STUDY: Ethics in Public Relations

The challenge for public relations centres on a need to move towards genuine professionalism.
The challenge for public relations centres on a need to move towards genuine professionalism.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw a succession of political, corporate, environmental and other institutional scandals involving unethical behaviour. These led to improved paradigms for public relations – news standards by which publics judge institutions and organisations.

This increased level of scrutiny and accountability, together with an increasing public demand for information and an ever-expanding range of communications channels, has contributed to the growth of the public relations profession. Evolving community standards and international media scrutiny – both mainstream and online – mean that contemporary public relations needs to constantly review its codes and practices against the ways the public question ethics in the business and political sectors as well as in wider society.

Public relations practitioners have been accused by the media and stakeholder groups of being spin doctors and describing a reality that suits their purposes. Miyamoto (1996) says this attitude is encapsulated in the descriptor that an activity is merely a ‘PR ploy’, a ‘PR manoeuvre’ or a ‘PR effort’. As Devin (2007) describes it, “practices such as ‘flogging’ (fake blogging), ‘astro-turfing’ (fake grassroots lobbying) and ‘stealth marketing’ (fake promotions with actors masquerading as private citizens) have come under criticism (Devin, 2007, p. 35).” Public relations campaigns like the one that helped ‘sell’ the Gulf War have gained criticism for the industry as one that deliberately obfuscates or alters perceptions.

In addition to these types of covert public relations initiatives coming under attack, aspects of everyday practice such as media skills training have been targeted. Lieberman (2004) says media trainers commonly advise spokespersons not to answer questions, leading to an increasing number of executives who ‘cloud public discourse’ in media interviews (2004, p. 40). This is inconsistent with the public relations role of helping facilitate a flow of essential information in the public’s interest.

Monitoring and criticism from outside and inside the public relations industry keep a watch on the vast industry that public relations has become. This, in turn, makes practitioners and the industry responsive to what constitutes appropriate conduct. The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) study into ethical issues concerning public relations (2004) concluded that ethical public relations should not aim merely to confuse or cause equivocation, but should inform and honestly influence judgement based on good reasons that advance the community. Public relations theorists such as James Grunig (1992) and Seib & Fitzpatrick (1995) agree that a necessary precondition of professionalism is ethically defensible behaviour. Such a framework derives from philosophical and religious attitudes to behaviour and ethics, laws and regulations, corporate and industry codes of conduct, public relations association codes of ethics, professional values and ethics, training, and personal integrity.

Ethics under the spotlight

A number of high-profile corporate crises around the world in recent years have raised questions about the nature and content of public relations advice being provided to companies. PR in the government sector has also come under close scrutiny. Alistair Campbell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary, resigned in 2003 following a government inquiry into misleading information presented in support of the Iraq War (BBC, 2003). The Phillis Inquiry recommended a range of reforms to separate party-political functions from government business, and some of its recommendations were implemented in the United Kingdom. Young (2007) argues that an independent assessment of government communications is needed due to the collective high expenditure on communications across government of all levels. Also, she says that messages are often put out ahead of elections to convince the public of a particular government’s achievements.

Ethics: standards of integrity

In short, ethics are standards of integrity: they are about doing the right thing. According to the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, “values considered essential to ethical life are honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, fidelity, fairness, caring for others, respect for others, responsible citizenship, the pursuit of excellence and accountability (Josephson, 2003).” Ethics refer to the personal values or deeply held belief systems that underpin the moral choices which are made someone to respond to a specific situation.

There are three basic ethical doctrines: deontology, teleology and Aristotle’s Golden Mean (Miyamoto, 1996):

  1. Deontology is the doctrine that ethics is duty-based and relies on moral obligation to tell the truth or keep promises. It does not take into account any consequences that may follow – for example, serious harm to an innocent person. This system depends on the moral principles and self-discipline of the individual public relations practitioner; however, it will change from person to person, depending on their cultural and traditional biases.
  2. Teleology is an outcome-based ethics doctrine where ‘the ends justify the means’. Teleologists believe that a right action is one that has good consequences. The rightness of an action is determined by its causes and consequences. This system would apply to public relations techniques used by special-interest groups such as Greenpeace, which in the past have involved civil disobedience (Susanto, 2007).
  3. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is based on what is best for the majority and on actions that represent moderation. This is generally the system used in a democracy where the minority sometimes has to sacrifice something of value if it is best for the country as a whole.

