The Great Hack – and the PR ethics debate rumbles on

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After watching The Great Hack at the weekend I shared some of my thoughts on my Instagram page which prompted some comments and email exchanges with a previous colleague/boss Mark Cox. He was kind enough to add his thoughts to my own so here are our thoughts on a conversation that probably needs to be had, in real life – anyone up for a coffee/wine to chat this one through?

If you haven’t watched it yet I highly recommend it. I’m grateful that as a Council member for CIPR, I was able to hear about Cambridge Analytica back in 2016. As someone who has followed insight from the AI in PR panel and subsequent data usage, I feel well informed about data use today.

What has made me stop and think, is the fact that no PR agency (specialising in crisis) would help them – and they approached a number of them.

Many people applaud this saying it’s good that no one helped due to ethical conflict.

What was done, and what continues is marketing. Using insight to target messaging is what marketeers do all the time, and as Mark pointed out, it is what communicators need to do more of, if they aren’t already. What is different here, and where comms plays a role, is that it is being done to change the leadership of a country, and that has huge implications around democracy and more – neither Mark or I support the work and the use of data without consent, but I’m intrigued into whether or not PR agencies should have helped.

For me it feels that a reason not to help is because portraying what was done in a positive light, when you don’t agree with it, wouldn’t sit well with the ethics/morals of the agency. And I can understand that completely. As Mark says, the Stephen Covey quote “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.” But that is not the job of the PR agency. They needed someone with expertise in managing reputations both inside and outside the organisation. That doesn’t mean they have to ‘spin’ anything and it doesn’t mean you have to paint it in a positive light. But listening to the initial statement made by Cambridge Analytica, it’s easy to see how some professional advice would have helped. And as Mark commented “is it the role of PR to act as an organisation’s ethical guardian?”

By refusing the help, there has been an implication that what we do is spin, and what we do is linked to publicists/publicity and for many PR agencies that isn’t the case. We don’t know why agencies declined to help – would the agencies have taken on the brief if they could have acted in the background and taken that advisory role? Some PR agencies will specialise in certain industries and some will specialise in the areas of public affairs, internal communication etc. For me, I help organisations be less chaotic through better communication – with any stakeholder. I don’t ‘spin’ anything and I don’t create content to distract from an issue. I help leaders with genuine communication challenges, and we work through what’s happened, why and how we will manage it. I’m not an expert in crisis communication, but if I was, I’d like to think I would have been able to help advise them how to manage the situation. After all, if we are professionals and we believe what we do is a skill then we should use it to help others.

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