Ethics, the media, and social justice

John Clegg, Chair of the Not for Profit Group reflects on what the recent media coverage of the Church of England motion on same-sex marriage tells us about the role of media in social justice narratives, and where PR professionals and our ethics come into the mix. As both a member of the Church of England, and an openly gay man, this is something John has a particularly vested interest in.
10th March 2023

Earlier in the year, in the Church of England wrapped up a multi-year consultation process on how it addresses the issue of same-sex marriage. There was a loophole created in the 2014 legislation which legalized same-sex marriage, but barred the Church of England’s clergy from conducting them, having the ceremonies conducted on Church property, and let the Church legally exclude their clergy from being married to a same-sex partner. Over the 9 years since, the Church of England has held extensive consultations to try and figure out its stance on same-sex marriage. 

Across nine years or so, the media only had passing interest in this issue. However, last month as there were finally concrete proposals heading towards the General Synod (the Church of England’s governing body) for a vote, media attention intensified.

What made the situation more interesting, is that politicians started to intervene aiming to push the Church further than the proposals which were on the table. This posed an interesting constitutional situation and each stakeholder was trying to set the media narrative, which often missed much of the contextual detail.

The media coverage got me thinking more particularly about ethics, the role of media in determining the narrative in social justice issues, and where Public Relations professionals come into the mix.

What is social justice and how does the media interact with it?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines social justice as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

The media coverage of an event or issue often dictates the public discourse what is printed in newspapers, and said on televisions, develops narratives that are discussed in living rooms, offices, schools, pubs and other places across the country. Sometimes that narrative shifts the public opinion and results in new legislation or norms, other times it can solidify existing norms. This becomes incredibly important when considering issues of social justice, when the idea of whether something is ‘just’ is called into question, and there is an ethical decision to be made.

What is the role of PR professionals in this?

While we can’t control the exact narrative of the coverage, what responsibility do we as Public Relations professionals have in determining what is right/moral/good/appropriate, and what action should we take?

In short, it’s complicated and I think a lot of this comes down to your employment situation.

If you work freelance or are an independent practitioner and feel strongly one way or the other, then you have the ability to align yourself with a campaign or organisation that is pushing for that stance. You can work (or volunteer) with them using your skills and resources to advocate for coverage that could shift the public narrative in your campaign’s favour.

Of course, if you work in-house with an organisation that has a particularly partisan slant on an issue, or at an agency with a campaign as a client, your work will be decided by the values, beliefs, and stance taken by your employer, or the client. One would hope your personal values are in alignment with your employers, but if they were to differ you would have to submit to the organisation or clients will in this instance or find a way to extrapolate yourself from the project.

From an internal perspective

My own experience of PR has mostly been gained through in-house internal communications roles, with more limited exposure to and responsibility for external communications. Often, you don’t have to communicate about social justice issues internally to staff. However, that happened in the spring of 2020, when organisations had to determine their narrative surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd.

When a moment like that happens, what do organisations say? When do they say it? What is expected to be said by our audiences, internally and externally? How do we keep our statements from being performative?

Again, this is where we have to make ethical decisions, because if you are working as an in-house communicator, you have the responsibility to communicate on behalf of your organisation, and you have to utilise their beliefs, values, and purpose to base your statement on, and that may differ from your own views. These views will often be reflective of the views of the governance and leadership of your organisation – whether that is a board of trustee’s or senior staff. While it may be their views that determine the organisations believes, values and purpose, and therefore a particular stance, it’s often the role of communicators to liaise with these people and ask the questions that get them thinking about what the organizational position is.

What’s next

The next time you need to communicate about social justice issues, here are a few tactile steps you can take:

  1. Social justice issues don’t always represent a reputational or operational crisis for organisations – but they can, so if you work in-house, make sure your crisis communications plans are up to date.
  2. Make sure you know and understand your organisations values, belief’s and purpose if you have them.
  3. Liaise with senior leadership and the board of trustees if appropriate asking the questions that will help them discern a particular position.
  4. Make sure that any claims you make about the situation are evidenced factually
  5. Make sure that any statements you make on behalf of your orgnaisation or client aren’t performative, but are backed up by values, beliefs, and purpose – and that you commit to and undertake action if necessary.

Check out these useful links to remind yourself of some of the basics, we as PR Professionals need to abide by:

As CIPR members, we are all expected to abide by the Code of Conduct, and more details can be found on the CIPR Professional Standards webpage.

For any ethical questions, you should also feel free to call the CIPR Ethical Hotline, open from 09:00 until 17:00 (GMT) on +44 (0)20 7631 6944.

CIPR have also produced an Ethics Decision Tree which can be useful when evaluating situations, and have produced guidance on professional standards in lobbying. There are also a number of other resources on the CIPR website, which can be found on their ethics page.