Categories: Media issues / Political spin / PR issues

5 December 2012

6 comments

Open letter to CIPR on implications of Leveson’s report

Following my piece ‘PRs shouldn’t rush to welcome Leveson‘, Phil Morgan, Director of Policy and Communications at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), kindly responded. His comment and my reply were too detailed to leave in my comments. So here’s a post that starts with his remarks and ends with my response in the form of an open letter to CIPR that explores some more the challenges Leveson’s report poses for PR professionals in the UK. 

Phil Morgan’s comment

Thanks for your comments – an interesting blog and good to see your views.

When we said “This acknowledgement of the expertise and support provided by public relations professionals underlines the need for them to be accountable to a code of conduct as well” we were refering to our own code of conduct, which requires professionals to deal honestly with the public. We’re not talking about any other codes but the ones that are available to hold professionals in public relations to account.

The recommendation in the report was specifically when policy or organisational matters are being discussed, not, as you point out, for on the spot, crime scene press handling. This would appear to support the idea put forward later that police officers and staff should communicate within their area of competence, responsibly and where there is a policing reason for doing so.

I think you may be over-reading our comment about the professional accountability of those working in public relations into Leveson’s comments about ‘off-the-record’. It seems to me that his call for a change in terminology is to reduce confusion about the relationships through which information is conveyed to the press. It wasn’t our intention to endorse this and our position is at best neutral. Simple steps that increase transparency, particularly in sensitive areas of media relations, should be welcomed.

It will come as no surprise that I disagree with your assessment of PR as a trade – which, if it remains so, is certainly moving towards professionalisation. Accountability to a code of conduct is currently as close to a licence to operate as public relations has got, but it is available and it would at least underline expected standards of professional conduct if more people operating in this area were accountable.

More generally, whether it’s statutory or non-statutory, the resulting regulatory structure is unlikely to account for the rise in digital communication or the fragmentation of media that is rapidly taking place. The business model that supports journalism is struggling to put it mildly and it seems to me unlikely that the newspaper industry in 10 years time will resemble the one we have at the moment.

An open letter to CIPR

Dear Phil Morgan,

Thank you for responding on behalf of CIPR to my blog ‘PRs shouldn’t rush to welcome Leveson‘. You raise some interesting and considered points, and in that spirit, here are seven points, followed by a plea, that I hope you’ll take onboard.

1. Losing control

When it comes to codes of conduct, Leveson would make PR professionals responsible for obeying “his” code, or more precisely the one regulating the media; backed by statutory control, as he strongly recommends, or the more voluntary one – which would still somehow be legally binding - as David Cameron prefers.

That effectively takes things out of CIPR’s and the PR trade’s control. That has profound implications for PR professionals. Surely, that’s not what any of us has ever desired? At the very least it should make us wary of making any immediate response to Leveson’s report beyond “we’ll get back to you on that”?

2. Orwellian implications?

I was pleased to hear that CIPR is neutral about replacing “off the record” with “non-reportable briefing”. However…

I urge you to consider critically the implications of Leveson’s proposal to define the use of acceptable language and opinion and practice. For example: another way of reporting an “off the record briefing” is “inside sources inform me” etc. Don’t you see – as I do – something ever so slightly Orwellian about society policing by statute (or by any other means backed by penalties for disobedience) the use in print and on air of such phrases and nuances?

3. Problems with PR policing the police

Regarding the presence of press officers being made mandatory when “policy or organisational matters are being discussed” by the police, I would suggest that it is far from easy, perhaps even impossible in practice, to meaningfully separate “operational” matters (call it real-time policing) from things defined as “organisational”. Hence, I fear (see 4) that if this recommendation became an obligation enshrined in statute or any form of legally binding code of practice it would create a clammed-up bureaucratic culture that harms good policing and damages their public relations.

4. Is transparency the new opaque that undermines trust?

The issue of policing police media relations is part of a wider concern I have about how Leveson understands the issue of transparency and the public interest. He proposes that all meetings between the media and public officials (particularly police and politicians) should be monitored. However this smacks of the same mentality that led Tony Blair to introduce the Freedom of Information Act, which he later called a dangerous act and cited as one of the biggest mistakes of his period in power. That was because it had the opposite effect to the one he intended: it drove decision-making underground (or on to his sofa) and undermined trust between officials who were fearful of their critical and often conflicted thinking, not to mention their private candidness, ever becoming public. In turn, that didn’t help encourage the public to trust what politicians said and did at any level.

In my opinion: there has to be a flexible balance between recommended procedures and best practice and commonsense. That is something that hard and fast rules enforced by draconian penalties does not allow for.

5. Limits to PR codes of conduct

CIPR might want to sign up for a code which is strongly Leveson-compliant, and even enshrine that code in its constitution. That may be fine and suit CIPR. But much PR would go on around that, and as a trade. It may be also that PR firms could make some of their contracts “Leveson-complaint/Professional” and others more “Dark Arts/Trade”, or at least keep them free of restrictive codes: say abroad or outside of the public sector in the UK. Some PR pros might sign up to CIPR’s codes as a cover for their intention to continue indulging the dark arts - until you expel them and thus they lose their CIPR (Leveson-approved) kite-mark.