The basis of ethics lies in philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1726 – 1804) is credited as being a founder of modern ethics. He proposed a three-step process for solving ethical dilemmas:

  1. When in doubt as to whether an act is moral or not, apply the categorical imperative, which is to ask the question: “What if everyone did this deed?”
  2. Always treat all people as ends in themselves and never exploit other humans.
  3. Always respect the dignity of human beings. (Pieschek, 2002)

Kant’s categorical imperative can be applied to questions involving situations such as:

  • What if every organisation destroyed records when they knew that the Taxation Office wanted to see them?
  • What of every public relations consultant used friends and family to write letters to the editor to help positively frame a business issue on which they were working?

Role of ethics in PR

Public relations ethics have been defined by Parsons (2004) as, “the application of knowledge, understanding and reasoning to questions of right and wrong behaviour in the professional practice of public relations.” In PR practice, ethical behaviour relates both to the practitioner and to the organisation for whom the work is being carried out – that is, the ethical implications of the strategies and tactics used to solve challenges or create opportunities. Public relations practitioners therefore need to be concerned with their personal and professional ethics as well as with the institutional ethics of the organisation for which they work.

Ethical dilemmas are not easy; they are perplexing situations involving decisions about what is right or wrong. Often they are situations requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. For example, when an organisation downsizes, public relations practitioners can find themselves in a position of having to develop communications strategies and materials directed at colleagues who will lose their jobs. Similarly, ethical decisions have to be made by the CEO and the board of directors where the corporation could lose business and earnings, but where they accept these as the cost of doing the right thing. Recalling a product from supermarket shelves when an organisation is not legally obliged to do so is one example of this. In 1997, Arnott’s took all its products off supermarket shelves at a cost of $35 million during a poison-biscuit scare (Gettler, 2003). Making decisions in these types of situations is easier if the organisation has a predetermined framework for resolving ethical issues.

Seib & Fitzpatrick (1995) talk about the five duties of public relations professionals as being to oneself, the employer, profession, client and society. These are not necessarily listed in rank order, but emphasise awareness of the multiple levels of ethical consideration a PR practitioner may face. Using this list as a guide, when faced with an ethical dilemma, he may first need to look within himself at his own values. The five duties will guide decisions based on what the PR practitioner truly believes is right or wrong. Generally, his next loyalty will be to the client or organisation (except, of course, in situations of whistleblowing, when loyalty to the public has already taken precedence). The PR practitioner is obligated to assist and collaborate with his colleagues. Naturally, the society is an important element which contribute to ethical decisions. PR practitioners need to ask the question: “Will the society benefit from my decision, although I harm myself, my employer, profession or client?”

Business ethics cannot be considered in a vacuum, but rather needs to be looked at in a broader context. Developing a more formal system to aid ethical decision-making, Professor Ralph Potter of Harvard University says, “most individuals make ethical decisions based on four factors: the situation, the person’s values, principles and loyalties.” He organises these factors in what has become known as the Potter Box (see Figure 1.), an analytical tool that is used to resolve conflicts and is based on a combination of deontology and teleology. It is a large square divided into quadrants labelled ‘situation’, ‘values’, ‘principles’ and ‘loyalties’ (McElreath, 1993, p. 58).

An example has been used to apply in the following Potter Box. A consultant in a public relations consulting firm is considering passing on information to a journalist regarding a competitor’s alleged underhand tactics to win a large government contract for a construction company. The consultant was given the information confidentially by a friend, a disgruntled public servant. The consultant believes the activities, which have included an overseas trip and entertainment for public officials, have placed his client – another construction company – at a disadvantage om the tender process. In dealing with the dilemma of whether or not to contact the journalist, he uses the Potter Box (McElreath, 1993, p. 328) to help her decide what action to take.

