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German Experiences with Codes and their Enforcement

Compared with the various systems of self-control for public relations practitioners published so far in this JOURNAL (v. Vol. 8, No 1 / 2003), the German concepts and regulations differ in some respect. The paper first describes the structure, the tasks and the procedures of the German Council on Public Re­lations. It outlines some peculiarities: This council censures not only mem­bers of the suppor­ting asso­ciations but non-members and non-PR-professionals as well. It acts public­ly. It pronounces and pub­lishes verdicts and rebukes, and publishes dissenting opinions to the judge­ments of its majority, too.
Second, the paper deals with the problem how codes and guide­lines are con­ceived. It explains the differen­ces which German practitioners discern between moral and quality provisions and that they therefore have mental reservations with some proposals of the newly formulated “Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations”. In this context the paper outlines the moral principles which guide the Council’s legislative endeavours.
Third, the paper reports about various reactions of those who were rebuked and it analyses the echos of its decisions in the press. It gives a short evaluation of the Council’s influence on the practice of PR in Germany and discusses the question of the Council’s legitimacy. The German experiences with the enforcement of codes are summarized as an ongoing process of self assurance of the PR guild and its public esteem.

German Experiences with Codes and their Enforcement

1. Development and responsibilities of voluntary self-regulations in Germany

All communication is vulnerable to dishonesty. Should the legislator intervene in such cases? To avoid all kind of state interferences, two in­stitutions were created in the early post war Germany to support the volun­tary self-regu­­lation of the communica­tors’ work: the Press and the Advertising Councils. The Pub­lic Rela­tions Council deviated from this pattern. It was only founded in 1987 as the last of the three larger institu­tions, and it was established because of the notoriously bad reputation of the PR guild. However, today, even the Press Council claims the protection of the reputation of the press as an important reason for its existence.

German councils monitor compliance with moral standards. They are supported by professional asso­­cia­­tions and, de­pending on their respective composition, this results in some peculiarities:

* The Press Council is supported by associations representing print jour­­nalists and publishers. There­fore, it may only deal with complaints about the print media and not about tele­vision. The topics the councils of German television companies deal with are only vaguely related with moral self-regula­tions. “In Ger­many, the main problem is that ethical self-regulations on TV and on the Internet hardly exist,” wrote the German Press Council in its yearbook 2001 (Deutscher Presserat 2001:26).
* The Advertising Council (Deutscher Werberat) is supported by 41 economy associations repre­sen­ting adverti­sing agen­cies, advertising companies, advertising professions, and advertising research. There­­­fore, it may only deal with commercial, but not with political advertising and campaigning.
* The German Council for Public Relations (DRPR) doesn’t have such structural restrictions. It is pro­­moted by three associations: the German Society for Public Relations (DPRG) -  the profes­sio­nal association of PR experts - , the Federal Association of Press Officers (BdP), and the Society of Public Relations Agencies (GPRA), a trade asso­­ciation. These three associa­tions deal with all sorts of PR in all types of organizations. Therefore the PR Council can address all persons and organi­za­tions exer­ting influence on the public.

Consequently the PR Council monitors companies, unions, foundations, non-go­vern­mental organiza­tions, poli­tical parties, the government and its authorities, also the press itself – as far as it does its own PR work. Some of these organizations employ their own PR experts; in others the manage­ment does every PR itself. They would be summoned before the Council no matter how professional they may be. The very first public rebuke the Council had to pronounce was addressed to the head of the supervisory board of a large German company. He had per­sonally paid a large amount of money to a jour­nalist for his interview with the magazine DER SPIEGEL in 1995.

The Council also deals with all forms of PR activity, even if their practitioners are organized in specific pro­fessional associations: press contacts and Public Affairs, lobbying and advertising assignments, crisis PR and PR campaigning, product placement and sponsoring. The Council also evaluates a defendant’s omissions, his conceal­ments and the con­sequences resulting from non-communication.

It may be added that the Council, as a matter of principle, evaluates only the behaviour of organi­za­tions and not the actions of individual persons inside an accused organization. The above mentioned case of the head of the supervisory board was exceptional because he acted not on behalf of his com­pany. It cannot be the task of the Council to iden­tify in­di­vidual respon­si­bi­­lities within a group. It has no legal power to detect either the possibilities of autono­mous be­haviour or the obligation to follow strict orders. Therefore it cannot be de­tected neither if such an action was done by a member of the DPRG or not.

The fact that accused parties do not have to be members of one of the promoting organizations to be brought before the Council has sometimes led to protests from those concerned. Would they be calmed down with a reference to principle no. 3 of the Council's statutes which says: "The PR Council will also deal with criticized PR events which were provoked or initiated by non-members of the pro­mo­ting organizations and non-ex­perts"?

