PR: Ethics for the sake of professionalism?

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Ethics in Public Relations have emerged to one of the key topics in PR theory and research over the last decades. This is on the other hand due to the growing professionalization and institutionalization of PR, on the other hand stories of PR practitioners violating existing moral conceptions by deliberately lying to the public have been all over the media and confirmed the bad public reputation of PR as a manipulating, untrustworthy industry. Many sources even refer to the term "public relations ethics" as an oxymoron (Parson, 2004; Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995), meaning that it cannot exist because of the nature of PR as a deliberately manipulating practice. Hence setting up certain ethical rules and codes of conduct should improve this public image and provide guidelines to practitioners. But how effective are they?

Of course public relation practitioners face certain difficulties when it comes to ethics. PR is supposed to establish public trust, but nevertheless it is paid, order-bound communication. Professional organizations responded to this ethical dilemma by developing certain codes of conduct that should apply not only to their members but to every PR professional.

Those codes are supposed to provide guidance in ethical questions to individuals, but their main purpose probably is to strengthen the perception of PR as a profession. Resolving ethical questions and providing clear standards on what is right and what is wrong is crucial to a profession. Since other typical characteristics of a profession like prescribed standards of education will never apply to public relations (because of the freedom of speech), PR justifies itself through a social component of professionalism, which is serving the public interest. “Every profession has a moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations has harmony – social harmony” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995). In order to secure the public interest, restrictions on behavior come into consideration. Thus if we accept this obligation to act in the public interest, we voluntarily restrict professional actions by that obligation.

If founding professional organizations such as the PRSA was the first step towards professionalism in PR, setting up ethical codes of conduct was a logical second one. Today nearly every national public relations organization has its own set of ethical codes. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions lists more than 850 different codes of ethics on its website (Read more about the Code of Athens, Code of Lisbon, PRSA Member Code of Ethics). Most of them are quite similar to each other and cover the moral principles of honesty, integrity and fairness. Some are very clear about the ethical do`s and don`ts, some are more vague and provide more of a general guideline to ethical behaviour and human rights.

Not to give out expensive gifts to journalists, not to lie to or to mislead the public, to avoid conflicts and to strengthen the public’s trust in ones profession – all of those principles make perfectly sense. But even if you cannot criticise the codes internally anymore, there are still some major problems left: First, they have “no teeth” and second, only a minority of practitioners actually know about them. The enforcement of a code is of course limited by the organization’s authority, because codes are only enforceable to an organization’s members. Only ten percent of active PR professionals in the USA are members of the PRSA.

And even for members of the organization, the punishment for violating the code of conduct is relatively harmless. It ranges from admonishment to expulsion from the organization. That is a far cry from the punitive power wielded by organizations in professions in which practitioners are licensed. Lawyers and physicians can ultimately be banned from their occupation when violating canons of professional ethics, but a public relations practitioner is “protected” by the freedom of speech.

So maybe those codes are nothing more than an attempt to professionalize public relations and improve its public reputation. Do professional codes not only state the obvious? Parsons (2004) says: “The primary argument against the requirement for professional codes of ethics is the belief that there need not be any special code of ethics apart from the moral guidelines within a given society”. It is true, that common sense and a basic understanding of morals and ethics would make a professional code unnecessary in large part, since those codes refer mainly to personal ethics. But so does the law – and still we need it. Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world where everybody lives up to moral ideals. A code of conduct’s right to exist lies in providing guidance when a practitioner sees his personal ethics challenged. However, those codes are limited by the individual. An unethical practitioner will not be bothered by a professional organizations` code of conduct.

In my opinion, ethics are key. Creating an atmosphere of social responsibility and moral values has become a key requirement to modern organizations and this will eventually have an impact on the profession of public relations itself. By helping to raise the ethical standards of the organizations they represent, public relations professionals will enhance their own reputation.

Watch the trailer of Thank you for Smoking, a very entertaining and eye opening movie about the industry of spin and ethics in PR:


Bentele, G. & Seidenglanz, R. (2008): How ethical do PR practitioners think? Evaluation of ethical values and attitudes of the professional field in Germany. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Seib, P. & Fitzpatrick, K. (1995): Public Relations Ethics. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Parsons, P. (2004): Ethics in public relations: a guide to best practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.

2 Responses to "PR: Ethics for the sake of professionalism?" (Leave A Comment)

Anonymous says
4 March 2010 at 19:51

just a tip, make sure you break up your long paragraph. A blog post shouldn't be so long. It's hard to read.

Marlena Bräu says
4 March 2010 at 23:37

Yes, I had some problems with the formatting earlier, changed that now. It`s still a bit long, but there`s just so much to say about ethics, right?
Thanks for the tip though :).

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