The UK’s PR industry professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recently opened up its Social Media Guidelines for consultation. It does this once a year and this year only two bloggers I know posted about it.
I received a very polite reminder from the CIPR today asking me if I wanted to contribute. I hesitated submitting my views this time around after my previous experience left me with a distinct “we’re listening but not hearing” feeling from senior CIPR protagonists.
But after re-reading the amended guidelines I decided to submit a response. What follows is a version of my submission. I must stress that this submission represents my personal rather than professional views and I am a fully-paid up member of the CIPR.
The consultation asks two specific questions:
- Do you believe this document covers the issues highlighted in sufficient depth?
- Do you believe there are other important issues which should be addressed (and if so, what are they)?
But it also welcomes “general views”
To my mind the guidelines document does cover the issues highlighted in sufficient depth and also covers off all of the major online issues.
However, whether the issues are the right issues and whether all other issues included, e.g. online advertising and SEO, are directly relevant to PROs remains to be seen.
In short my more general contribution is this: Firstly, I am not entirely clear why the CIPR social media guidelines are required seeing as so much of the core social media behaviour PROs need to adhere to is subsumed within the CIPR’s Code of Conduct: integrity, competence and confidentiality.
This is especially highlighted when there appears to inherent contradictions in the guidelines. For example, the Guidelines state:
“particular care should be taken when ‘ghosting’ a blog“
as this behaviour may break the CoC if the ghost-blogger isn’t transparent about their motivations/intentions. I went further and suggested that ghosting is pretty much condemned and denounced by all bloggers so in my opinion the CIPR should make a blanket recommendation to its members to avoid the practice.
However, further into the Guidelines ghost-blogging is flagged as likely to be illegal anyway in light of the recent OFT’s ‘Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008’. Here the CIPR goes as far as to state that “[e]xamples of social media activities outlawed under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations” include “Creating Fake blogs (‘ghosting’)”. This to me is confusing and risks sending mixed messages.
Secondly. the CIPR seems to have maintained its position whereby social media is an additional ‘channel’ to traditional PR rather than addressing the fundamental shifts in media (and thus PR) that the Internet is bringing about.
As an example, the guidelines specifically recommend:
- flagging up your professional role every time you leave a comment on a blogs
- no deep linking
- using copyrighted material
- employers curtailing – through policy – personal use of social media during working hours
I suggested that none of these practices are realistic. No deep links? WTF?
In light of the way the social web functions PR professionals who really want to succeed in ‘social media’ must immerse themselves and learn how the online space operates in such a radically different way to traditional media.
The idea of following top-down stipulations that fundamentally contradict the environment in which they’re designed to apply seems counter-productive.
While I totally understand that the CIPR needs to appear as if it is dealing with the issue at hand, I still stand by what I said in my letter to PR Week in January 2008. It was this: that the PR industry (in the UK at least) is losing (has lost?) out in terms of industry leadership to other industries that are investing greater effort to understand social/digital media (indeed it’s perhaps no surprise to find the CIPR directing it’s members to the ASA’s guidance on social media!).
I suspect I am being too critical or at least taking the guidelines apart in an overly forensic way. If I am being constructively critical then I get the feeling that the Guidelines are too equivocal. I’ve already highlighted the discrepancy when it comes to ghost blogging. There’s a similar tension that runs throughout the Guidelines. They suggest PR professionals should “err on the side of disclosure” but then draw attention to legal requirements.
This – to me, at least – is a tension between following the existing rules and listening the emerging best practice of online communities. Rigid, trenchant laws fail to take into account the messiness (to paraphrase Weinberger and Shirky) of media/PR on the Internet. But they are the domain of the traditional organisation to which it can fall back on.
The challenge here is for the CIPR to get ‘social and abandon formalised consultations to learn real-life lessons form those immersed or involved in social media. Only then will it start to get a ‘feel’ for the way its Guidelines should be developed and take a real and significant step towards leading the PR industry (and related industries) into a digital future.