This statuary statement is owed to the value system in our society: Anyone who expresses himself in public – or neglects to do so despite a moral obligation – subjects himself to universally accepted moral rules. Their implementation has been consistently promoted over several decades by self-regulatory bodies of the pro­fessional organizations responsible for communication activities. The responsibility of these councils can therefore be regarded as socially accepted.

2. Transparency of Council procedures

By acting on behalf of a global public relations responsi­bility towards publics the PR Coun­cil rises very high expectations. They can only be realized if the Council acts openly; if it allows publics to follow its proceedings and its reflections. Consequently, transparency characterizes the work of the Council itself.

“As a basic principle, the PR Council acts pub­licly, as objectionable PR behaviour also takes place vis-a -vis the public. Its judgements are normally pub­lished,” so it says succinctly in principle no. 7 of its statutes. In the case of incidents which are already publicly discussed, the charges are therefore pub­lished and the names of the accused quoted. If the final verdicts are not adopted unanimously but found with deviating votes, such “dissen­ting opinions” are published at length, too.

The PR Council even goes some steps further. It is transparent also as far as the investigations are con­cerned which precede its verdicts (see the corres­ponding section “Spruch­praxis” on www.drpr-online.de). Thus the Council once published its oral investigations and reported in detail about the arguments put forward by the representative of a company accused of a media boycott. Journalists who later did some research about a similar case, could consequently get informed about a com­parable boycott on the Council’s website.

In addition to these forms of transparency, new demands were recently pronounced. In March 2004 an “Association for the Promotion of self-control e. V.“ was founded by well-known German communi­ca­tion scholars. Their association expects a general transparency of all proceedings of a Council; not only its research and its investigations, but its internal deliberations as well.

This proposal was strictly rejected by the German Press Council. In its annual report about the year 2003 the Press Council insisted on keeping the deliberations private, justify­ing its stance with the si­milar procedures of all Ger­man civil courts. German civil courts try their cases in public, deliberate in private and deliver their judge­­­ments in public. The German Press Council added that it admits clai­mants and opponents to the pro­cee­dings. It said however, that in most cases the Press Council deals with written petitions by the attorneys of the accused or by consumer councils. But such trials have never been published.

In contrast, the Council for Public Relations publishes much more details about its trials than the other coun­cils. But it will equally not admit observers to its internal de­liberations. Such brain­storming sessions can only function if participants can be sure of not being quoted with every remark they make.

The PR Council consists of sixteen members. Each of the three supporting associations dele­gates four re­pre­sentatives. They are the presidents of these associations and, in addition, three assessors elected by the general meetings for three years. The Council may co-opt several advisors with full voting rights. It has al­ways used this option to assure itself of the experience of a university professor, a lawyer and one or two senior PR experts. Constituted in this way, the Council elects a chairman and two vice chairmen from its own ranks for a term of three years with the possibility of re-election.

If any of these members have personal or business connections with an accused party, they must declare a conflict of interest. They do not take part in the deliberations on this case, and are excluded from the decision-making process.

Some who have been censured tend to allege – mostly only belatedly - that the Council as a whole is institu­tio­­nally biased. One called the rebuke he received the expression of a “self-righteous insti­tutio­nal professional jealousy” (Der Kontakter 38/2003: 14). The Council rejected this imputation publicly. Be­fore discus­sing this case it had dealt with the question in detail as to whether Council members, who could be regarded as com­petitors, would have to be considered biased. This was denied. It was pointed out that professional self-regu­lation does not work if a possible competitive situation gives reason to a lack of impartiality. The essence of voluntary self-re­gu­­lation is judging one’s peers. This applies to all com­parable institutions.

3. Sanctions, penalties, and the reactions of the censured

Many discussions and comments on the function of councils end with sceptical, if not even derogatory ques­tions on their ability to impose sanctions. This is the most discouraging part of the discussion. The term “sanc­tions” generally leads us to expect painful penalties as they occur in normal legal pro­ceed­ings: the pay­ment of fines, revocation of benefits or imprisonment.

In contrast, what effect could verbal rebukes have? People, so it is said, are just laughing about mere patter. And indeed, these are the re­ac­tions of some of those who are censured: thus, the rebuked head of an agency once remarked in a research interview done by a university student that he had be­come known just because of the re­buke. “This has caused a stir. I received an increasing number of inquiries” (Braun  2000: 72). Another, quite well known head of an agency reacted in a similar eccen­tric way. After a rebuke he told the media that he would be laughing about it: “I don’t care. And my staff doesn’t care either. They are dying of laughter.” By the way, the German news magazine FOCUS has merely published this statement – “as sound bite of the week” (FOCUS 16.09.02: 176).