The real dilemma is, however, that because PR is a trade, you cannot stop PRs from being PRs because they break a particular code; whereas, by contrast, doctors and lawyers can be struck off and legally prevented from practicing their profession. A profession is a compulsory body or it is nothing.

6. Principles and the fundamentals of PR and journalism

There’s an important issue of principle here, too. PR facilitates debate and conversation in democratic countries, as does journalism. It is my contention that both arts should be left open for anybody with an interest, the ability and/or a cause to advocate, to practice without interference from the state and or any (except the barest minimum) legally binding codes specifically governing such activities. That is people (including PRs) should be free to hold public discussions and free to express their opinions in print or elsewhere in public.

My point here should not be mistaken: ethics and morals matter a great deal. Though I have to add a reality check to avoid misunderstanding. When push comes to shove people should be free to do PR or journalism with no more constraint than attaches to the ordinary citizen. Blogger, PR, writer journo: all equal before the law, and as accountable for harassment and libel.

Put another way, it worries me that people who support Leveson’s report seemingly propose (celebrate even) making people who live in the UK less free than people in America.

7. Relevance of Leveson in the globalised digital age

We, as your comment insightfully confirms, agree about how the current changes in the world of modern communication – ones PR pros grasp better than most – will make most of Leveson’s report redundant and unenforcible in the medium term. It is not difficult, then, to imagine how Leveson’s proposals risk making an ass of regulation and/or the law; but also of us if we do not speak out about the dangers ahead. That for me makes a compelling justification – in the interest of honest debate – for us to push back today on any attempts to lumber our trade – not to mention mainstream media and society – with an overly-proscriptive set of rules of engagement.

Therefore, I would hope my seven points reinforce my contention that we should think this stuff through properly before we rush to support Leveson’s proposals. Hence in conclusion I’d like to add a request: I kindly urge CIPR to do more to encourage a wider debate within our ranks about the implications of Leveson’s recommendations for our great trade.

In that spirit, I hope that this exchange of views receives a positive response.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Seaman,

Editor,  21st Century PR Issues

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6 Responses to “Open letter to CIPR on implications of Leveson’s report”

  1. Paul – I support your trade vs profession considerations and wish that CIPR and others in the occupation (as I prefer to call it) could get beyond the urge for ‘professional’ recognition/status etc. Codes, and indeed, laws, do not make people act ethically. As you indicate with FoIA for example, they often create the barrier which people seek to hide behind or obfuscate under.

    I also despair of the tendency to separate the sheep and goats in terms of presenting ‘bad’ PR practitioners as anyone but not those in our gang (body). I know you won’t object to a link to my thoughts on this at PR Conversations: http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2012/12/fifty-shades-of-pr/

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Thanks, Heather.

    I do hope that CIPR engages and encourages a wide range of voices to contribute to this discussion; otherwise I fear we PR pros will be passive victims of other people’s problems (the media/politicians) and agendas (numerous).

    BTW: I read your insightful PRC post and recommend it to others.

  3. Phil Morgan says:

    Heather,
    I think the point of any code is at least two fold – On one hand to inform the member of the standards of professional conduct required for membership, and equally on the other to provide a public point of reference for what is generally acceptable behaviour. To be useful beyond that it needs to be backed up by a process for enforcement which is available to anyone to raise a complaint through, which ours certainly is. You’re right, it doesn’t make people act ethically and in that we are no different from any other group, but it does make it a requirement. Without the code, you would lose the reference point on professional conduct and you would forego any accountability, with the latter being your point of separation.

    Paul
    We certainly will be encouraging others to engage in this debate. Your points here are all good material for discussion.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Phil,

    I’ve no objections in principle to CIPR’s code because it is a membership-related code, which the membership is free to define as it sees fit. My problem comes when that code pretends to encompass/define what our trade should stand for (not to mention its core standards) full stop. Your enforcement of CIPR’s code stops at the difference between membership and non-membership – call it a weak equivalent of the ancient Greek practice of exile, because it expels one from CIPR: not PR (the community as a whole).

    I wish you well in your effort to engage more voices in discussing the implications of the Leveson report; a subject about which I feel we have only begun to scratch the surface. Moreover, I would like you to know that I’m more than willing to support your wider consultation efforts to solicit more contributions to this contentious debate, if you feel it would be helpful.

    Moreover, I have to say I welcome your open and direct responses so far.

  5. Phil Morgan says:

    Paul,
    Indeed. We only claim that our code makes our members accountable – however, the public, clients and employers at least have a process to hold CIPR members to account if the occasion should arise. If professional standards are important to them, they should work with a firm or a professional who can be held to account.

    We must of course be mindful of what is played out in the media without seeing the full evidence before making a judgement on anyone’s professional standards, but CIPR members and the CIPR itself should be able to use the code as a reference point to comment on ethical conduct in the wider community.

    I would be delighted to have a face to face conversation on this subject and others if the opportunity arises. Happily for me, I’m taking an extended Christmas break to get married and visit family in New Zealand. If we can pick this up in the new year I would welcome the opportunity to meet. Perhaps you could drop me an email?
    Best wishes,

  6. Paul Seaman says:

    Phil: good luck with the marriage and trip. Let’s speak in the New Year!

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