Saturday, 27 February 2010

Does Ethics Exist in PR?

Creating a positive reputation for a company in the public's eye is essential for the survival of any organisation. Unfortunately, for many PR practitioners, this means using whatever means possible, including any unethical methods, in order to create the "right image" for their organisation and still maintain a pristine reputation amongst the general public. It is because of these dubious tactics by certain PR practitioners that lead journalists to call them "PR flakkers", a negative term given by journalists to PR practitioners for manipulating, self-serving information, which does not tell the whole story most of the time (Parsons 2004;5).

‘Truth telling is not a matter of speaking the truth but is rather a matter of speaking what one believes to be the truth’

Michell Green (2003)

The role of PR as a practice has had three major interpretations: controlling publics, responding to publics, and achieving mutually beneficial relationships among all publics (Newsom and Scott, 1985). Within the first interpretation lies the root of the belief that PR is persuasive by nature, the idea that PR practitioners would do anything in order to achieve their goal.

From a PR point of view, this interpretation is open to debate. ‘Ethical harmony is essential for social stability. And social stability is the mission and product of public relations’ (Sharp, 1990;25). In PR, credibility is vital. It is logical that an ethical business practice is better tha

n an unethical one when it comes to reputation and public image. Every person has their own ethical morality and follows those ethics on a regular basis, however, when it comes to a company’s ethics, the result might be contradictory to the practitioner's own beliefs. And here in lies the question. Is a PR practitioner's ethic's based on their company's standpoint or visa versa? To what extent will a PR practitioner bend their moral ethics to please their employer?

According to Bowen’s research, which supports a historical trend of associating PR with all things that are unethical such as lying and spin doctoring. She writes that many critics argue that there cannot be ethical PR for the reason that the practice itself is manipulative. The answers to the above questions, lies in that the PR department in a company has to follow its company’s ethical standpoint for the PR’s beneficial reasons. However if the company’s morality is not in accordance with the PR practitioners own ethical beliefs, PR is responsible for applying their ability to cover any issues up in a way that it will manipulate the output of the message so it is believed to be ‘in the favour of the public’. This is why many critics have the opinion Bowens is referring to.

No formal guidelines exist that could explain how a member should go about behaving in accordance with the ‘public interest’, nor has any formal structure been developed where a practitioner may contribute to the public interest on behalf of the profession (Parsons, 2004). Parson is not the only author discussing the lack of rules in PR; many others have joined the big debate, and everyone has their different points of view. However, it is interesting that they all have the same conclusion, that the PR When it comes to ethical behaviour, it is up to each individual’s morality, like Albert Camus once said, ‘Integrity has no need of rules’ (cited Parsons, 2004;37). However that is not always the case when it comes to dealing with PR. The Codes of Ethics were designed by major PR associations in order to help and prevent any unpleasant behaviour amongst practitioners by adapting these broad guidelines for members of their organisations to follow.

The Codes were created in order to have regulations within PR and to create a better reputation within the professional bodies. The creations of the Codes are an attempt to turn PR into an ethical practise and recognised as a profession by other organisations. PR for PR!

In order for PR to be considered a profession there must be a shared definition of professional ethics between any organisations and the ethical obligations a PR practitioner must possess.

The PRSA provides no concrete guidelines for its members who need them in order to show professional responsibility when serving the public interest. Suggesting that members simply conduct their interaction ‘in accordance with the public interest’, these guidelines can be manipulated into the belief that something is beneficial for the public, however a PR practitioner must follow the client's request. PR 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 basic (Bowen).

It is quite interesting since every Code of Ethics is essentially a collection of moral principles and values. However it is noticeable that most scholars that discuss morality focus on the foundation of ethical principles. Concluding that the Codes are neither professional nor ethical and until fundamental changes are made, PR will fail in its aim of achieving a professional status (Parkinson, 2004).

In order to change the perception of unethical PR, it is not only vital to have concrete ethical regulations for PR professionals, but also to have laws that will restrict and punish any PR practitioner and not only the members of the PR associations.

The discussion on the questions whether the Codes of Ethics are effective and can help PR practitioners to be ethical is still a very popular discussion. Until there are better-structured regulations in the field of PR, other professions will continue to consider PR as an unethical practice. These regulations are needed in the field of PR in order to have better guidelines for the practitioners and with the intention that the public will know that for any unethical and untrustworthy acts, there will be consequences.

The purpose of the discussion is to illustrate the unethical side of PR, as there are no laws stopping the practitioners to work around the rules in intention of achieving their clients’ requirements. The evidence from this discussion proves that the Codes of Ethics are ineffective as they are only written for PR associations’ members and are only used as a guideline, one of the biggest issues with the Codes of Ethics is that they do not cover the majority of the practitioners who are working within PR. What about those who are not members of big PR associations? Does that mean they can do what they please with no further punishment? This is still arguable, as mentioned prior, the PR associations need to come up with more strict rules and laws that would consider all PR practitioners and not only its members. By adapting more strict and structured regulations in PR, the public and other professions may change their existing view and start to consider PR practice as a profession that has values and rules, and if any of those regulations are broken there will be consequences.


Newsom, D. and Scott, A. (1985). ‘This is PR: The Realities of Public Relations’. Wadsworth, Belmont

Parkinson, M. (2004). ‘The PRSA Code of Professional Standards and Member Code of Ethics: Why They are Neither Professional or Ethical’. Public Relations Quarterly, Fall, 27-31

Parsons, P. (2004). ‘Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice’. Institute of Public Relations, London

Sharp, M (1990). ‘Harmonizing ethical values in the global village’. International Public Relations Review. Vol 13, no 3. P 25

1 comment:

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