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Ethics

In today’s practice of public relations, ethical conduct is quintessential. Modern public relations is defined by ethical principles, and no public relations practice should exist in contemporary society without a full commitment to ethical practice. Ethics for the public relations profession can be defined as a set of a priori principles, beliefs and values that should be followed by all who engage in public relations practice.

Ethical conduct transcends geographical and geopolitical boundaries, and a common standard for ethical conduct should apply across different countries and regions. Thus, international ethical standards should be closely examined and followed. Of course, cultural variables must be considered when public relations professionals practice abroad. However, practitioners should be cautious about determining that questionable practices are “culturally bound.” Rather, public relations professionals should carefully examine whether these practices are indeed commonly adopted within a culture and are considered to be ethical by the majority of local professionals. Also, a practice is not necessarily ethical just because it is widely adopted in one or more countries, as research on international media transparency has pointed out (Kruckeberg & Tsetsura, 2003; Tsetsura, 2005).

Recent business and communication scandals have emphasized the importance of honest, fair and transparent public relations, which is a must in today’s business environment. One of the greatest challenges for public relations professionals is to demonstrate and prove that new ways of thinking and new practices are indeed founded on ethical principles. New-generation professionals should follow honest practices to build a fundamental trust between publics and organizations. This transparency requires ethical decision-making and an increasingly influential role at the table where decisions are made.

The successful public relations practitioner is highly intelligent, literate and well-read, an educated global citizen with an extensive knowledge of both the history of civilization and of global current events. The practitioner possesses excellent professional communication skills and has both exceptional depth and breadth in public relations theory.

...(W)hile public relations professional education… cannot make students ethical,… such education can define and teach professional ethics.

Equally as important as this professional competence is public relations practitioners’ ethical conduct in both their professional and personal lives. Reflexively, the traits of successful practitioners help to assure that these professionals are capable of making informed and well-reasoned ethical decisions. Practitioners also must appreciate the societal, organizational and personal necessities for abiding by the highest ethical conduct. And, while public relations professional education perhaps cannot make students ethical, either professionally or personally, such education can define and teach professional ethics. It can provide a body of knowledge about the process of ethical decision- making that can help students not only to recognize ethical dilemmas, but to use appropriate critical thinking skills to help resolve these dilemmas in a way that results in an ethical outcome.

Educators and their institutions, in communication and consultation with practitioners, also must identify and resolve their own professional ethical issues related to public relations education. Such issues revolve around the types and numbers of students recruited for this professional education and the likelihood of these students’ success, as well as the numbers and credentials of faculty who are assigned to public relations professional education and the budgetary and other resources that colleges and universities invest in public relations education.

Summary of Recommendations in the Commission’s October 1999 Report

The October 1999 Report of the Commission on Public Relations Education identified ethical issues as a component of requisite knowledge in an undergraduate education, i.e., as a part of what graduates should know and understand. The report also identified ethical decision-making as a necessary skill. For graduate education, the October 1999 report identified public relations ethics as a content area that should be mastered at a level beyond that expected of undergraduates, recommending a seminar on public relations ethics and philosophy in a sample 30-hour program. Significantly, the October 1999 Commission report listed as first among its 12 assumptions: “The ethical practice of public relations is the context in which and for which education must occur.”

The report further declared that graduates of public relations programs should be “ethical leaders appreciative of cultural diversity and the global society,” further noting, “Public relations practitioners and educators should be leaders in building understanding that public relations has a fundamental responsibility to society and adds value to society.” The study of codes of ethics in public relations, as well as in other professions, was considered to be essential in undergraduate education. Specific legal issues such as privacy, defamation, copyright, product liability and financial disclosure were to be studied as well as legal and regulatory compliance and credibility. The 1999 Commission report further suggested that at least one course in public relations law and ethics should be included in the curricula of public relations programs.

The October 1999 Commission report identified some ethical issues that merited attention in graduate education:

  • philosophical principles

  • international ethical issues

  • concealment vs. disclosure

  • divided loyalties and social responsibility

  • accountability

  • professionalism

  • codes of ethics

  • whistleblowing

  • confidentiality

  • ethical dealing with the media

  • solicitation of new business

  • ethics of research

  • logical arguments

  • multicultural and gender diversity

The report urged Ph.D. candidates to conduct dissertation research that would help to address such important public relations issues as social responsibility.

Progress and Change Since the 1999 Report

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that public relations educators and professionals are recognizing the increasing importance and complexity of public relations ethics in the 21st Century. Exciting new research is being reported not only by senior scholars, but also by younger scholars who have made ethics an important and, in some cases, primary part of their research agendas.

New Research Findings and Analysis

The Commission’s most recent research strongly indicates that, given the organizational crises of recent years, ethics and organizational transparency are key issues frequently discussed by both practitioners and educators. Qualitative research participants urged undergraduate education programs to include an examination of ethical issues and societal trends in their curricula. These participants noted the need for transparency and the increasing trend in accountability, with ethics a more complex consideration today. The Commission’s quantitative research echoed these concerns.

