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A discussion of PR ethics

Let’s talk ethics. Why? Because in today’s world, we need to keep this conversation alive as much as possible. And because considering ethics is like exercising a muscle – if you don’t do it every so often, your ability atrophies.


The recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation of “fake” news has certainly pushed the discussion of ethics, or lack thereof in some cases, back into the headlines. Questions from the U.S. Government in 2005 about the authenticity of video news releases spurred new allegations and legislation for the PR industry. For quite some time, federal guidelines have required sponsored segments or “pay-to-play” stories be disclosed by broadcasters; however, the Policy Council for the Free Press says they are not being enforced.


Even the Better Business Bureau, which aims to build trust, maintain a positive track record and advertise honestly, is under investigation for allegedly awarding “A+” ratings to businesses that paid an accreditation fee and “F” grades to those opting not to join the organization. These ratings, often promoted by organizations and their PR teams to build credibility and trust among consumers, can be a key decision-making resource for consumers looking for the right business to patronize.


Adding another layer of complexity to the discussion is the explosive growth of social media. This consumer-generated “24/7 media” did not start with rules – people made them up as they blogged, posted and tagged online. And, the FCC is still trying to keep up and enforce disclosure rules to prevent such tactics as astroturfing.


These recent developments are prompting more colleges and organizations to offer classes in PR and business ethics, host ethics hotlines and hold transparent discussions to explore the decision-making process. Indiana State University hosted a discussion for students with a fictitious scenario regarding investor relations. And at Cone, we host our own seminars and orientation sessions in communications ethics to help employees explore a variety of situations and the guidelines that can assist in making the appropriate ethical decisions.


Have you ever made a decision in PR that you now wish you could take back? Hopefully not, but regardless of the answer, I am sure many of you have experienced challenging and uncomfortable situations. Has anyone ever asked you to lie to a client or the media – perhaps just ”fudge” the truth or “spin” a story to generate the most favorable media coverage? What about posting comments online for your client’s new product purporting to be a consumer reviewer? If someone asked you to do this, what would you do?
If you’re stuck, consider turning to the Public Relations Society of America. The PRSA offers guidelines in PR ethics that every practitioner should know:

  • Define specific ethical issues
  • ID internal/external factors that may influence the decision
  • ID key values from PRSA Code of Ethics
  • ID each stakeholder who may be affected by your decision and define your obligation to each
  • Select ethical principles to guide in the decision-making process

Remember, the field of journalism was founded as the watchdog of the government, reporting on the truth and protecting citizens, but social media can blur the distinction between journalism and public relations practices. Notwithstanding, everyone in PR has a responsibility to protect the integrity of our chosen field and our role as trusted counselors.
When in doubt, talk to someone you trust about making ethical decisions that affect key stakeholders. Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D. from the Institute for Public Relations, sums it up best when she states: “Careful and consistent ethical analyses facilitate trust, which enhances the building and maintenance of relationships – after all, that is the ultimate purpose of the public relations function.”

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