Let’s talk ethics! – The PRSA Code of Ethics (part I)

This is the first in a three-part series on ethics. It’s adapted from an article I originally wrote it in 2007.

Spin doctors. Flacks. Even liars. Public relations professionals get called lots of names—and perhaps sometimes those names are well-deserved. PR can be an ethically-challenging line of work.

Practitioners are, essentially, paid to make their clients look good. That could mean making a company look like something it’s not. When does framing become deceiving? What level of friendship is appropriate with journalists? Is it a gift—or is it a bribe? All public relations professionals must face these questions—and many more ethical dilemmas—during their careers.

Ethical standards are becoming an increasingly vital distinguishing characteristic of the best employees within business in general and professional communication in specific. As scandals rocked the news on an almost nightly basis, trust became a precious commodity. PR professionals have a unique opportuntiy to build trust in the world.

We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the public to act with integrity. We must also remember that we’re acting on behalf of paying clients. The PRSA Code of Ethics, the writings of Sissela Bok, and Sherry Baker’s “Principled Advocate” model combine to offer help to those who desire to take the high road.

PRSA Code of Ethics

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is the world’s largest organization of public relations professionals, with more than 28,000 members organized into more than 100 chapters nationwide. PRSA is one of the most influential organizations affecting public relations not just in the United States but also throughout the world.

The PRSA Code of Ethics “is designed to be a useful guide for PRSA members as they carry out their ethical responsibilities.” It lists professional values such as advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. The code also contains provisions encouraging the flow of information, competition, disclosure, protection of trust, and development of the profession.

In addition to outlining general principles of ethics, the code provides guidelines detailing specific examples of the principles. For example, underneath the heading “Conflicts of Interest,” the code reminds PRSA Code of Ethics PRSA members to put the interests of clients ahead of their personal interests, to avoid doing anything to trigger such conflicts, and to let the clients know about anything that might even appear to cause a problem. It spells out that failure to disclose financial interests in a client’s competitor would be a direct violation of this principle.

One of the strengths of this Code of Ethics is its emphasis on application. In many cases, a concerned professional can test a situation against the guidelines given in the code and see clearly whether the proposed action violates any of the principles are not. A familiarity with the code would allow someone to perform this check instantaneously. It is clear and simple in its provisions.

This strength in the code also becomes its weakness, however. By including exactly what is or is not allowable in certain circumstances, the writers of the code have limited its applicability to other circumstances. In addition, the nature of the code introduces a strong tendency for professionals without an inner ethical compass to justify living the letter of the law without living the spirit of the law. The code is not enforced, making it even easier for practitioners to stretch the limits of what might be allowable.

The ethical imperatives of the PRSA Code of Ethics should certainly be followed. Practitioners who desire to be in the clear ethically should read and follow all of its suggestions. However, to truly become the best one can be ethically, it’s necessary to look beyond the simplistic guidelines of the code to find ethical advice that can confidently address more complex dilemmas.

For more help with the tough ethical questions, stay tuned for Part II.


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(logo courtesy of PRSA Newsroom – used for illustration only, not endorsement)

6 thoughts on “Let’s talk ethics! – The PRSA Code of Ethics (part I)”

  1. I really liked the line “PR professionals have a unique opportuntiy to build trust in the world.” It was always frustrating to me in college when my friends would give me a hard time about going into a field that was designed to lie to people. To me, that said they had a negative opinion of me personally, to think I would actively choose a field that was honestly inherently evil. I like the way you’ve said this.

    1. I really believe it. Sure–our profession has some negative types, but I really do think that we’re uniquely positioned to build trust as well. I occasionally joke about “selling your soul” to work in PR, but the truth is that most of the PR professionals I know are committed to the truth and passionate about what they do.

      If those people thought going into PR meant lying to people–well, they obviously didn’t understand you or PR, at least the kind we learned.

      1. That’s been my experience, as well. And regarding the understanding in your last paragraph, I agree, completely.

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