MIAMI—Public relations professionals need to be guided by their “innate morality” and not “any code of professional ethics,” Lord Peter Chadlington, chief executive of the Huntsworth Group, told attendees at the Global SABRE Awards dinner in Miami. Chadlington was delivering the Grayling Lecture, the first in a series of annual lectures addressing ethical issues in the public relations profession.

“The professional code is really a system for policing behavior,” Chadlington told an audience of 250 industry leaders from more than 30 countries. “Rules tell us what to do in proscribed circumstances. But our PR profession is not possible to proscribe in this manner. It is infinitely varied and global in application. Nobody can produce a PR code which covers every possible PR eventuality.

“It is therefore how we behave instinctively—particularly in a crisis –that will determine how our business is viewed. In those circumstances, it is our innate morality, the kind of people we are, which guides us—and not any code of professional ethics.”

Chadlington said that he had started the lecture series to address the ethical challenges facing the PR industry. And he acknowledged that he had faced ethical challenges himself in the past: “I am at a stage in my professional career—and indeed my life—at which I look back on the years to the many mistakes and sins I have committed. I am supremely conscious of my own shortcomings.”

And to kick off the series, he elected to ask four questions, quoting Claude Levi-Strauss: “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers; he poses the right questions.”

The first question, he said, concerned whether we are honest enough about what we do for a living. In particular, he questioned to oft-repeated argument that everyone is entitled to representation in the court of public opinion, just as in a court of law.

“Lawyers represent cases in courts, which are structured and designed to guarantee fairness and equality of argument,” said Chadlington. “PR people on the other hand, operate in a court of public opinion where no counterbalancing argument is guaranteed or governed by an accepted set of rules. For me, therefore, the argument breaks down.”

He suggested several questions PR professionals need to ask themselves, including whether they sometimes are used as a front to do thing with which clients do not wish to associated themselves, and whether the commercial drive might make then less willing to make their own moral position known?

The second question Chadlington asked was whether we should be regulated and what professional ethics should look like.

“Codes of ethics are all very well, but unless they are supported in spirit and letter by every practitioner they are wasted hot air. And codes of ethics have little influence unless, if found breaking those rules, the practitioner finds it impossible—even illegal—to practice. That is the protection afforded to those who seek help from doctors, lawyers and other profession. And in PR—regretfully—this simply isn’t going to happen.”

He also question whether any code of conduct could cover every eventuality in every part of the world. “What is in the public interest in one part of the world may not be so in others. There cannot be global ethical standards.”

Having said that, he suggested two areas of practice in which more rigorous policing could be applied: financial communications and lobbying. “Such a system should be entirely transparent. Clients must list which PR firm they engage and the PR firm must list its clients. There should be no hiding in the shadows.”

Chadlington’s third question concerned people, and his conviction that “my generation fell into public relations because they were not very good at anything else” but that today the industry is attracting “more and more executives with objective skills.” (Later, in response to questions from the audience, he suggested that “people in this industry under 30 are significantly better than any generation we have ever had…. [and] the women in our industry under 30 are both better respected as professionals than ever before.”)

But he questioned rather the industry was providing those people with the tools they need to make good decisions, citing a major global company with which he works, which genuinely puts people at the center of their business.

“The building of a responsible, moral, uplifting culture is something with which top management grapples every day.

“Fifteen of sixteen hours of interviews is the norm for relatively low level, second job executive candidates in their middle or late 20s. A monthly performance note to file that is shared with your boss’ boss. A quarterly three-hour appraisal. A six monthly 360 degree review. Salary, spot bonuses and annual awards geared to these performance reviews. Training programs to fill the gaps in knowledge and experience as revealed by the performance reviews. And if you don’t get a bonus equivalent to 15 percent of your salary at the end of the first year, you had better look for a job.

“That’s what we should be doing up and down our businesses. I know it’s time consuming. I know it’s expensive. I know it’s intensive management. But how else do you know what is really going on and what kind of people you employ.”

Chadlington also suggested that firms need to consider the values and ethics of their employees in setting policy.

“I worry that my personal view determines too many of the policies in our company,” he said. “Why should my belief that it is morally wrong to promote cigarette smoking determine the future of our relationship with the tobacco industry? The culture of the entire organization should resolve this. That doesn’t require consensus management… it requires meticulous care in the selection, the training and the management of the people we employ.”

And finally, Chadlington asked about the industry’s relationship to the truth. “When should we tell the truth? Always? The full truth? Should we hold back information that questions, undermines or even invalidates our client claim or our client position? More difficult, do we so interrogate our client affairs before we make any significant announcement that we have questioned every aspect to make absolutely 100 percent certain that it is correct in every regard?”

And he made it clear that he saw no inherent conflict between committing to the truth and advocating on behalf of a client’s view.

“Fighting your corner is too often rejected as ‘spin.’ But in my mind, there is nothing unethical and immoral in working hard to get yourself heard and as a result attending being paid to your case. Indeed, in a democratic society, it is our duty to do so.”

And he concluded by stating: “After nearly 50 years in this industry, there are genuinely difficult moral decisions that have to be taken by all business and ours are no different. That moral leadership must come from the top… because that is where the big trade-offs between what is morally right and what is commercially expedient need to be taken. And it is from there that the culture of the whole organization emanates.”

Acknowledging that he had raised numerous questions, and that many issues remained to be addressed, he told the audience that he wants the Grayling Lecture series to take one of those moral or ethical issues each year and “forensically examine it in depth and propose practical steps we can all take to live better, fuller and yet commercially successful lives. Every year another issue. Every year another answer. Every year another step forward.”