By Chris O’Neil, president-elect, National Association of Government Communicators
I recently read with great interest, ‘Edelman calls for new set of PR ethics standards post-Bell Pottinger,’ and appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the ethics that have governed my government communication career and the values, ethics and standards of the National Association of Government Communicators.
As the president-elect of NAGC, I applaud Richard Edelman’s call to the public relations industry as reported by PRWeek, to develop “a set of principles that are universal, consistent, and well understood across the industry… to adhere to a single set of strong standards, and to hold all of our people accountable to them.”
As NAGC members and practitioners of government communication we have benefited from the ethical and professional standards espoused by the NAGC code of ethics which has, since the inception of our association, provided us with what the Edelman CEO is calling for – universal and consistent principles.
As NAGC members, “We believe that truth is sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that each citizen has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about the activities, policies and people of the agencies comprising his or her government.”
Our code of ethics prohibits members from knowingly publishing misinformation or disinformation. These tested and proven principles have served the public interest by fostering the accountability and transparency in government our citizens expect and demand. If it has been awhile since you reviewed the NAGC Code of Ethics, it’s prime time for you to do so now. Embracing and adhering to our code of ethics gives you the solid footing you need to take a stand, speak truth to power, and ensure that government communication serves the public interest. It isn’t easy. It’s hard to be the voice of reason when you are the most junior person in the room, but someone must be that voice. Someone has to speak up and say, “This is ill-advised and unethical. I have a better course of action to recommend to you.”
The precipitating moment for Edelman’s call to action appears to be the work conducted by Bell Pottinger, a firm based in London that conducted a misinformation campaign on behalf of an investment firm.
It’s the rare instances like the Bell Pottinger misinformation campaign, that long ago necessitated the distinction between ‘Public Relations,’ ‘Public Information,’ and ‘Public Affairs.’ That subtle but important distinction aligned the work of government communicators with the public interest, with good government and not with personal or political agendas. The distinction highlights communication based upon the need for accountability and transparency in government and communication based upon other principles that are not necessarily founded in the public interest.
The array of communication tools available to practitioners today, and the capabilities of those tools, is staggering. The ease by which mass audiences can be reached and influenced requires great responsibility on the part of those leveraging this technology. That ease of dissemination, coupled with a lack of resolve to deal only in facts and the truth, can facilitate the launch of a misinformation campaign or the spread of propaganda in the U.S. – the very condition the Gillett Amendment (Title 5, United States Code, Section 3107) is designed to prevent. Without clear ethical boundaries, lapses in judgement, such as those evidenced in the Bell Pottinger misinformation campaign, and abuse of the power of digital communication will continue. Clearly, platform owners, such as Twitter and Facebook, have a responsibility for ferreting out such campaigns, but in the end the ultimate responsibility rests with communicators who must have the resolve to speak the truth and the will to not cross ethical boundaries.
Ethical guidelines, ethics training and clear policy are the foundation of a solid government communication program, and I agree with Edelman that they will well serve the public relations industry. However, it is your practice of the profession, and your unwavering adherence to those principles, that ensures the practice of government communication remains founded in truth and the public interest.
Chris O’Neil, President-Elect
National Association of Government Communicators