It may have been this kind of bad experiences that motivated the American colleagues to abolish any sort of punishment. In an official letter introducing the new PR Code in 2001 Robert D. Frause, the Chair­man of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) stated as a first of “three powerfully important differences” to the previous code: “First: Emphasis on enforce­ment of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from member­ship or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code.”

The German PR Council abstains from dealing with charges which are simultaneously put on trial in a court of law. Persons who have been convicted in such a court may be expelled from their professio­nal asso­ciation. But “to bar from membership or expel from the Society” is no penalty that the Ger­man PR Council could impose, as it also passes judge­ments on de­fen­dants who are not members of any association. The an­nounce­­ment effect of a coun­cil’s rebuke consists of a tem­po­rary public call to order. It makes it possible to ex­punge a breach of the code; it gives a chance to those who are re­buked to return into the group of the spot­less. No­body should be regarded as a sinner forever.

Nevertheless some of those rebuked by the Council experienced a hard time later on. The once laughing head of an agency lost several contracts and finally his agency, and this development was partially due to the public ostracism after his trial. This fate was not intended by the Council; so far it happened only once, but it may work as a gene­ral warning of ultimate consequences.

To avoid a rebuke one PR agency threatened to take the Coun­cil members to court accusing them to damage its reputation. Such a reaction, which had no intimidating effect on the Council, shows how power­ful the weapon of public censure has become since.

Therefore the German PR Council shall continue with its penal system. And there are favourable re­actions, too, which have been registered after the announcement of rebukes: A high ranking mana­ger in the marketing of sporting rights remarked vis-a -vis the PR-REPORT: “It was a shock for every one in charge. It’s true, that in due course everybody got over it. However, nobody wants to make another mistake and prefers to keep a low profile” (PR-REPORT 2.6.00: 8). This statement came from a per­son that was not member of any of the three associations that support the Council.

The PR Council differentiates between acquittals, warnings and rebukes. Warnings are pronounced and pub­lished, if the circumstances of the case do not suffice for a rebuke, or if the accused organi­za­tion corrects its behaviour after the admonition by the Council. These war­nings are addressed to all organizations, which, due to their structure, may be inclined to a behaviour com­parable to this inci­dent.

4. Quality and moral standards: The Council’s criteria

Giving its verdict the PR Council adheres, above all, to the codes of its own profession. There are two inter­national codes: the Code d’Athenes - a moral code – and the Code of Lisbon – a code of con­duct. At na­tional level, there are the Seven Self-commitments of a PR practitioner plus several guidelines.

With respect to these texts one critic once pointedly remarked, " PR people  virtually enjoy a free choice be­tween diverse, some­times internationally vagrant sets of ethics" (Baum 2005: 322). But the provisions of the  described regulations are widely consistent. Some of the texts are based on each other. In some cases, they are supplemented. In some cases, they apply in detail to specific PR activities such as press work, product placement or public affairs.

An example of the described intertwining of texts is the Code of Conduct of the ECC Group, adopted in 2001. In this code the KohtesKlewes PR agencies expressly determined that the existing codes of their own pro­fession and the Bordeaux code of ethics for journalists were part of their own moral iden­tity. Their code “was compulsorily recognized by the partners and managers as well as each indi­vidual employee. All employees of the Group are aware that infringements of this code of conduct can have disciplinary consequences up to ter­mination of employment."

In principle, the PR Council even ob­serves "the professional codes and guidelines of other communi­ca­tion associations and institu­tions", as stated in its statutes. Once it published a compilation of all texts that could be relevant to German communicators in respect of their global contacts ("The Ethi­cal Stan­dards for PR Prac­titioners ", Ave­narius 1998). In addition to the three codes mentioned above, this pub­li­cation also in­cluded the Austrian and North American codes, as well as the inter­na­tional Code de Bor­deaux for Jour­na­lists, the German Press Code together with its guidelines, the European Charta for Consumer Relations, the guide­lines of the Ger­man Advertising Council, the ephe­meral Code of Ethics of the Association of German Communi­ca­tion Scientists and extracts of the European Television Directive, of the German broadcasting directives, and even of Communio et Pro­gessio, the pastoral instruction of the Catholic Church from 1971.

The council discerns some differences between moral codes and codes of conduct. Moral codes – generally designated as codes of ethics - govern interpersonal relations. Therefore, they must be universally applicable “in the light of the sacred character of Man” (Matrat 1986: 17). The Code d’Athenes, drawn up by Lucien Matrat, is ought to be applied world­wide. It is based on the “ethical principles” of public relations, referring to the Declaration of Human Rights. They are about the dignity of man and the respect, which hence forward must be paid to him.

Codes of conduct such as the European Code of Lisbon of 1978 are concerned not with the dignity of the indi­vidual but with the specific behaviour standards of the PR profession vis-a -vis principals and employ­ers, vis-a -vis the media and publics and the own profession. Such behaviour codes are important comple­ments to the moral codes with their more fundamental proclamations. They are not fixed for eternity but can adapt to new developments from time to time and thus be changed, as they corres­pond to the customs and traditions of the respective countries.

