What is the role of ethics in public relations? The vast power PR agencies and teams now have in shaping narratives across politics, business, medicine and other domains requires careful, ongoing consideration of which clients and causes they represent, as well as how they present themselves and their work to the public.
Ethics are integral to PR. Every day, professionals apply their public relations skills within the context of ethical determinations, such as declining to render services for clients offering gifts in exchange for positive coverage and making sure all content they produce is original and free of plagiarism.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), perhaps the most prominent professional society in the field, has identified basic principles essential to ethical PR, including advocacy, honesty and independence. It has codified these concepts and others into its PR Code of Ethics, which all PRSA members must follow or else face possible expulsion from the organization. Let’s take a closer look at what the PRSA considers the foundations of PR-specific ethics.
What are Ethics for PR Professionals? A Look at The PRSA’s Ethical Guideposts
The PRSA has created a Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas, with common situations PR specialists will encounter listed on the y-axis and a set of 12 ethical concepts on the x-axis. Not every concept applies in every case, but between them, they provide comprehensive guidance on what PR professionals should strive for. The first six in particular cover the essence of ethical PR practice:
PR organizations should be responsible advocates contributing to informed public discourse. Accordingly, they should:
- Provide proper attribution of all sources
- Represent clients whose causes align with their own professional and moral values
- Push for a representation of multiple voices in public debate
- Conform with all relevant government regulations
Ethical PR requires accurate information and truthful representation. Honesty should inform every process, from how a firm markets and bills its services to how it manages competition with its peers.
Public relations skills are in high demand and should be continually refined to keep up with changing industry requirements. Education, research and professional development all play pivotal roles in keeping PR professionals’ skills in line with client expectations and capable of delivering the best possible service.
Independent, objective counsel is in the best interests of both PR firms and clients. Accordingly, agencies and teams should disclose any potential conflicts of interest and avoid issues such as wired contracts (i.e., rigged bids on public sector projects) that could compromise independence.
Clients should be able to trust their PR partners. They should get transparent contracts — free of hidden fees and loopholes — along with accurate representations of their positions to the public. At the same time, PR professionals must balance client loyalty with their obligations to the public, such as contributing to fair and informative discussion.
PR firms should be fair not only when dealing with clients and the public, but also when interacting with vendors, competitors and media institutions. Openness to different viewpoints and appreciation of free expression are vital throughout PR.
Ethics in Strategic Public Relations: What Master’s Degree Students Can Expect at GW
The Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) at the George Washington University (GW) covers all bases of modern PR, including ethics. The key course in ethics is titled Ethical Standards in Public Relations and Public Affairs.
This course provides an overview of the PRSA’s PR Code of Ethics and examines issues of character and virtue in PR. It also explores the question of whether PR is intrinsically an unethical field, since PR campaigns can struggle to balance the truth with client loyalty.
However, there is ample evidence that ethics and public relations skills do mix. A landmark study in the Journal of Public Relations Research found that PR practitioners were among the most ethical business professionals. The researchers made 30,000 individuals across multiple professions take a Defining Issues Test, discovering that PR specialists were the seventh most ethical group evaluated.
PRSA members have often identified the society’s PR Code of Ethics as one of the biggest advantages of membership. At GW, SPR students will study the principles of ethical conduct in PR in depth and can emerge more prepared to confront the many complex situations PR professionals regularly encounter. Key learning outcomes include:
- Developing a moral compass for a given working environment
- Translating personal values into public relations work
- Understanding how your actions can affect the reputations of others
- Realizing the extent of PR-relevant government rules and regulations
- Seeing the impact of implicit and cultural biases in ethical decision-making
- Knowing what questions to ask when confronted by an ethical dilemma
- Grasping major theories of ethical reasoning and applying them to specific scenarios
- Paying attention to how the media perceives PR professionals, and vice versa
The SPR degree offers background in the intersecting disciplines of PR, communications strategy and public policy. Awareness of relevant ethical principles, both as embodied in the PRSA’s code and as encountered through personal experience, is important to sustainable professional PR practice across all of these fields.
With that in mind, Ethical Standards in Public Relations and Public Affairs is one of the core classes of the SPR master’s degree. It provides crucial background for electives on topics such as public opinion management and crisis communications strategy.
To learn more about the requirements of the SPR degree, take a look at this overview of the main and elective courses. On the primary program page, you can read more about how the SPR track is specifically designed for today’s PR landscape and also answer a few brief questions to obtain our free brochure.