And it has become abundantly obvious that public relations cannot be viewed as a “mass media” career bound by traditional media ethics. Rather, it must be seen as a profession of counselors who help to create and maintain an organization’s relationships with its stakeholders and with society at large through means that extend far beyond practitioners’ historic expertise in sending messages through the mass media. Public relations practitioners are counselors who are knowledgeable–theoretically as well as technically–about communication in its broadest and most philosophical sense. The ethical issues of public relations, therefore, extend beyond those of the mass media. Coursework and instruction dedicated to mass media ethics cannot fully satisfy the needs of public relations professional education.

2006 Recommendations

  1. All learning objectives in public relations education must be placed within the framework and context of public relations ethics. Professional ethics must not only be integrated into all coursework in public relations, but must also be given priority as a discrete component of the public relations curriculum. Public relations ethics are critically important because public relations practitioners share with other professional occupations not only the ability to significantly help (or hurt) their clients, but also the ability to greatly influence stakeholders and society at large.

  2. ...(N)o public relations practice should exist in contemporary society without a full commitment to ethical practice.
  3. Public relations practitioners have an unquestionable moral obligation to act professionally, i.e., in a socially responsible manner, within their own societies as well as within an emerging global community. To do so, the community of public relations professionals, both practitioners and educators, must publicly define their relationship to society as earning a position of trust. Their behavior must be consonant with the expectations of society, although they have the freedom and responsibility to determine what they ethically may and may not do as a professional community within their society’s moral parameters. These professional ethics must consider both the wider moral values of society as well as the aims of public relations practice.

    Of course, this “professional” role with its accompanying need for professional ethics necessarily elevates public relations practitioners above the organizational role of obedient technicians who blindly do the will of managers. Complex organizations depend on a range of professionals who have unique knowledge and skills and who exert great influence over the behavior of these organizations through their professional ideologies, theories, values and worldviews.

  4. The ethical values of such public relations professionals influence the behavior of their organizations, and thus their professional values become organizational values. Those in the public relations professional community must develop, continually refine and publicly acknowledge their professional ideology, values and belief systems to fulfill their professional responsibilities. These values can and must be taught to students who hopefully will accept and assimilate these common values that result in a morally defensible body of professional ethics.

The Commission recognizes the continuing validity of the recommendations of the October 1999 Commission report, but with even more emphasis. Specifically:

  • The Commission recommends that a consideration of ethics pervade all content of public relations professional education. This ethics content should be a readily identifiable component that is well-contextualized and integrated, particularly in introductory, campaigns and cases courses in public relations, as well as in law and ethics courses. The last must extend beyond the law and ethics of mass media to include public relations law and ethics. Indeed, the Commission urges that every public relations course begin its syllabus and its first class with the statement that every true profession recognizes that a fundamental priority of any profession is its responsibility toward society at large.

  • While public relations curricula may not have room for a dedicated public relations ethics course, one-hour short courses and mini-seminars on public relations ethics at the undergraduate level can provide a meaningful forum for contemporary ethical issues.

  • At the graduate level, seminars in public relations ethics are recommended, and graduate students, particularly at the doctoral level, should be encouraged to consider public relations ethics as a primary area of scholarly inquiry.

  • Educators and their students, particularly their graduate students, have an obligation to critically examine and add to the body of knowledge of public relations ethics through their research and other scholarship.

  • Educators and their institutions also must identify and resolve their own professional ethical issues that are related to public relations education. Those providing public relations education must fully appreciate:
  • the importance of public relations as a professional occupation in the 21st Century;

  • the knowledge and skills required for a successful career in public relations in today’s society;

  • the extreme competition for public relations positions;

  • the fact that only the most qualified and best educated students realistically can compete in this career.


  • As well as course content, academic rigor also must be ensured through normative standards. Preparation for a professional career in public relations demands rigorous professional education. In professionalized occupations, e.g., law and medicine, the needs of society are of first concern, followed by the professional community’s judgment of an individual aspirant’s worthiness to join that professional community. The goals of the individual student are of tertiary concern. This should also be true for the profession of public relations.

  • Finally, colleges and universities providing public relations education must ensure the adequacy of the numbers and credentials of faculty who are assigned to public relations professional education as well as the budgetary and other resources that institutions invest in public relations education.

The Commission notes that professional ethics are predicated upon the personal ethics of everyone who is part of the public relations professional community. Public relations icon Betsy Plank, who has been a leading member of the Commission since its inception, perhaps says this best:

In recent years, the more I have been concerned and thought about professional ethics, the more I am convinced that they must–inevitably–be grounded in personal behavior and character. What does it profit us if students can recite ethical codes and be critical of untrustworthy corporate behaviors but succumb to cheating, plagiarism, et al…? Or if faculty are not vigilant about penalizing such behavior?

Notes

Kruckeberg, D. & Tsetsura, K. (2003). International index of bribery for news coverage (Institute for Public Relations). Abstract retrieved September 3, 2006, from http://www.instituteforpr.org/index.php/IPR/research_single/index_of_bribery/

Tsetsura, K. (2005). Bribery for news coverage: Research in Poland (Institute for Public Relations). Abstract retrieved September 3, 2006, from: http://www.instituteforpr.org/index.php/IPR/research_single/bribery_for_news/

Plank, Betsy. Fax to Dean Kruckeberg, July 22, 2006