Guidelines, Codes and Principles-What’s the Point?

CEO Richard Edelman delivered a speech entitled The Battle Ground is Trust, at the National Press Club on Wednesday October 18, 2017 where, he deplores the people’s loss of trust in industries, institutions and governments. He then calls for a new set of ethics principles for the PR industry.

I find it very remarkable and encouraging that the CEO of the world’s largest PR firm addresses, head on, the issues of ethics in the practice of the profession. He says: “Every company and brand has the responsibility to behave ethically” and that “organization individual guide lines do not safeguard ethical behavior.”

He is right.  No guidelines, codes or principles will ever safeguard against wrongdoing.

We’ve had the Ten Commandments for thousands of years, yet people still break those commandments systematically and universally. Should we abandon them completely?

God forbid!

Many PR firms and most trade organizations have their own codes of conduct or ethical guidelines. Codes and principles are necessary. They serve as a reference and a guide in making the right decision when confronted with ethical issues.

However, codes and principles have very little value if they are not applied.

Enron had 2-inch-thick corporate ethics code and listed in its 2000 Annual Report “integrity, respect and excellence” as its core values! None of this was taken seriously, it was not part of the culture.  The leadership turned a blind eye to employee’s wrong doing. In fact, many were encouraged, if not pressured to bend and sometimes break the rules if the financial goals were met. The culture was one of “do whatever it takes” as opposed to “do the right thing.” We know the rest of the story.

The Bell Pottinger scandal and its ultimate demise could have been avoided if the company had followed the UK-based Public Relations and Communications Association ethics guideline or, for that matter, the PRSA ethics code which states:

“We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

What we need is for more people to apply these codes and principles in their actions. We need PR professionals to “walk the talk” and to demonstrate ethical behavior.

We need an ethics culture in the PR industry. Corporate culture can be defined by its stated values confirmed by its practices.

As Patrick Lencioni, the founder of the Table Group, wrote in his article Making Your Values Mean Something, published by the Harvard Business Review, “Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions.”

It is what a company does, not what it says it does that really matters.  If a company does not stick to its values by the action it takes, then these values are meaningless and the company is being hypocritical.

As the author and Vegan activist, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau once said:

“What’s the point of having beliefs and values
if we don't stand up for the former and live by the latter?”

Emmanuel Tchividjian
The Markus Gabriel Group -Ethics Consulting

The article was published by


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