The first public relations code of ethics

Basil Clarke, who wrote the first PR code of ethics
Basil Clarke, who wrote the first PR code of ethics

When it comes to most firsts in public relations – the first practitioner; the first agency – it is usually the United States that gets the glory.

But, given that September is Ethics Month for public relations, I thought it would be worth telling the story of how the UK can lay a claim to the industry’s first ethical code.

It was not that the American public relations pioneers had never considered ethics. Ivy Lee included an ethical element in his ‘Declaration of Principles for Public Relations’ in 1906. Also, Edward Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda included a code of ethics.

But Lee only included ethics as a small part of a wider document, while Bernays’s code of ethics was as much a description of how public relations practitioners already behaved as it was an attempt to codify standards of behaviour that could be used to hold people to account.

So when Basil Clarke, the father of the British public relations industry, developed a code of ethics in the 1920s that set tough and credible standards that those working in public relations were expected to conform to, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The Code called for an end to anonymity in public relations. All public relations copy was to be marked with the sender’s name and clearly labelled as publicity copy, while the press agent would be obliged to disclose the name of his client if asked to do so by an editor.

As well as highlighting the importance of transparency, Clarke’s code set out that press agents should not accept fees from newspapers or ‘suborn’ newspaper staff to publish stories, while they should also be responsible for satisfying themselves of their clients’ bona fides.

It also judged canvassing for business to be inappropriate because it could lead to press agents over-promising about the levels of coverage they were likely to achieve. And work should be paid for by professional fee, rather than by the number of articles secured.

Its other provisions included that stunts should not be used if they were intended to deceive either an editor or the public; that press releases should include footnotes giving the source for any claims; and that, except in ‘special circumstances’, editorial publicity was to be offered alongside advertising rather than instead of it.

The code also stipulated that press agents should not offer to place advertising with a newspaper on condition that it agreed to give editorial coverage, as this was ‘degrading alike to the maker of the threats and to the paper’.

Clarke hoped his code would force deceitful press agents to either change their ways or go out of business, and that this would enhance the professional reputations of those who remained. He also called for an industry-wide approach where a new ‘Vigilance Committee’ would monitor adherence to these rules and punish those who broke them, which he thought ‘would rid editorial publicity work of many abuses and leave unimpaired the useful functions’.

But as forward-thinking as Clarke may have been in identifying the need for this kind of code, it did not make any immediate discernible difference. A decade later, Clarke himself was lamenting that ‘there is still no knowing who is, or may be, a press agent, or what he may do … [and] nor is there any limit, except those imposed by his natural decency, to which a press agent may descend to get his publicity or propaganda across’.

And when the journalist Richard West looked back at Clarke’s code in 1963 as part of a book about the public relations industry, he concluded that while it was ‘admirable as far as it goes’, the vast majority of 1960s public relations firms were consistently breaking at least some of Clarke’s rules.

One rule West claimed was being routinely ignored was the one about ‘suborning’ journalists, which he thought included asking journalists to see a copy of their article before publication and so making ‘the journalist reluctant to be critical in his writing’.

West also gave the example of public relations practitioners posing as ordinary members of the public when writing to the letters page of newspapers as evidence of a failure to be transparent. But to be fair, Clarke did this himself in the 1920s, writing to The Times to enthuse about the telephone industry without mentioning that it was one of his clients.

One element of Clarke’s code still being debated today is the issue of payment by results.

As for Clarke, he apparently only ever broke his rule on payment by results once, when a client insisted he would only pay for the newspaper coverage his agency actually secured.

Clarke reluctantly agreed a rate and at the end of the campaign the client was shocked to find that the bill was five times higher than the fee Clarke had originally proposed. Content to have taught the client a lesson, he let him off the difference in exchange for the price of a lunch.