Figure 1. The Potter Box

Defining the situation
The issues involved in the situation are whether the consultant obtained the details of the alleged conduct improperly; whether he should breach the confidentiality of the information goiven to him by his friend; whether the tactics employed by the competitor are legal; whether it is ethical for a consultant to tell the media what a competitor is doing; whether the information should be reported to proper authorities; and whether the actions taken will harm the public.The parties affected are the consultant, the consulting firm which may ‘lose’ the tender, the other consulting firm, the public officials and the media.
Identifying valuesThe values involved are fairness, loyalty, honesty and advocacy.
Selecting principlesPrinciples that apply include safeguarding confidences; respecting healthy competition amongst competitors, and advancing the flow of accurate and truthful information to serve the public interest.
Choosing loyalties to stakeholders
There are a number of loyalties, including the consultant’s friend, who gave him the information confidentially; the consultant’s client, who is pating him; the consultant’s firm that employ him; the wider public, who would expect public officials to behave more appropriately; and herself – that is, looking after her own career interests.An ethical decision in this case involves a number of alternatives that can be defended on ethical grounds. She can protect her friend and take no action, or she can act to ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people’. Given the consistent set of values, principles, principles and loyalties that have been identified for protecting the consultant, his firm, his client and the public, it would appear that it would be ethical to talk to the media about the tactics used.

PR ethics in practice

The two acknowledged ‘fathers’ of public relations, Ivy Lee and Edward E. Bernays, did much to legitimise PR practice. In 1906, Ivy Lee is said to have issued the following ‘declaration of principles’, which served as the original maxim for public relations:

This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news … if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. In brief, our plan is frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public constitutions, to supply to the press and the public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which is is of value and interest to the public to know about. (Cutlip, 1994, p. 45)

The role of PR in the modern day life is to act as a bridge between different publics and businesses, government, voluntary agencies, hospitals and other institutions by creating a favourable environment in which they can all operate (Johnston & Zawawi, 2010, p. 115).

As ethics are important to both organisational excellence and to public relations, practitioners should be at the forefront of the movement for ethical organisational behaviour. Because PR campaigns are often about important community issues, practitioners can be involved in activities that affect the lives of many people – for instance, encouraging drivers to speed less or promoting the wise use of water. This responsibility carries with it significant social accountability. Ethical counsel of the dominant coalition (the senior management team) sometimes requires moral courage to argue a view that is unpopular with other corporate functions.

Depending on whether or not they are part of a dominant coalition, PR practitioners themselves do not always have power (Grunig, 1992, p. 79). However they work for organisations which do have significant power, and whose actions and messages can have a profound effect on the society around them. Those organisations are judged and their reputations formed by the extent to which their behaviour and messages are in accord with the ethical expectations of their stakeholders. The four major roles played by public relations practitioners – counsellor, advocate, monitor and corporate conscience – all have ethical implications (Grunig, 1992, p. 309).

Ethical challenges for practitioners

Practitioners face ethical challenges in different aspects of their daily professional lives. Most ethical challenges in PR stem from social responsibilities issues or from relationships issues with the news media, a client or employer, colleagues or stakeholders. They usually result from poor relationships, inadequate corporate standards and conflicting obligations in certain situations where the values of a client, employer and society may not easily be reconcilable with a practitioner’s own values (Johnston & Zawawi, 2010, p. 120).

An ethical dilemma exists when a practitioner is faced with having to make choices. These may involve alternatives that are equally justified – significant value conflicts amongst differing interests or significant consequences on stakeholders in a particular situation. Ethical dilemmas can occur on a variety of levels. These are:

  • Interpersonal – This involves a dilemma occurring between a practitioner and peers or superiors in the workplace. Has he sat quietly in a meeting while his boss and other senior management discuss corporate responses to a situation that is legally safe but makes him personally feel uncomfortable?

Recommendation: In any organisation, the CEO needs to set an example in building a corporate culture of integrity.

  • Organisational – This can arise between a practitioner and an organisation’s internal policies and protocols. What does he do when his CEO insists that his (the CEO’s) wife’s favourite charity is sponsored, even though the organisation does not meet the criteria set in his corporate sponsorship guidelines?

Recommendation: Organisational behaviour which can facilitate ethical decision-making by practitioners includes enhancing the public relations voice in decision-making, promoting transparency and disclosure, improving the clarity of communications and increasing public relations participating in the compliance ethics activities.

  • Stakeholder – Ethical dilemmas can arise between an organisation and publics that have an interest in its actions; for instance, activists and regulators. Has the company established a citizens’ consultative committee for the purpose of seeking the community’s view about the proposed establishment of a landfill in the local area and then not considered its recommendations?

Recommendation: Organisations need to develop and document a process for dealing with ethical dilemmas as they arise. Ideally, they need to be resolved by a group; for example, an ethics committee comprising senior managers.