Thus, for ex­am­ple, one of the provisions of the Code of Lisbon was amended in 2001: Para­graph 11 which prohibi­ted the honouring of PR professionals depending on success was abo­lished through­out Europe on the sugges­tion of the German PR Council. This suggestion was made to the European national asso­cia­tions after long and intense discussions in PR media and after a hearing in Bonn or­ga­nized by the Council and in the cour­se of which the arguments of the advocates and opponents of a deletion were heard.

Some codes of conduct contain sentences which basically serve to improve one’s reputa­tion, such as: to be competent, to expand one’s knowledge continuously and to adhere to gene­rally accepted standards of good taste. The council does not regard such provisions as moral standards.

Moral principles, in contrast to prac­tical rules of con­duct, can be a highly tough nut to crack: “Thou shall not lie” would be an example for this. Where­as “the mas­tery of particular intellectual skill through education and training” or the pledge “to conduct our­selves profes­sio­­nally”, “to improve our individual competence”, to advance “knowledge and pro­ficiency”, all singled out from the “Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations” (Skinner 2003: 18), are recipes for success. They are reasona­ble behaviour patterns, partly stemming from contract principles and part­ly from educational curriculum. Ethically, how­ever, they are rather irrelevant. The most profes­sional and most success­­­ful is not always the most irreproachable.

It is an honour for every profession if quality standards are observed and efficiency standards are matched by its individual representatives. How this can be achieved belongs to the primary strategic tasks of any pro­fessio­nal organization. However, the moral aspects must be separated from it. This is, admittedly, not easy for PR professionals. Thus, the former ethic committee of the German DPRG was pooled with its strategy committee for two legislative periods (1991-1997). Ethics became a part of asso­ciation-related stra­tegic conside­ra­tions.

Even in handbooks of the PR guild, chapters on the ethics of public relations, if they existed at all, were in the context of profession-related strategic considerations. In 1984, James Grunig and Todd Hunt for example trea­ted the “Codes of professional ethics” in the chapter on “Professionalism in Pub­lic Relations” (Grunig/Hunt 1984: 72). It is not until their new edition that they plan an independent and comprehensive chapter on “Ethics and Social Responsibility”. They also want to place this chap­ter at the beginning of their handbook “to em­pha­size the crucial role of ethics and social responsibility in pub­lic relations and its contribution to manage­ment decision making” as it is said in the manuscript which has not been printed yet.

5. How rules are devised

The quoted examples raise the question of how to create professional moral rules. Many professions have formulated their specific moral principles. Normally, this is done through their associations. Their members link different expectations to these texts. Some will look for ethical standards for their pro­fession, others for quality assuring standards as described above, and some want to combine both aims. Duties and recipes for success are thus mixed.

The German Society of Public Relations founded an ethics commission in 1988. Its task was to revise in depth the existing regulations, especially as the PR codes had been harshly criticised in those days as being too abstract, too unspecific, hardly meaningful and unsystematic (Bentele 1992: 159). As a result of its deli­be­rations, the commission issued the “seven self-commitments” of a member of the Ger­man Society of Public Relations (DPRG) in 1991, later on extended to every person that exercises PR, be it a professional or not. Before formulating these commitments, the com­mission had discussed the premises subject to which it wanted to determine the ethical standards for the profession.

First, it dismissed the integration of quality standards into ethical standards.

Second, it declined the often-demanded “shift in paradigms” from publicity to dialogue as the only correct and morally sound way of communication. It recommended “an ethic for everyday life” and for all ways of commu­ni­cation.

Third, the ethics commission should not pay too much attention to so-called “descriptive ethics”. It would cer­tainly be an advantage to find out via polls where the guild’s shoe pinches. Then, one would be easily inclined to ask instead of the question: what should be? the much more convenient question: how would we like it to be?

Forth, the commission did not want to tolerate in any case the reference to the wickedness of others and to allow exceptions due to general circumstances.

Therefore, the ethics commission of the DPRG formulated ethical principles which can apply to all PR prac­ti­tioners at all levels of hierarchy and for all feasible PR “models”. Even the most sophisticated activities were reduced to very simple norms, and their number was restricted to seven. The text was passed under the author’s chairmanship in Gravenbruch near Frankfurt/Main on 16 January 1991. Later on it was adop­ted in the official DPRG papers as one of the ethic standards of the profession (see Appendix).

