Public Relations: The Ethics Issue

How can public relations professionals argue the nobility of PR activities when we cannot deny that the field was birthed out of negative activities like propaganda campaigns, spin doctoring, misrepresenting the truth, and manipulating the media?

Dr. Shannon Bowen suggests that professionals promote the legitimacy of public relations activities by reminding publics and stakeholders that when a public relations function is enacted with noble intent, it can promote “a free flow of dialogue, information and communication between various groups, including publics and organizations.”

Professional associations, like the PRSA, have adopted codes of ethics as a means of heightening the field’s legitimacy.  Members are encouraged incorporate and promote their use of these standards and group effort this promotes the idea of uniform control and ethical practice.

Although a code of ethics is one way to address the moral issues associated with public relations, Bowen’s article shares that “practitioners often state that codes of ethics are too vague to be useful in their own careers or that they do not give enough specific guidance to be anything other than rudimentary.”

In my professional career, I have found the following arguments from Lance Porter and Shannon Bowen to be consistent with the industry:

  • Acknowledge that public relations professionals are paid to advocate ideas and to influence behavior: Although PR pros strive to provide positive brand and strategic management strategies, the client is the final word. Just like any other job, we have a boss (or numerous bosses!) who says “yes” or “no” and have to live with it.
  • Public relations professionals serve best as ethical consciences for organizations: Other management functions like management, finance and operations don’t usually take the time to consider how their actions will be perceived by publics outside the organization.  The average PR pro strives to wear legal, brand management, and communications hats at the same time.

I have found it best to operate by what I like to call “sunshine ethics” (an idea similar to that of the Sunshine Law).  If I wouldn’t make it available for public record and tell our donors about it, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it!

Where do you draw the line as a professional? Leave a comment sharing how you define ethical public relations practice and what issues you have encountered in your career.

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Yasheaka Oakley Owens

Yasheaka Oakley Owens is the owner of YOakleyPR, a woman-owned small business that provides public relations, social media, and online marketing support services to small businesses and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware.

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  • Toni-Anne Blake

    Medicine and law have similar roots. The beginnings of the industry is not a mark on it today. There is often an image problem with the profession because people don’t understand what we do. While it is clear that the intent of advertisers is to get us to buy, the work of public relations practitioners is often less obvious and may seem dubious. When we don’t tell the truth, promote transparency, and advocate for good business practices, we of course exacerbate a negative image.