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German Experience with PR Codes and their Enforcement. An interview with Prof. Dr. Lars Rademacher, Chairman of the German PR Council

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rademacher print neuAll communication is vulnerable to dishonesty, said once Horst Avenarius, a notorious German practitioner. To support the voluntary self-regulation of the communicators’ work and to avoid all kind of state interferences, two institutions were created in the early post war Germany: the Press and the Advertising Councils. The German PR Council deviated from this pattern. It was founded in 1987 and was established to tackle ethical problems of the German PR guild. The very first public rebuke the Council had to pronounce was addressed to the head of the supervisory board of a large German company. He had personally paid a large amount of money to a journalist for his interview with the magazine DER SPIEGEL in 1995. Since then the German PR Council has been monitoring the compliance with PR moral standards. I spoke with Prof. Dr. Lars Rademacher, the Chairman of the German PR Council (DRPR), about the German PR codes and their enforcement.

Prof. Dr. Lars Rademacher, please tell us a bit more about the role of the German PR Council. What are its main achievements so far in the field of self-regulation?

The German PR Council was founded more than 30 years ago by PR practitioners who were convinced that the profession needs ethical guidelines and that it has to develop its own moral standards. This is still our main target: to develop and enhance an independent ethos in the field of organizational communication and public relations.

In the earlier years we have been turning to the international codes like the Code of Athens (1965) and the Code of Lisbon (1978). Today, we are predominantly using our own German Communication Code (2012) https://drpr-online.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/German_Communication_Code.pdf that is supplemented by a number of guidelines e.g. for digital PR or political communication.

By taking up around 20 to 30 cases per year we give orientation to the field of public relations in Germany, we remind practitioners about the existence of rules and standards for good communication and publicly reprimand practices of misconduct.

If you take a look back at the development of German PR ethics, what kind of picture shows up to now?

Looking at the overall development the picture shows that we have two or three permanent issues like camouflaged advertising, lacking transparency or an increasing power delta between media and corporations who try to influence media coverage by the threat to reduce spendings in advertising.

But we also see a whole new horizon of questions that center around digitalization like the role of influencers and labeling advertising – not to mention issues like micro targeting and AI. We believe that this is a fast-growing sector of misconduct that will demand a lot of the Council’s attention in the upcoming years.

Is the field of public relations any more ethical because we have codes of ethics than it would be if we just forgot about them? How would you asses the role of ethical codes for the public relations profession?

It is hard to guess if public relations would be more or less moral without an institution like the German PR Council or ethical codes. But of course, we can say that these institutions offer standards to evaluate actual business behavior. It is an institutionalized way to develop and publish norms – and reprimand wrongdoing. In the last few years I have witnessed quite a number of corporations who took a warning, a disapproval or a reprimand of our Council quite seriously.

Codes of ethics for public relations have been viewed by their critics as nothing than an attempt to professionalize an unprofessional occupation. How would you comment this kind of approach?

This is a harsh and sceptic point of view. I do not agree to this world view because it implies that there is no way of communicating in a correct and moral way. My recently deceased colleague Klaus Merten has always argued that the PR Council is making PR for PR as a profession. And this is of course true in the sense that the sheer existence of a self-regulation body like the German PR Council legitimizes PR and its role in society. But the role of Council goes beyond that in my view: we offer and constantly refine a system of norms and regulations that can actually make a difference to decision-making in the profession.

As far as I know, DRPR has the right to warn companies and PR agencies in case of misconduct. How powerful is this tool?

That depends on the reputation and status of an organization – and on the respective case. If you look at two more recent cases – Bayer/Monsanto and Volkswagen – you can say that already the public announcement that the PR Council would start its procedures and a hearing has stirred up a lot of interest not only from the community but also from the corporations. In our workflow that you can see here (https://drpr-online.de/en/drpr-2/vorstellung/arbeitsweise ) it is also a stage of our hearing to ask the accused for official statements. Volkswagen’s head of communication for example wrote an extensive statement to avoid a reprimand. He explained to the Council how an invitation to journalists could contain a passage where they were asked to comply with a procedure to ask for approval of their coverage regarding the new e-cars before publication. He explained it as a major mistake that the invitation was copy-pasted from an invitation letter to their own retailers. And he promised to introduce quality-checks to prevent this from ever happening again. In the end, this particular case ended with an acquittal.

How can PR professionals be better prepared in terms of ethical behaviour?

The answer is always: education. We need to address PR professionals in an early stage in their career. Therefore, we are setting up a service for universities and other education partners who are interested in learning more about the German PR Council, its goals and procedures.

Dr. Lars Rademacher is Professor and Program Director of the BSc in 'Online Communication' at Hochschule Darmstadt – University of Applied Sciences. Rademacher has conducted research and published on topics in public relations, organizational communication, and strategy and strategic communication. Rademacher is the Chairman of German PR Council (Deutscher Rat für Public Relations).


Interview by Dana Oancea

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