Compel agencies to certify ethical standards?
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Compel agencies to certify ethical standards?

Arun Sudhaman

Ethical concerns are nothing new in the public relations world, and the mainstream media does not need much of an invitation to examine some of the murkier issues that continue to bedevil the industry's progress. Hence this New York Times piece on the practice of paid media placements in China. You could make the case that this hardly constitutes news; the PR industry’s ethical infractions in China are reasonably well-known, and have been covered in some detail, not least in this column by industry veteran David Wolf. But you could also argue, as Wolf himself did on Twitter, that any pressure to improve ethical standards in the China media should be welcomed. The piece itself does a good job of framing the issue against some of the legal requirements of American companies, including publishers and PR agencies, and implies the obvious question: will an American company face an investigation for participating in dubious practices? Because that, I imagine, would at least compel the type of behavioural change that has been slow to take root among PR firms in China. Paying for media may be less commonplace amongst global agencies, but journalist “expense” payments remain rife, to say nothing of some of the other questionable practices that Wolf outlined in the aforementioned column. Less prominent, with good reason perhaps, are the PR industry’s efforts to improve the situation. The Shanghai PR Declaration is perhaps the most high-profile initiative, and includes most of the country’s major international firms. Like many forms of self-regulation, though, it is well-intentioned but ultimately toothless. Barely a few months has passed since India’s biggest PR firm abruptly vanished, a casualty of a debilitating corruption scandal. Any schadenfreude in that country was tempered by the knowledge that Vaishnavi’s failings were not exactly unique, in a market where ethical issues - including paid media placement - continue to persist. [I should also digress slightly here to mention that Lou Hoffman has an interesting post that looks at how these matters are hardly confined to emerging PR markets.] It is easy for global agency CEOs, safely ensconced in New York, to issue blanket statements that lapses such as these are not tolerated at their companies. It is considerably more difficult to police every act in every country, particularly down at the day-to-day account handling level, where split-second decisions are often made by executives who are inexperienced and under pressure. Leadership is ultimately accountable, and it is worth asking - as Wolf suggested to me - whether some form of regulation (perhaps compelling agencies to audit and certify their practices via an external organisation?) is required to dispel the less palatable perceptions that continue to dog the PR industry’s worldwide growth. What, however, would be the threshold? Because, currently, what is legally permissible offers firms much more leeway than what is ethically correct.
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