From Dirty Politics to Clean PR

Margalit Toledano, PhD, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRiNZ
Senior Lecturer, Dept of Management Communication, The University of Waikato

New Zealand’s PR industry suffered collateral damage in the recent “Dirty Politics” scandals. The leaks exposed behind-the-scene deals between PR practitioners and bloggers that orchestrated smear campaigns on behalf of their political and business clients. According to John Drinnan (The New Zealand Herald Sept 5, 2014), it casts “a cloud” over the practice.

Paying bloggers, in cash or kind, for comments to promote the interests of powerful clients, or to shut out the voices of powerless opponents, is indeed unacceptable practice. Besides misleading public opinion, it puts at risk the democratic values of equality and freedom of expression.

Not disclosing the real identity of the interests behind news items violates the rule of “transparency in all communications” included in all PR codes of ethics. The practice exposed in New Zealand would be recognised as unethical and unprofessional by PR communities all over the world. It was rightly denounced by the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRiNZ).

Members of national PR associations have committed to codes of ethics, the teaching of ethics as part of the PR curriculum has increased worldwide, and scholarly research on PR ethics has also expanded. In reality, in spite of this growth, the profession retains a reputation for being unethical and manipulative. Ethical challenges for the profession have intensified further in the current unedited social media environment.

Ethics2One major challenge is the contradiction embedded in the profession’s DNA: practitioners are committed to truth, transparency, and service to the public interest while at the same time they are paid to be loyal to clients and employers and to advocate on their behalf. To conduct ethical PR, practitioners need to rely on strong personal integrity and a deep understanding of the profession’s responsibility not only to clients but also to society. They need to be empowered by high-level training programmes provided by academic education and professional associations.

They also depend on a supportive environment inspired by ethical political systems and markets. In societies where corruption is accepted as business as usual PR practitioners find it difficult to maintain ethical standards.

New Zealand has been privileged to date by its relatively high transparency and ethical standards. We rank at the top of the Transparency International list and are recognised for socially responsible practices. Research has shown that the New Zealand PR industry, compared to other countries, expects fairer play and a higher level of commitment to ethics..

That’s why it has been so alarming to witness the current government’s dismissal of Dirty Politics as a marginal issue, just a “derailment” from the real issues on the election campaign. On TV3’s The Nation programme (Sat, Sept 6), the Minister Bill English was not able to denounce clearly unethical behaviour and kept repeating “there are bigger issues”. Of similar concern has been PM John Key’s attempt to brush aside the book’s revelations by defending manipulative National Party communication tactics as things that everybody was doing.

Is a discussion on tax cuts really more important than the ethical behaviour of elected officials? Shouldn’t voters be able to make their choice of government based on trust in the elected politicians? Comments by political leaders about ethics in the last month raise a red flag to any citizen who cares about New Zealand’s democracy and who expects ethical conduct from its politicians and professional communicators.

Love it or hate it, PR is here to stay. The profession is growing and more organisations in government, business and the non-profit sector rely on communication managers: They help organisations build understanding and trustworthy relationships with stakeholders; they have significant influence on the public arena; and their ethical behaviour is crucial for securing open, inclusive, and democratic public discussions.

The Dirty Politics scandal might serve as a wake-up call to the involved politicians, the media, and the public relations industry: Don’t take New Zealand democracy and freedoms for granted. Put ethics high on political, public, and professional agendas. Dirty linen and passing clouds aren’t strong enough language for the persistence of corruption in society. Once the rot becomes accepted and sets in, fixing the house and getting citizens to trust politicians and the media can become a Herculean task. The scandals from Dirty Politics should motivate the professions to clean up their conduct and become more proactive in ethical education and behaviour. Hopefully they might also help New Zealanders to choose ethics on election-day.

PRINZ encourages members to write blogs for this page, but notes that individual views do not necessarily reflect the views of all members.   All PRINZ members are bound by the Code of Ethics.

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