Confession: my name is Steve, I am 38-years-old and, and … I am a public relations professional.

Sixteen years ago I thought I was doing a filthy job. I was a journalist: knocking on the doors of just-bereaved parents, phoning ministers of religion for comments on the sin stories I was about to break, stitching up civic dignitaries by quoting them well out of context.

In the past few weeks, given what has happened with U.K. newspaper The Independent’s sting on PR agency Bell Pottinger, I could be forgiven for thinking my hands are dirtier now than they were back then. PR professionals have long faced questions about the moralistic implications of what they do, but rather than the mysteries of the “dark arts,” observers’ thoughts have been drawn to misconceptions of illicit foulness dripping from our greedy hands.

All of which is, in my experience, untrue. In fact there’s a very British word for it: bollocks.

Sure, some PR professionals have always been willing to take on lucrative contracts from dubious sources. None of us are utterly holy, or at least if any of us are I haven’t met them yet. We have all, if we’re honest (and we should be) told untruths — or been extremely liberal with the truth — to protect the interests of clients.

But Pottingergate has ruffled the feathers of many agency top brass and senior managers. The reason is this: we had enough on our plates with the fact that if PR agencies do not fundamentally modernize the basis of their commercial success, they will die. Now we have another challenge: not only must we modernize, we must also sanitize.

Where Should the Line Be Drawn on Ethics?

A lot of senior, well-paid people in public relations have tried to wear the ethical badge in recent years. Without ethics, we are unable to continue to operate in a transparent age when clients require a responsible approach to communication, they say. They’re right, but ethics is a relative term, certainly in the public relations field. The industry organizations have rightly stood up and been counted on this, but PR professionals must figure out themselves where the line must be drawn on what is ethical and what isn’t. Whereas the British media at the moment faces the threat of imposed legislation to govern its conduct, the PR industry  must develop a form of self-regulation.

My bet is that the answer will be driven by market forces rather than a consensus view on ethics.

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