An ethical framework

The contemporary practice of ethics in the PR field profoundly rely on ethic codes which are held by various major professional public relations associations. Each association has a code of ethics which provides guidelines for professional conduct and which also demonstrates what should be expected from practitioners. Practitioners most of the time complain that PR codes of ethics are unclear and imprecise. This hinder the practitioners to use the codes throughout their careers (Bowen, 2007).

According to Kruckeberg (2000), “contemporary codified public relations professional ethics are a grossly inadequate primary referent for practitioners serving in the multiple roles of interpreter, ethicist and social policy-maker in guiding organisational behaviour and reconciling public perceptions.” The reason behind is that PR codes of ethics are generally held at a strategic level, with very few concern of what Creedon calls ‘strategic ethics’ (Creedon, 1996, cited in Kruckeberg, 2000, p. 38).

Limitations to existing codes of ethics also exist because membership of communications associations (such as the IPRA and PRIA) is voluntary and behaviour cannot be enforced. This is in contrast to professional registration in groups such as the Law Society and the Medical Registration Board. In these examples, not only is membership compulsory in order to practice, but transgressions can be sanctioned by suspension or withdrawal of one’s licence to practice (Johnston & Zawawi, 2010, p. 123). It is important to recognise that it is difficult for an association to sanction its members without giving rise to libel and restraint of trade issues. Therefore, associations need ongoing education and training programs to encourage ethical behaviour.


Ethics are the responsibility of all management and decision-makers. This necessitates public relations practitioners being active participants in business planning and strategy, ensuring that commercial objectives are balanced with responsibility to all stakeholders. Practitioners need to have conscious awareness of ethical standards being applied in daily work as well as at a strategic level for appropriate corporate policies and actions.

Public relations practitioners need to be committed to ethics and to embracing ethics as part of day-to-day behaviour and decision-making. When practiced properly, PR encourages social responsibility and a greater contribution to society. This gives the profession the opportunity to be a leader in ethical practice, not a follower.

Turnbull (2003) posits that the most successful organisations in the next decades will be those who build trust by aspiring to authenticity and practicing transparency (2003, p. 1). He says these concepts are key as societies react against past excesses and future uncertainties.

The challenge for public relations centres on a need to move towards genuine professionalism. Such a movement will not guarantee answers to the complex ethical quandaries that may arise, however, if more practitioners begin to bring a genuine professional approach to PR, then the subject-matter of ethics will be the subject-matter of PR. Ethics will become part of education and training, not be something ‘out there’ with which the practitioner is only abstractly concerned. Instead, PR practitioners will understand the professional ethics interact with professional conduct and are part of an overall search for excellence which in no way neglects ‘the bottom line’, but instead humanises it.


Works Cited
  • Bowen, S. E., 2007. Ethics and Public Relations. San Francisco, SA, Institute of Public Relations.
  • Cutlip, S. M., 1994. The Unseen Power: Public Relations – A History. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Devin, R. M., 2007. Rescuing PR’s Reputation. Communication World, 24(4), pp. 34-36.
  • Grunig, J. E., 1992. Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Johnston, J. & Zawawi, C., 2010. Ethical Practice. In: Public Relations: Theory and Practice. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp. 114-118.
  • Kruckeberg, D., 2000. The Public Relations Practitioner’s Role in Practicing Strategic Ethics. Public Relations Quarterly, 45(3), p. 35.
  • McElreath, M. P., 1993. Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns. 1st ed. Dubuque, IO: Brown & Benchmark.
  • Miyamoto, C., 1996. Public relations ethics 201: Challenges we just can’t ignore. Honolulu, HI, Mega Comm 96.
  • Parsons, P. J., 2004. Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice. 1st ed. London: Kogan Page.
  • Pieschek, M., 2002. Ethics: The best PR money can’t buy, San Francisco, SA: Public Relations Society of America International Conference.
  • Seib, P. & Fitzpatrick, K., 1995. Public Relations Ethics. 1st ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.
  • Susanto, S. R., 2007. The Transformation of Greenpeace Strategy in the 1990s: From Civil Disobedience to Moderate Movement. Global & Strategic, 2(1), pp. 186-205.
  • Turnbull, N., 2003. Trust, authenticity and transparency – a new paradigm in corporate reputation and branding. Sydney, Stakeholder Communications Conference.

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