Obtaining the informed consent of participants is a central ethical tenet of social research. However, in PR contexts the boundaries between different stages of research can be blurred such that it is difficult to determine at what point and to what degree is it possible for research participants to give their consent. While it is true that traditional concerns and processes around consent may not be relevant for PR, this does not mean consent is not an issue.
In PR contexts participants are active in negotiating a range of decisions about how the research is conducted. The researcher can become part of a complex set of relationships within the research process wherein s/he has accountability to, and with, those researched. Consent as a formal, discrete criterion becomes marginalised. However, researchers should be alert to the possibility that not all participants are involved to the same degree. Some participants may be inherently more central to the research activity or more powerful/influential within the community, perhaps acting as gatekeepers to other participants. Whatever the reason, it is important that the consent of people ‘less central’ to the situation is not presumed. In this regard, researchers should also take account of the possibility that some participants may be more vulnerable than others (for reasons either internal or external to the research).
The lack of clearly defined points at which consent should be gained can cause difficulties in dealing with Ethics Committees. Given PR’s radical approach to intra-research accountability, there is considerable debate about the extent it should try to be externally accountable. Nonetheless, working within the established arrangements for ethical governance (RECs) remains a practical necessity, which gives rise to practical problems. PR work is often phased and its precise unfolding difficult to anticipate, such that co-ordinating PR with the structured expectations of many RECs can be difficult. Furthermore, RECs are largely geared to more traditional forms of research and, to date, have tended to take little account of the views of research subjects that play a central role in determining the ethical trajectory of PR work. Participants’ views on ethics are an under-researched area. Within PR, issues of accountability may also extend to group members, or members of social categories who are beyond the remit of a particular piece of research.