Peddling false perceptions

Cloak and dagger PR tactics should have no place in local planning application campaigns. ‘Astroturfing’ is unethical and brings PR into disrepute.

After the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions’ fabricated case studies, a PR agency’s anti-perspirant case study involving its own staff (#sweatygate), and my own minor example of an industry leaders’ roundtable that wasn’t, I heard this week of further unethical behaviour, this time relating to a shopping centre’s planning application in Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes CitizenAccording to the local Milton Keynes Citizen newspaper, employees of the shopping centre’s owner, Intu Group, submitted supportive statements during the local council’s consultation process. Apart from being employed by the company, some of these employees had no local connection with the Milton Keynes centre – writing from addresses in Manchester, Essex, Norfolk and southeast London – and not disclosing their Intu Group affiliation. Moreover, staff from the centre’s PR agency, Milton Keynes-based Perception PR, also “disguised themselves as ordinary shoppers to comment” – in short, they engaged in the same misleading and unethical conduct (perhaps tellingly, the agency’s website homepage features a chimpanzee on a telephone…).

According to the newspaper report, the council has no choice but to accept the statements at face value, while, sadly, an Intu Group executive is said to be “openly proud” of her colleagues’ actions.

Meanwhile, some PR professionals are appalled. I have spoken with staff at the CIPR who tell me that Perception PR has no CIPR members, so no sanction can be applied by the Institute. Perception PR agency also doesn’t appear to be a PRCA member (ditto). However, I understand that the CIPR President President Sarah Pinch has spoken on BBC local radio about this unethical behaviour – publicly distancing responsible PR professionals from this deeply questionable activity, almost on the eve of the CIPR’s Ethics Month.

Collaboration for Change

Looking at this from a construction and property industry perspective, I know that many of its professional membership organisations would be similarly appalled. In the planning context, for example, the Royal Town Planning Institute has a Code of Professional Conduct with clear rules about declaring conflicts of interest.

And the sector’s professional services bodies are being urged to collaborate for change. The Edge Commission report on the Future of Professionalism (PDF) published in April 2015, and authored by former Government Chief Construction Adviser Paul Morrell, has called for industry institutions to engage in joint action to demonstrate their effectiveness and thereby enhance their relevance and value. And ethics is at the top of the list:

Edge Report Cover

  • Ethics and the public interest, and a shared code of conduct
  • Education and competence
  • Research and a body of knowledge
  • Collaboration on major challenges, including industry reform in the interests of a better offer to clients, climate change and building performance

To help contribute to this debate, in July, the CIPR, represented by its Construction and Property Special Interest Group (CAPSIG, which I currently chair), became an associate member of the industry’s professional services grouping, the Construction Industry Council (see my post: CIPR taking more active role in construction). Both within the CIC and more widely, we will be seeking to show that PR professionals share the industry’s aspirations for the highest possible levels of ethical behaviour in the public interest. And actions such as Perception’s need to be highlighted as unprofessional and unacceptable in modern society.

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