What happens, if there are no provisions for a particular misconduct? Is it admissible for the PR coun­cil to break new ground in this case? On the one hand, according to the well-known principle “nulla poena sine lege” the question would have to be denied. On the other hand, comments and judge­ments by the three Ger­man coun­cils are frequently determined by the imponderables demanded by common decen­cy. The councils sometimes refer to such criteria. The German Advertising Council, for example, regards “the current opinion on cus­toms, manners and morals in society” as one of the “four central pillars” for its decisions. This includes, according to this Council, “not only people’s beha­viour in public life but the way how reality is shown in the editorial parts of the media” (Deutscher Werberat 2003: 64).

However, common decency is sometimes a delicate criterion. It opens the floodgates to quite a few public re­sentments regarding unconventional ideas and projects. Such a general mood led to the verdict on the Benetton advertisement given by the Adver­tising Coun­cil. It got much popular approval. But no matter how up-to-date and pre­dominant the Council’s opinion on common decency, manners and morals in society may have been, the Ger­man Federal Constitu­tio­nal Court reversed the Adver­tising Council’s judgement. The judges con­sidered the freedom of opinion of a company launching its advertisement with stirring photos as more important than a general decency (Avenarius 2001: 39).

6. Adapting standards through guidelines

The moral concept of PR work, on which the activities of the PR Council are based, may not rely only on venerable but vague texts and actual decency. A far better way than judging by moods is issuing specific rules of conduct in the case of uncer­tain­ties. This task of the PR Council and of the two other Councils as well, is even growing in scale.  Moral stan­dards have to be developed in line with the development of com­munication techniques. Such guide­lines are of the same binding effect as the codes.

Thus, for ex­am­ple, the PR Council issued a guideline about how to interact with journalists, dealing with gifts, invitations, and PR assignments; and this guideline corresponded to a guideline of the Ger­man Press Council about the acceptance of gifts and invitations by journalists.

Another example are guide­lines for PR contacts with the political sphere. They were formulated in 2002, when  the case Moritz Hunzinger caused a stir in the German public. The name of this PR man was linked to two affairs in which a former minister of defence and an ecolo­gist mem­ber of the Ger­man parliament were involved. Both men had to resign. A car­toon of the German newspaper SZ showed a strange „seating“ of the Bundestag: the few independent mem­bers contrasted a huge num­ber of lobby­ists. The state seemed to be dominated by them, and the German PR guild appeared in an unfavou­rable light.

The case was taken to the German PR Council which – after detailed research and hearings – pronoun­ced a public rebuke against Moritz Hunzinger. In the view of the council Mr. Hunzinger had caused con­siderable damage to the reputation of the PR profession. The Council based its evaluation on Clause 18 of the code of Lisbon: The PR practitioner must refrain from any conduct which may prejudice the repu­tation of his profession.

This clause could be applied to the effects of Mr. Hunzinger’s behaviour. But it could not be applied to his deeds. No article was applicable for Hunzinger’s behaviour itself. It could not be deduced from a pre­cise rule what Hunzinger had actually violated. Pri­ma vista it was hard to understand, why he should not be allowed to grant a small credit of 6000 E to a member of the parliament.

This gap has been closed by the new guideline on PR contacts with the political sphere. The prevision fixes explicitly and clearly in § 2.7: „Personal allowances granted to politicians are inadmissible. Allo­wances are all forms of financial  benefits exceeding the refund of plausible expenses.“ And § 2.8 deals with material benefits in the form Mr. Hunzinger granted to the defense minister.

The new guideline on all PR contacts with the political sphere contains two high moral demands put on all per­sons involved in lobbying: first the absolute transparency of their contacts with politicians and civil servants; and second the resolute honesty in contact with politicians and civil servants. Honesty in this context stands for: no corruption and no intrigues.

7. The moral principles of PR work

As a consequence of the problems and experiences described above, all persons entrusted with the further development of moral guidelines are advised to look into the basics of communication ethics.

What are the moral principles of PR work? If this question is addressed to PR scientists, the answers are con­­troversial. In Germany such principles were discussed for the first time scientifically in Munich in the spring of 1993. On the initiative of the Herbert Quandt Foundation, American and Ger­­­­man scholars met there to dis­cuss the “normative aspects of public relations”. These aspects were rather deceiving: we learned contra­dictory assessments of the current situation, many contro­versial issues but no single systematic pre­sentation of communication ethics (see Armbrecht / Zabel 1994).

More recently one critique of the PR Council’s endeavours denied any fundamental moral principle applying to PR. He referred to their pursuing of special interests as contrary to a high moral standard (Baum 2005: pas­sim). But who does not pursue his own interests? Almost everyone who addresses publics advocates special interests to a greater or lesser extent, deliberately or voluntarily.

Drawing moral distinc­tions between any form of PR in terms of their noble or mundane tasks, is therefore of little use to identi­fying moral principles. Should we refer instead to the American distinction between different forms of communica­tion? “American research was eagerly absorbed in Germany in order to catch up with the international scientific community”, reported Winfrid Schultz at the 1st European Communication Conference in Amsterdam in November 2005 (Schultz 2006: 93).

