What impression would it make us eat fish in poor condition in a fishmonger’s house? Well, something similar seems to be happening in the PR industry; at least there are suspicions that some fishmongers are serving fish in poor condition to their customers, whether or not with their consent.
Such is the case of Cambridge Analytica. The company was forced to close down when news broke that it had acquired and misused data from 50 million Facebook users. The scandal forced the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, to make a statement two days after the stock market debacle in which he acknowledged that the company made mistakes, took responsibility and explained the steps to strengthen security and ensure the privacy of users.
The data that Cambridge Analytica handled was obtained by a professor at the University of Cambridge, who accessed status updates, “likes” and even private messages from more than 15% of the US population, which he later sold to Cambridge Analytica.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal had its most notorious antecedent in the bankruptcy of another London-based firm, Bell Pottinger, in September of last year. This agency designed and executed a ‘dirty campaign’ that played on racial animosity in South Africa, including the creation of fake news, to benefit its client Inversiones Oakbay.
As a result of the outrage, Richard Edelman, founder and president of the network of public relations agencies that bears his last name, made a call to the communication industry to adopt a single code of ethics. The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the federation that integrates associations of communicators and academic entities from around the world, responded arranging a summit of the main international associations of professionals and communication companies from which it emerged 16 principles that we deem essential to practice public relations.
The industry as a whole suffers the onslaught of the winds of doubt about the correctness of their behavior. For years we have faced the bad reputation of propaganda; now it is the lie that knocks at our door.
José Antonio Llorente, founder and president of the reputation and public affairs consultancy LLORENTE & CUENCA, recently wrote on LinkedIN: “To date we have looked at the fake news and post-truth, both manifestations of the lie, as if they were something alien to our professional practice (…) We did not want to think that behind those false or falsified news could be ‘one of ours’. ”
In the era of hypertransparency, the PR indutry is also subject to public scrutiny. The new generations are much more sensitive than their predecessors to responsible behaviors and, consequently, punish deviations harshly. They are more selective when it comes to giving their trust to a company or brand. In short, they are more ethical activists.
A solid reputation comes from the commitment to build trust. The 16 ethical principles that the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management recently announced with the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), with the support of different associations, do not specifically mention trust, but clearly that is a basic objective of ethical practice in communication activities.
It is the “raison d’être” of the 16 principles. The first principle we list is, in fact, the most powerful litmus for business. “Working in the public interest” is not just a declaration of intent, it is a fundamental change in the way we should approach our activities in society. What that means in practice is that if a company faces a dilemma between self-interest and the best interests of society, the latter should prevail.
The first step to improve our own reputation is to have and respect solid ethical principles that are clear, firm and adopted by a large majority. The 16 principles meets this requirement and serves as a guide to all of us. The second lever of reputation connects again with the principle of “working for the public interest”. Our profession is committed to the human values that guarantee social coexistence. Recalling the etymological origin of the term, “communication” implies a sense of community. And the third lever is part of the medicine that we prescribe to ourselves: good storytelling. We have to demonstrate the relevance of the function for the sustainable management of all types of organizations. If communication does not create value from values, it is useless.
The example of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft
The US Space Agency (NASA) reported on September 2017 that the Cassini spacecraft had entered in the atmosphere of Saturn, where it ended up disintegrating, as planned.
This put an end to the Cassini-Huygens Mission, which over the last twenty years had collected data as important as the possible habitability of two of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus and Titan. It is precisely this finding that led NASA to make the decision to give way to the ‘Grand Finale’ phase, with the purpose of destroying the ship before its control was lost from Earth and thus avoiding a possible collision with a of the moons that could compromise future investigations. That is, it was not an operational decision that precipitated the end of the ship, which could have continued to wander through the galaxy, but an ethical one.
This is a clear example that the most difficult decisions that organizations have to take, be they companies or institutions, to make ethics a prime directive. And communicators must be there to advise on the consequences that many business decisions have, especially when they can have an impact on society of which they are part, is society itself.