President’s Perspective

13 years, 6 months ago


Philip Sheppard explains why he has chosen Ethics in PR as the theme for his year as IPRA President and picks out a couple of key points from the new Code of Brussels that relate to the good conduct of public affairs.

IPRA for me is quite simply the best networking organisation I know where local advice or political insight on a country is just a phone call or e-mail away. It is also a great way to make friends.

But we network and we make acquaintances in a world where PR is too often these days assumed to be spin, where there is deception when there should be transparency, where there is cynicism when there should be trust, and where lobbyists are associated with bribery rather than a fundamental part of an open democratic process. This is why I have chosen Ethics in PR as the theme for my presidential year.

This is why IPRA, which has relied on its codes of ethics and conduct for 50 years – I refer to the codes of Venice and Athens – is pleased to refresh those ideals in the shape of a new Code of Brussels, specifically relevant to the conduct of public affairs.

Ethics Code

As we launch this new code of ethics it is wise to ask, do we know what ethics is? Are we, the members of IPRA, entitled to codify ethics? And to do so with the arrogance of the editor by putting it all on two pages of A4.

Ethics derives from the Greek ethikos, from ethos meaning custom or character. In short it is a view of life. The ancient Greek philosophers tell us that the Greek view was one of the appreciation of beauty, a respect for reason, freedom of thought, and the absence of mysticism. Indeed Plato talks of sophrosyne – perhaps summarised as "reason should rule." Can we extend this to the communication of reason? And if so do we start to see lessons for PR?

Pythagoras famously classified humanity according to the way people attended the Greek games: the spectators, the competitors and those who buy and sell beneath the stands. By extension these classifications can be generalised into those who seek knowledge (spectators), those who seek honour (competitors) and those who seek gain (the vendors).

To which group do we in PR belong? If we consider the group who seek honour, we return to ethics – think of an honour code in which the greatest punishment is shame – and maybe it informs us why we have our PR codes of ethical practice.

Comforting Ground

Well, that sounds like comforting high ground for sophisticated PR practitioners, doesn’t it? Are we sophisticated? Answer that question with caution because Greek philosophy also brought us the Sophists with their skill at rhetoric or the art of persuading and influencing others.

But the Sophists were also known for their indifference to truth. The Sophists impressed their audiences with their skill at persuasive arguments both for or against a proposition, showing how to make weak arguments stronger. Does that sound familiar? The Sophists are the origin of the word sophistication. So we must use the word carefully to describe ourselves: do we mean refined and elegant, or overly complex and adulterated?

It was Aristotle who started to bring Greek philosophy down to earth in his exploration of an ethical theory. He started from endoxa or common beliefs and defined virtues as the middle path between extremes. Do we in PR sometimes miss the middle way as we resort to hyperbole, or are we better when we are the signposts back to that middle path?

Aristotle also discusses ethics in terms of "a concern for others". In this he also says something about the qualities of friendship. He distinguishes genuine friendship, from two kinds of acquaintanceship. One of these is where the basis of the relationship is pleasure, one where the basis of the relationship is mutual usefulness.

Useful Networking

To me "mutual usefulness" sounds like networking – which brings us back to that key benefit of IPRA membership. And if the ethical basis is, as Aristotle said, a concern for others, it seems a good basis to me.

In the new Code of Brussels we find a core set of undertakings that list some basic do’s and don’ts of good conduct, such as being transparent about who you are and who you represent. But for me there are a couple of articles which I find the most appealing:

• Article 1, Integrity: Act with honesty and integrity at all times so as to secure the confidence of those with whom the practitioner comes into contact.
• Article 3, Dialogue: Establish the moral, psychological and intellectual conditions for dialogue, and recognise the rights of all parties involved to state their case and express their views.

If this code helps us secure the confidence of those to whom we speak, and to help remind us to be as good listeners as we are talkers, then I believe this code will be doing its job.



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The Author

Philip Sheppard

Philip Sheppard is IPRA President for 2007.

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