meager results of the effort in relation to the time and resources required, failed to provide a valuable return on investment for PRSA, its members or the broader profession.’

[3] ‘We resolve most complaints through informal negotiation (conciliation)’ (p. 2)

[4] ‘Matters that are currently the subject of a legal action will not be covered by the Committee.’ (Public Relations Consultants Association – PRCA), 2011, p. 6)

[5] Legal action, in other words does not of itself cancel the CIPR Complaints Procedure (p. 7)

[6] ‘Such sanctions may extend to suspension or termination of membership coupled with a published censure’ (Public Relations Consultants Association – PRCA), 2011, p. 6). ‘…may have their membership terminated by the IABC executive board..’ (Code of Ethics)

[7] Information on ethical lapses is invaluable for education and learning purposes. We encourage those who witness questionable ethical practices or behavior in public relations to anonymously provide ethics case study material to the PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards. (PR Society of America)

[8] ‘{the committee} may require the Member to return any fees you paid for that work.’ (p. 2)

[9] The Middle East Public Relations Association has placed the registered agency d’pr on a 12 month probationary period (until 16. 12.11) and imposed a fine of AED 15,000 for breaching the registered agency code of practice, specifically clause 2.2.

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About stephenking2012

In 2012 I volunteered to hold the position of Chair - Standards & Ethics Committee for the Middle East PR Association (@MEPRA_org). I have set up this account to assist in this effort. You may also like to follow my Blog or connect with me on LinkedIn. In any case, please do visit www.mepra.org, and if you are not yet a member, please do sign up!
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