James Grunig became the grand authority for German PR scholars. His four basic models of communica­tion were largely adopted. Even his concept to ascribe to each of them distinctive moral values, was common­ly approved. He considered three of these models – publicity, information activity and persuasion – as morally contes­table. Only the symmetric two-way communication harboured the requisite respect for the communica­tion partner and would thus be morally justified. Consequently PR practitioners attributed a high degree of signi­ficance to dialogues. They praised the two-way symme­trical model of communication in their official state­ments and interviews.

In their major trilogy on "Ex­cellence in Public Relations and Communication Management", James and Larissa Grunig finally made the remarkable attempt to re­present this most moral of communication methods as the most effective, too. However, their evidence "that the two-way symmetrical model is both more ethi­cal and more effec­tive" (Grunig/Grunig 1992: 309) may only be of limited validity according to the reports they delivered to Ger­man audiences about their case studies. The authors found the use of the symme­trical model to be inter­spersed with asymmetrical findings; therefore they had researched more according to (noble) motives instead of (specific) actions, and consequently they used the Murphy formula of “mixed-motive models” to describe their findings (Grunig/Grunig/Dozier 1996: 201ff).

Presumably, this was the only possible outcome. A dialogue has its value; it improves the mutual under­stan­ding between counterparts. However, Vincent Hazleton was right when he stated at a conference of the Her­bert Quandt Foundation that at the end of a dialogue, there are always two processes that are less commu­nicative than commercial or political: "bargaining & ne­gotiation" or "problem-solving" (Hazleton 1992: 42). We may add to his conclusion: There is a decision-ma­king process that does not always end in the win/win zone of both dialogue partners. Power comes into play.

If dialogue, discourse or debate are the appropriate rules of our democracy – and their outcome is often a ballot, i.e. a power issue – then transparency is the lifeblood of our information society. Modern societies thrive on transparent information. In Germany three significant phenomena have marked the beginning of increased transparency. It started in the field of finan­cial PR. Even if there are still some attempts at con­ceal­ment in this sector, in most cases they cannot deceive the analysts’ eyes. Stock market activities demand transparency. Mean­while this require­ment has also spread to the non-financial business segments of com­panies listed on the stock exchange. Global Governance is the title for a couple of newly adopted provisions in this respect.

A second field in which PR professionals are urged to transparency are critical situations or cata­strophes. Crisis-PR has become the field of reckless, even “most straight forward transparency with­out any reserves” as a German prime minister has recently promised. The same applies to the lands­cape of political parties, administrative authorities or the industry. Many will still be tempted to con­ceal grievances. But most of them will remember the old PR rule which says: “Whoever tells only half the truth will be confronted with the whole truth sooner or later and will then face a bigger problem.”

A third field in which PR professionals are and will be bound to transparency without any reservation is when they render account of historical events involving the past misconduct of an organisation. In par­ti­cular, Ger­man enterprises had to learn a bitter lesson. It will no longer be possible to simply con­ceal one’s be­haviour in connection with forced labour during World War II or the expropriation of Je­wish possessions. If its own his­tory is concerned the German PR people had to learn that witnesses for all past incidents may be found somewhere and that they will be able to contradict euphe­mistic self-portrayals at any time.

No form of dialogue can be distinguished in these three fields of PR activity. What is to be found is one-way information according to Grunig’s second model of PR: the public infor­ma­tion. This model got under the ethi­cal verdict of the American scholars, who mainly centred on the power and propagan­da factor of public infor­ma­tion for a long time: According to Cutlip/Center/Broom, organi­sations, above all, public agencies and authorities, benefit from being better informed and make use of this advantage to the detriment of those who are governed. As Cutlip/Center/Broom wrote in their hand­­book “Effective Public Re­lations” in Chapter 15: “Beyond these conflicts is the inevitable asso­cia­tion of government information pro­grams with the word propaganda” (Cutlip/Center/Broom 2000: 500).

A shift in the moral assessment of the four Grunig models there­fore guidelines the judgements of the council. Its prevailing dictum is more or less: Everyone who provides information and thus creates transparency acts in a morally im­peccable manner. And as far as our notorious “special interests” are concerned, the council adds: The credible, plausible and open representation of own interests is one of the stringent conditions for trans­­parency. Honesty regarding own motives is as essential as truthfulness in respect of disclosed facts.

