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David Gallagher, Omnicom PR Group: A principle is only a principle if it costs something to uphold

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David GallagherOmnicom international president David Gallagher joins our column on PR ethics to address some of the ethical issues in our profession today and what further steps are needed to improve the reputation of the discipline. David is also the chair of PRCA Global Ethics Council those aim is to uphold and elevate ethical standards in the PR industry.

David, what are the main achievements of the Global Ethics Council in the fields of PR ethics and self-regulation?

Well, the Council is quite new – less than a year old, but we have managed to establish a diverse and experienced group of practitioners, academics and some external experts, and in March we published our first Annual Perspective, featuring ‘mini essays’ from Council members and other experts on the issues they believe will be most pressing in their markets or around the world.

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

It’s a little mixed, to be honest. There has been a lot of hard work and sincere intentions to develop workable ethics frameworks, but the impact of these efforts is hard to measure. Many countries have codes of practice agreed by their professional communities in theory, but in practice very few of them have enforcement mechanisms, and awareness of them is low. So much remains to be done.

While ethics is acknowledged to be important in PR practice, the management of ethics within organisations is often limited and poorly communicated. Which workplace initiatives does the PR industry need in order to engage with ethics to a greater extent than in the present?

I am fortunate to work within a business that takes ethics very seriously and devotes time and resources to training at all levels. Other companies have different priorities, but I think we all benefit when the industry is seen as committed to continuous improvement in how it approaches ethical questions.

While deontological ethical frameworks such as codes of conduct have dominated the professional field, survey findings suggest that for many practitioners such codes remain distant or even unknown. Often, practitioners refer to personal ethics rather than professional codes. How would you asses the role of ethical codes for the public relations profession?

Again, codes without enforcement procedures are more like suggestions than rules, and easily ignored. A few countries have taken serious approaches – the UK and Austria, for example – and I hope others will follow suit. Individual practitioners owe it to themselves to be aware of and compliant with their local codes, and those who own or lead agencies or departments do their best, in my experience.

From your perspective, what are the most pressing ethical issues in our profession today?

This is hard to say – there are a lot of potential issues as the ways in which information is transmitted and received continues to change with technology, culture and politics or business. Social media, the use of personal data, addictive technologies – all of these pose ethical risks that grows exponentially as the use of them increases. But there is opportunity, too – I have just written a book with John O’Brien called Truth Be Told: How Authentic Marketing And Communications Wins In The Purposeful Age, that gets at the ways in which ‘doing the right’ thing connects with growth and success.

How can PR professionals be better prepared in terms of ethical behaviour? What might take the PR industry forward in terms of ethical behaviour?

Step one has to be education. Learning and understanding local codes of conduct is a great place to start. Step two is being part of the conversation. We started the Ethics Council not to dictate answers, but to keep asking and exploring the questions around ethics in PR, and hope practitioners everywhere will make ethics a central theme of their meetings and conferences. And step three – be bold in the suggestions you offer. A principle is only a principle if it costs something to uphold.

And finally, one of our Council members, Simon Goldsworthy, co-wrote a great book that gives form to this topic in a practical way, Public Relations Ethics: The Real World Guide. Great place to start!

David Gallagher is President of Growth and Development, International at Omnicom Public Relations Group, and Chairman of the PRCA Fellows, he has also held the roles of CEO at Ketchum London and Ketchum Europe, as well as President of ICCO. He has served as jury president for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Eurobest and other creative services awards competitions, and is currently a member of the World Economic Forum’s global council on the future of behavioural sciences. David is based in London.

Interview by Dana Oancea

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