PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Journalism ethics do not apply to public relations
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Despite the cynics who snarkily say the term "public relations ethics" is an oxymoron, it isn't. Nor are public relations ethics absent from the workplace.

Many public relations practitioners are highly ethical. However, they are sometimes accused of being unethical by people who don't understand public relations and who erroneously use the professional standards of other fields to judge public relations activities.

Other than the Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. -- there is no universal standard of professional ethics. As each profession developed it created its own standards and expectations for practitioners based on the unique knowledge, values, challenges, and practices of that profession. In time, norms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior emerged and were formalized into codes of ethics that impose peer pressure on those working in that field.

Practitioners in any profession who follow the code of their profession and act ethically are honored and respected. Those who don't may be sanctioned, criticized or scorned.In extreme cases, those who violate the ethics of their profession can even forced out of the profession.

I wish I could say the same was true for public relations practitioners, but it's not. Neither the profession itself, nor the professional organizations that represent its members, have the same type and level of respect, clout, and legal recognition that state and local Bar Associations, Medical Associations, and most mainstream churches have. Part of the problem is the profession itself and the haphazard way it developed. Anyone who wants to "practice public relations" can do so. There are no minimum requirements or mandatory training required. You don't have to have a college degree in public relations, or in anything else. You don't even have to have a high school diploma. There have been and still are, although they're becoming less common, some successful practitioners who never had any educational preparation for performing public relations. Others may have a college degree, maybe even a Master's degree, but in wholly unrelated disciplines such as art, astronomy, history, music, or nuclear physics and never took any public relations courses.

Please, don't think this is the norm or a desired standard of the profession. -- It's not. And, most public relations practitioners working today have had appropriate training and have earned suitable academic and/or professional credentials or certifications. But, they have not been legally required to do so. -- The shameful reality this profession has to live with is the fact that the only thing someone has to do to be a public relations person is say: "I'm a public relations person." Beyond that, they may face the challenge of convincing someone to hire them, but there is no legal means of stopping them from making such a claim, taking on clients, or practicing public relations.

Well-established professional organizations such as The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the somewhat broader and more encompassing International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) are trying to address this and to make public relations a more highly-respected profession. They host conferences, publish newsletters and trade journals, offer training and certification programs, present annual awards for excellence, and encourage the highest standards through they Codes of Ethics.

Public relations practitioners are often judged by the ethical standards of journalism ...

Many people, including journalists who should know better, persist in using journalism standards to judge public relations activities. And, when this is done, public relations practitioners are inevitably found wanting and are castigated for being "unethical."

While it's true that public relations once had its roots in journalism and many public relations people were once journalists, it is misguided and unfair to both professions to apply journalism standards to public relations today. Practitioners in both fields do use some similar skills, and both are communicators, but the two professions are fundamentally different with very different missions, goals, masters, and operating policies.

In light of this, the standards for communicators working in these two fields have to be different. This doesn't mean one is any more or less ethical than the other. It just means they have different goals, guidelines, and norms and, therefore, should only be judged by the standards of their own profession.

Even though journalism has different professional standards than public relations.

To see how different these standards are, let's compare the ethical codes of the largest professional organizations for public relations practitioners with the code of ethics for professional journalists. And, to avoid any further complications, we'll consider only those codes developed by USA-based professional organizations.

We'll start with journalism and The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics whose roots go back much further than any of the others. That's because journalism has been recognized as a profession, and written about as such, for centuries longer than public relations.

The SPJ Code clearly and repeatedly asserts that a journalist's primary allegiance is to the general public and that the public interest should always be the basis for deciding what is and isn't acceptable behavior for journalists in the United States. Perhaps the opening sentences of the Preamble to the SPJ Code say it best:

"Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity."

The Preamble is followed by four major principles that should guide the work of journalistsis, each of which is expanded by additional examples and admonitions. In short form, the four principles are:

Within public relations there are also differences in professional ethical standards.

As mentioned above, the two largest and most well-repected professional organizations for public relations practitioners in the western hemisphere are the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. Each has developed its own code of professional ethics and, although they touch on most of the same issues, they are not in complete agreement.

We'll consider The Public Relations Society of America's Code of Professional Standards first. It claims that it "presents the core values of PRSA members and, more broadly, of the public relations profession." There are six of them, and the order in which they're presented, as well as the ways they're expressed, make it clear that advocacy for clients/employers is the primary purpose of public relations. But, it is not supposed to be blind or unrestrained advocacy. Subsequent statements in the Code indicate that any actions or statements should be done responsibly and in accordance with the public interest.

Here is the first of the PRSA's six core values and two of its later ones:

Finally, there is The International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators. It's a bit broader than the PRSA Code simply because of the nature and scope of the organization, and it has undergone more major and minor revisions in the last three decades than the PRSA Code.

Unlike the PRSA Code, the IABC Code is not limited to public relations. It definitely applies to public relations practitioners, but it's much broader and is also meant to apply to all the other various types of "business communicators" who are members of the IABC. This includes those deal with employee publications, media production, marketing, advertising, training, human resources, and dozens of other communication specialties found in modern business organizations.

Several pre-1995 versions of the IABC Code were very similar to the PRSA Code although, perhaps, a bit more tightly editted. They emphasized most of the same principles and were written in the same basic style as a third-person document that spoke of practitioners in a collective sense. For example, the IABC Code used to say things like: "Communicators should encourage frequent communication and messages that are honest in their content, candid, accurate and appropriate to the needs of the organization and its audiences." The latest version of The IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators is totally different. It's been reduced to 11 short, first-person statements that focus on the individual practitioner and what she/he does. They are very politically correct and well-aimed to target the "me-generation." But, they say nothing directly about the profession's values or the collective resonsibility of all practitioners, and they don't make any explicit references to a practitioner's obligation to clients or employers.

Here are three samples of those statements:

As a public relations practitioner, you can chose either the PRSA or the IABC approach to ethics. Or, for that matter, some other organization's approach or none at all. Personally, I hope you don't choose the latter course, but I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that you are not required to adopt or follow any ethical standard to engage in public relations.

Communicators often find it useful to be aware of ethical standards for professions beyond their own.

If you are - or are aspiring to become - a professional communicator, you should become familiar with all three of these organization's codes of ethics. This is not merely an academic admonition, it's practical advice that could pay long-term dividends once you're working. You never know when you'll need to ...


"The practice of public relations can present unique and challenging ethical issues. At the same time, protecting integrity and the public trust are fundamental to the professionís role and reputation. Bottom line, successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners."

-- PRSA Professional Standards            

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8 Sept 2020