PR Ethics: Good Business Practice or Oxymoron

I often speak before college students about the challenges and rewards of a career in public relations. There is a question that always seems to come up: What if a client or employer wants you to do something unethical?

It’s a good question. Can a PR practitioner be ethical?

It harkens back to PR’s early days when press agents generated publicity through sensationalism with little or no regard to the public or the truth. Today, we still wrestle with that perception of PR pros as “spin doctors” who manipulate the public with half-truths or fake news.

I tell the PR students don’t despair, there is help available.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) developed the Code of Ethics to assist PR pros in identifying ethical problems, analyzing them, and taking action.

PRSA members sign a pledge to conduct themselves professionally “with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.” The code states our values to: Advocacy, Honesty, Expertise, Independence, Loyalty, and Fairness.

The bottom line: The public interest and free flow of ideas always win.

Critics say, while the code contains a lot of admirable goals, it is virtually unenforceable. They argue that few cases ever end up before the PRSA Board of Ethics, as most cases get dropped or resolved. Besides, it only applies to PRSA members.

The code may not carry the weight of law, but it gives PR professionals a guide to responsible behavior. It makes us question our actions and whether we are doing the right thing – not just for us or a client, but for everyone.

The code is our “how-to” guide on anticipating, preparing for and reacting to ethical dilemmas.

One of my PRSA friends tells the story of disagreeing with a CEO over a sketchy PR tactic being proposed. She stewed on it for a while then took the Code of Ethics, which she had posted at her desk, into the CEO’s office. She showed him the problem. He changed course after seeing it in black-and-white.

It takes courage to confront a leader or a client about unethical behavior. But it helps to have a professional organization like PRSA back you up.

PRSA has designated September as “Ethics Month” – a time to renew our oath to conduct ourselves professionally with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.

It’s a good time to brush up on the PRSA Code of Ethics, so we are ready to have those tough, yet necessary, talks with those in power.