Everyone involved in PR work has to consider that particularly in difficult situations transparency pre­­­­sents a great moral challenge. In terms of a postulate, transparency belongs to the first of the seven self-commit­ments of PR practitioners. These sentences, which may be irritating due to their ab­soluteness, are as follows:
“With my work I serve the public. I am aware of the fact that I am not allowed to do any­thing that might lead the public to wrong conclusions and wrong behaviour. I have to be honest and truthful.”
This first of the seven self-commit­ments of PR practitioners is the supreme postulate of all those who address publics. Thus it is not merely a postulate for PR pro­­fes­sionals. It emphasizes the right of target groups, of pub­lics, of the societies at large to claim a transparent behaviour of everybody addres­sing them. This postulate sub­stantiates the legitimacy of the verdicts of the council. It thereby answers the question “What entitles the Council to pronounce its verdicts?”

On the other hand, this postulate highlights the socio-political role of the PR profession going far be­yond eve­ry concrete target of organisations. As doctors while curing individual patients are inherently serving the health of man­kind, the legal profession by defending individual rights are serving the promotion of justice, and en­gi­neers by constructing concrete devices are serving the technical pro­gress, so do those who exercise PR: by in­forming publics they are serving public trans­pa­ren­cy. PR serves the transparency of all essential cor­rela­tions in an ever more complex world. This is what the society demands and expects from PR work in terms of moral behaviour.

8.   Perspectives

Do Council proceedings, their statements and their references to codes, guidelines, and customs have a generally positive impact on the propriety of a profession? This is the somewhat mis­chievous question of whether the work of the Council has actually improved the morals of the PR industry. Anyone wanting to answer "yes" would be disabused of this notion fairly quickly by the next spectacular incident.

Moral codes, behavioural guidelines and judgements could provide guidance. Dean Kruckeberg of the University of Iowa once listed the practical advantages of a code (cf. Kruckeberg 1990: 29f.):

·         A code can firstly be a guide to PR players in terms of their actions.

·         Secondly, it can inform agency clients of what they should expect from their PR consultants and what they should not ask for.

·         Thirdly, it provides an indication of the legitimacy of claims against PR people.

·         Fourthly, it also provides the opportunity to make a defence against claims or accusations. 

To meet the first requirement, code texts must be simple and repeatable. This is attained with the seven self-commitments for the German-speaking area. If they become accepted, the other require­ments can also appear realistic. A recognized code, lived out many times, substantiated by pub­lished cases, with a text easily understood by non-experts, protects those who practice PR in the event of conflicts with clients or employers. Whether they belong to the profession or not, it gives them backup in the event of denials within organizations, which only in-house doctors and lawyers currently have in companies. What is more, anyone who is harmed by malicious PR knows to make specific mention of the misconduct of which they have been a victim.

All this is not reality, yet. It must also be asked what sort of high moral awareness is most pressing in an industry: knowledge of a list of transgressions or fear of a court.

The first supposition is that all depends on the level of knowledge of the regulations or even the reci­ting of individual contents. We are familiar with the scornful conclusion that some critics draw from scientific sur­veys: because no-one is familiar with their codes, the industry lacks moral judgement. However, who can reel off all Ten Commandments or the by no means extensive German Unfair Competition Act? And yet our normal everyday behaviour is measured by the former, and the respectability of the business commu­nity by the latter.

It is not necessary to know the regulations of the PR industry by heart in order to be guided by the stan­dards that they represent. Even if these texts resulted from the experiences of those who wrote them, they are based on cast-iron, initially unwritten principles of sound communication. They have been followed or ignored – probably with a guilty conscience – ever since public relations came into existence.

Now, as the activities of public communicators are more widely and critically discussed in the press, re­flection on communicative morals is gaining in profile. Writings on ethics of PR are filling the bookshelves. The range of lectures on this subject is becoming increasingly diverse. Indeed, greater attention is even being paid to surveys on the moral orientation of the industry.

The most recent one dates from the end of the last century. Birgit Förg analyzed 25 in-depth inter­views with high-ranking German PR officers. The results paint a confusing picture. On the one hand, the author felt that "PR morals are only promoted externally for the purpose of image en­hance­ment" (Förg 2004: 175). These findings suggest a certain absence of ethics. On the other hand, those questioned were sur­prisingly aware that "the level of recognition of the German PR codes should be increased" (160). Förg also stated that the PR Council "is widely accepted among most of my interviewees ". (165).

Since the above-mentioned Hunzinger affair in 2002, the PR industry has probably become gra­dually more aware of its problems. At the time, PR people were thoroughly discredited. "Don’t even tell my mother that I work in PR!" read the two-page banner headline in PR REPORT on 9th August, 2002. The cry for PR Coun­cil proceedings against the boss of this PR agency was heard nationwide.

Raising the level of recognition of the Council could therefore be sufficient to improve PR morals. This leads to our second supposition: Do PR morals improve if a large section of the public learns what authority there is to publicly denounce misconduct? The days when misconduct never led to punishment or denunciation were gone. The PR Council which led a shadowy existence in its first five years, has gained in attention and esteem of late.  However, its effectiveness must be measured by two criteria: the number of complaints re­ceived and the number of cases completed.

