Earlier this month, Reputation Matters presented the annual APRA / PRCA Ethics and Public Relations (PR) landscape in Africa survey results at APRA’s conference in Côte d’Ivoire.

Here is an opinion piece that has been penned down, including insights from Arik Karani, newly elected President of APRA, and Dustin Chick, chair of the PRCA Africa’s Ethics and Practices Network.

Ethics in Africa: The Essential Role of Public Relations

Africa is a magnificent, vibrant continent, with each of its 54 countries showcasing unique cultures and traditions, yet all united as one Africa. In this diverse fabric, the concept of ethics transcends national borders, raising the question: what does it mean to be ethical across different cultures? At its core, it is about respect—respect for oneself and others, all for the greater good. It begins with a set of non-negotiable values and extends to robust governance structures with clear guidelines, policies, and procedures. Importantly, it involves accountability and consequences for disregarding established boundaries. Respect for these boundaries is essential for fostering a culture of integrity and mutual respect across our beautiful continent.

Ethics and Public Relations are not mutually exclusive

“When we evaluate the annual African Public Relations Association (APRA) / Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) Ethics and Public Relations (PR) landscape in Africa, it becomes clear that ethics and PR are not mutually exclusive. We cannot build ethical societies without the support of PR and Communication professionals,” shares Regine le Roux, Founder and Managing Director of Reputation Matters. “One of the fundamental roles of PR and Communication professionals, and a key concept taught early in this field, is the responsibility to build mutually beneficial relationships with all stakeholders,” le Roux adds. Arik Karani, President, African Public Relations Association (APRA) affirms, “Ethics in PR is about being truthful, transparent, and accountable in communication, while respecting people’s rights and privacy.”

From Ethical Individuals to Ethical Nations

The study examines ethics on individual, company, and country levels. People want to do business with companies they trust and resonate with—companies that share their values of mutual respect. Ethical companies, driven by ethical individuals, should ultimately build ethical countries.

Why, then, is there still so much corruption? “Corruption is driven by ego and selfish intentions. It is short-sighted and does not bring goodwill; it is solely about personal gain,” says le Roux. This raises the question: who is responsible for maintaining ethics and holding the unethical accountable? Le Roux continues, “Without question, leadership needs to set the tone and example when it comes to ethical behaviour. The PR and Communication Team is best positioned within organisations to communicate and uphold ethics.” Karani agrees saying that, “PR and communications should help professionals, CEOs, and organisations to behave responsibly and ethically. PR professionals should also serve as ethical counsellors to senior executives.”

Stop cutting PR budgets

“It is therefore clear, and supported by our research, that PR professionals should play an integral part in decision-making. Yet, PR is still underrepresented at the boardroom level, often called upon reactively in times of crisis or to win favour during dire times,” says le Roux. Moreover, PR budgets are among the first to be cut when financial constraints arise. This was one of the biggest challenges highlighted in the research, with 66% of responses indicating that budget cuts hamper their work.

“We can no longer afford to put a price on ethics. As we face tremendous economic headwinds which bring with them the temptation to cut budgets; we must pause to consider what the investment in ethics requires. From training, to systems and processes, to the investment in our people it is key that we distinguish between ‘cut’ and ‘gut’,” adds Dustin Chick, chair of the PRCA Africa’s Ethics and Practices Network.

PR needs a seat around the boardroom table

Amongst the respondents of the survey, comprising of PR/communication experts and top executives (CEOs, Managing Directors, Chairmen, Founders, Corporate Affairs Heads, and Chief Communicators), 45% stated that the role of PR and communications is not adequately appreciated at the board level. Despite 30% of respondents noting that CEOs and business leaders are relying on PR counsel more than ever, PR and communication professionals still lack a significant voice around the boardroom table.

Karani adds, “This research is important because it helps us to look at ethics from a governance, policies, and procedures lens.

“Governance forces us to examine organisational systems, whilst policies set the parameters for decision making. The procedures on the other hand, explains the “how” behind the decisions. PR professionals should use all three lenses to guide internal and external communication and it is therefore crucial for organisations to include PR and communication professionals at the boardroom table.”

Elevating PR as the Voice of Reason

Organisations can function more ethically and responsibly with the ‘voice of reason’ provided by PR and communication professionals at the boardroom table. A good PR professional should have credible qualifications and be a member of their industry association or body. These associations uphold a code of ethics and conduct that PR professionals must pledge to adhere to, and they facilitate knowledge sharing, valuable training, and cross-cultural insights. Recent conversations and encounters reveal that much work remains to be done to uphold the ethics of companies, and ultimately, of countries. There are insufficient governance protocols in place to ensure ethical behaviour and inadequate recourse for unethical conduct. While ethics statements in annual reports are commendable, it is the actual behaviour and trust that truly matters.

The future of PR and Ethical Communication

“Since the future of communications is about rebuilding trust and fighting disinformation, we will require new and creative ways of getting messages across to audiences. Getting the message across ultimately comes down to repairing trust through transparency and responsibility. But what does this look like in action? This means that the future of communications will require increased efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation,” concludes Karani.

Ethics: A Collective Responsibility

Although PR should have a seat at the boardroom table, it is not solely the responsibility of PR as an industry to uphold ethics, but rather that of each individual in Africa. Our research indicated that individuals view themselves as ethical, yet this does not always translate into the workplace, the country, or the continent. To change the narrative and ethics of Africa, it starts with the individual. Regardless of qualification, position, or culture, ethics should not fluctuate based on demographics but should be the consistent benchmark against which we measure and hold ourselves and everyone around us accountable.