Why Polish public relations sector needs one unified code of ethics?

In Poland, PR has a negative perception. It may sound like a truism, but are we really aware how bad the situation is? At the beginning of this year, as a part of the background initiative called “PR bez komentarza”, were released studies on how Polish media communicate about public relations. The conclusions of this report were shocking. As it turned out, the media communicate about PR mostly negatively and the commonly used phrase referring to this profession is “black PR” (65% of all mentions). This is a sensation on a global scale. I remember when in October 2017 at the ICCO Congress in Helsinki (the biggest international industry organization bringing together 3,000 PR agencies from 66 countries), during the debate on the final entries of the Declaration of Helsinki, I have mentioned publicly this phenomenon and met with a complete lack of understanding. To the present day, it is not known who was the author of this phrase. Certainly this person who used it for the first time has the lion’s share of our image problems faced today, but the cause of today’s alarming situation is elsewhere.

In Poland, we were learning public relations in the early 90s with the emergence of a free market and the dynamic development of democratic media. Due to the fact we had no traditions, the professional ethos was specified by people who decided to practice this profession. The curse of the PR industry is probably the lowest entry barrier among the businesses. You do not need to have a specialized education, the initial capital or pass any state exam, all you need is a telephone, computer and sincere desire to work. So, when in the West this profession already had over 70 years of tradition and well-developed standards, which are still observed by the vast majority of PR entities, on our Polish background we were dealing with a massive establish of PR agencies. Many of them operated without any moral compass, and often took shortcuts wanting to provide their customers with whatever they asked for.

Another reason for the wrong PR’s perception was the sudden direction of its positioning towards communication. It is too bad that with populist movements developed in the last decade, they have also used to abuse their well-recognized rights and methods of effective communications to achieve quite indecent goals. Soon, it turned out to be a tragic trap, because actions such as disinformation, discrediting, manipulation and propaganda are as much a technique of social communication as education, promotion, intercession or advocacy. And since PR is a communication, then all the aspects of social communication that currently dominated public discourse, i.e. the worst ones, were automatically associated with public relations.

Game over? I believe it is not. Although, the situation undoubtedly requires an extraordinary mobilization of the whole industry and undertaking consistent corrective actions. Let’s start with the simplest thing and once and for all refrain from using the phrase “black PR”, which is a nightmarish oxymoron that undeservedly stigmatizes our industry. PR is white! PR is based solely on good preconditions and serves entities from socio-political-economic space to obtain mutual understanding, and shape beneficial and long-lasting relationships. In the wording of public relations, there is no word such as communication, so there is no need to reduce this field to only one of its useful functions.

The second step is to agree that all of us will implement our professional ambitions in a decent way. That is what we missed in the early ‘90s. It did not succeed then, but it can succeed today. That is why, together with Piotr Czarnowski, in April 2020 we decided to introduce to the industry a universal – in our opinion – proposal of the PR Code. We have proposed eleven basic principles, which, allow to, in our opinion, avoid most of the moral dilemmas that our colleagues face today and will deal with in the future. Together with Piotr, we wanted to encourage all practitioners of the public relations profession to voluntarily declare compliance with the standards we propose. The Association of PR Companies has already responded positively to our appeal. During the last General Assembly on September 20th 2019, the organization has adopted our PR Code as a binding ethical principles for its members. As a next step, we plan to organize an industry event and invite all public relations professionals to jointly sign the PR Integrity Charter, i.e. a voluntary commitment to comply with the provisions of the Code.

What is all this for? We believe that, in the end, decent companies will want to choose for its long-term business partners and employees some decent advisors. Also, we hope deeply that these activities will restore the deserved respect to PR and its ethical professionals.