The number of complaints is increasing significantly year by year, even though they are way behind the volume submitted to the Press and Advertising Councils (40 : 400). This is primarily because of the different structure of those who complain. With advertising, it is the general public, and with the press it is also a very large group of outraged readers. With PR, it can only be media communica­tors who feel conned, corrupted or deceived by the primary communicators, the PR people. How­ever, journalists do not call on the PR Coun­cil if they have something to complain about; they write reports about it in their media. This is why the Council members pursue all the dubious events that they find about through press reports.

There is another handicap, as a result of which the Council is sometimes described as a toothless tiger that cannot bring itself to issue a decisive denunciation: Its council proceedings rarely have to do with palpable, clear misconduct. The Advertising and Press Councils can crack down on obvious communi­cative lapses and assess facts: defamatory advertisements, one-sided reports, malicious comments or propagandistic pictures. In contrast, in corruption cases, the PR Council is dealing with concealed actions; and in the event of threats and coercion, the instigators deny such motives. How can such mis­deeds be uncovered without the submission of internal documents? The Council does not have any of the investigative powers of public prosecutors. Its scope of action is restricted. By necessity, many cases therefore end with no clear judge­ment.

"Sisyphus goes on!" was the headline of a respectful, balanced analysis of the Council's work in the WIRT­­SCHAFTS­JOUR­NA­LIST journal of 04/2005. But Sisyphus doesn’t need press applause. It need press re­ports about its verdicts. The verdicts of the Council can only have a lasting effect, if noticed by the press, and if a rebuked is thus “pilloried”. As the negligent reaction of the German news magazine FO­CUS shows, this is some­times a problem.

A public ostracism of PR-wrongdoers will only come about if the quality of critical jour­­­­nalism on PR acti­vities corres­ponds to that of other fields of journalism. A qualified, critical PR jour­nalism, comparable to German media jour­nalism, is required in the daily and weekly news­papers. However, the press will probab­ly only take the judgement of the PR Council seriously when PR people themselves take it serious­ly. As long the PR industry only uses it for image enhancement, as described by Birgit Förg (see above), the press can hardly feel compelled to report continuously.

Sisyphus therefore continues his labours internally and externally, and at some point he certainly will manage to roll the rock over the hill. At least with respect to the forbidden practice of guaranteeing quan­tified results – v. article 10 of the Code of Lisbon – the continuous warnings and admonitions of the Council so far achieved an almost complete elimination of such a behaviour in present Germany. And time and again the threat of an advocate to take the council members to court shows that rebukes have become a hard penance for those concerned, and they normally try to avoid them. Only a few are really indifferent to it.

The German experiences with the enforcement of codes can be summarized as an ongoing process of self assurance of the PR guild and its public esteem.


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1. By my work I serve the public interest. I am aware of the fact that I am not allowed to do anything that might lead the public to wrong conclusions and to wrong behaviour. I have to be honest and truthful.

2. With my work I serve my principal or employer. I commit myself to act as responsible advocate of his interests and to keep him from harm.

3. By my work I am involved in the activities of an organisation. I am faithful to the targets and the policy of the organisation which I represent, as long as these are in line with the dignity of man and his basic rights and the resulting laws and rights.

4. If I should work for an organisation which in communicating with the public fails to respect the dignity of men and fairness against other organisations, I will use my best endeavours to encourage them to correct this behaviour. If necessary, I will give back the assignment.

5. I will be honest and accurate in all communications to the best of my knowledge and belief. In communicating with journalists and other bodies assuming public responsibility I will not use any unfair means. I will not induce them to accept any kind of advantages.

6. I will respect the independence and freedom of my interlocutors. Therefore, I will not apply any instruments of power against them. Above all, I will refrain from any coercion.

7. I consider public relations work as a necessary assignment to create trust, public interest and to review one’s own behaviour. Therefore, I will not deliberately damage the reputation of my profession.

This text was adopted by the DPRG Ethics Commission on 16 January 1991 in Gravenbruch near Frankfurt/Main. In 1995, it was incorporated for the first time in the DPRG guidelines as one of ethical benchmarks of the PR profession.

(revised 20th April, 2006)

Horst Avenarius, PhD, is Chairman of the German Council for Public Relations since 1992. He was Vice-Presi­dent of the German Society for Public Relations (DPRG) from 1988 to 1991 and member of its Ethic Commis­sion. For almost two decades he served as head of corporate communication, PR, and Public Affairs of the BMW group. He wrote a handbook on PR (2nd ed. in 2000), some articles about moral cases, an essay on the ethics of communication and he published a commented collection of norms and codes for all communication professions.

Journal of Communication Management

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