Ethics in Public Relations

What is the purpose of professional codes in the field of PR and how effective are they?

Essay, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Marlena Braeu, 21 Oct. 2009

Ethics in Public Relations have emerged to one of the key topics in PR theory and research over the last decades. This is on the one hand due to the growing professionalization and institutionalization of PR, on the other hand stories of PR practitioners violating existing moral conceptions by deliberately lying to the public have been all over the media and confirmed the bad public reputation of PR as a manipulating, untrustworthy industry. Many sources even refer to the term „public relations ethics“ as an oxymoron (Parsons, 2004, p.4; Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.1), meaning that it cannot exist because of the nature of PR as a deliberately manipulating practice. Hence setting up certain ethical rules and codes of conduct should improve this public image and provide guidelines to practitioners. Thus the main question raised in this essay is: What is the purpose of professional codes of conduct? And how effective are they?

Of course public relation practitioners face certain difficulties when it comes to ethics. PR is supposed to establish public trust, but nevertheless it is paid, order-bound communication. Practitioners are in the challenging position to serve the public interest as well as the employer’s interest, which can in fact often be contradictory. For example when your client asks you to stress certain aspects of a new product and leave out others, this can easily be interpreted as lying to the public. As Bentele (2008, p.7) outlines: „In general the thesis can be supported that PR ethics oscillates between poles of a utilitarian ethics connected to the organization and an ethics of responsibility that is connected to the named communication partners.“ Furthermore the practitioners personal values and morals and the standards of the public relations profession have to be taken into account (Wilcox&Cameron, 2009, p.73). Professional organizations responded to this ethical dilemma by developing certain codes of conduct that should apply not only to their members but to every PR professional. Those codes are supposed to provide guidance in ethical questions to individuals but their main purpose probably is to strengthen the perception of PR as a profession. Resolving ethical questions and providing clear standards on what is right and what is wrong is crucial to a profession. Since other typical characteristics of a profession like prescribed standards of education or laws that govern admission to the field will never apply to public relations because of the freedom of speech, PR justifies itself through a social component of professionalism, which is serving the public interest (Bivins, 1993, p.117; Parsons, 2004, p.18). “Every profession has a Marlena Braeu, 21 Oct. 2009 moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations has harmony - social harmony” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.1). In order to secure the public interest, restrictions on behavior come into consideration. “Thus if we accept this obligation to act in the public interest, we voluntarily restrict professional actions by that obligation” (Bivins, 1993, p.119). If founding professional organizations such as the PRSA was the first step towards professionalism in PR, setting up ethical codes of conduct was a logical second one.

Today nearly every national public relations organization has its own set of ethical codes. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions lists more than 850 different codes of ethics on its website (Parsons, 2004, p.67). Most of them are quite similar to each other and cover the moral principles of honesty, integrity and fairness. Some are very clear about the ethical do`s and don`ts, some are more vague and provide more of a general guideline to ethical behaviour and human rights, like the Code of Athens. The Code of Athens was passed in 1965 by the Confédération Européenne des Relations Publiques (CERP) and accepted by most European PR organizations, including the IPRA. It encourages PR practitioners to respect the Charter of the United Nations and the moral principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is therefore very generally phrased and contains suggestions like: “A member shall act, in all circumstances, in such a manner as to take account of the respective interests of the parties involved; both the interests of the organisation which he/she serves and the interests of the publics concerned“ (Code of Athens, 1965). This describes the ethical dilemma perfectly, but provides no solution or guideline at all. Since it was just too unspecific and referred too frequently to general human rights, the Code of Athens was followed by the Code of Lisbon in 1978, which is structured more clearly and provides more specific norms of conduct. It distinguishes between moral behaviour towards clients and employers, the public and the media, as well as towards colleagues and associates (Bentele & Seidenglanz, 2008, p.7). It rests upon the concepts of transparency and dialogue- orientated communication and provides a solid basis for ethical behaviour. Again, this code formed the basis for many other European PR codes. In Germany for example, it was slightly modified - because one paragraph was considered incompatible with German law - and later complemented by a national code, the “Seven Self- Marlena Braeu, 21 Oct. 2009 Commitments”. The Code of Lisbon was altered several times according to ongoing developments in the field of public relations.

The most common code of conduct in the field of PR is probably the Code of Professional Standards by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). After undergoing a lot of criticism for being to vague, lacking specific advice or even being internally contradictory (Bivins, 1993, p.119, Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.23), the code was revised in 2000. It now comes along with specific do`s and don`ts, “examples of improper conduct”, an official interpretation and a lot of additional material like case studies and special advisories for certain branches of PR. It even begins to cope with the demands of online-based public relations, mentioning websites and “grass root campaigns” in the code and providing a special advisory on deceptive online practices. (PRSA Member Code of Ethics, 2000). Not to give out expensive gifts to journalists, not to lie to or to mislead the public, to avoid conflicts and to strengthen the public’s trust in ones profession - all of those principles make perfectly sense. But even if you cannot criticise the codes internally anymore, there are still some major problems left: First, they have “no teeth” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.24) and second, only a minority of practitioners actually know about them.

The enforcement of a code is of course limited by the organization’s authority, because codes are only enforceable to an organization’s members. Only ten percent of active PR professionals in the USA are members of the PRSA (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.24). And even for members of the organization, the punishment for violating the code of conduct is relatively harmless. It ranges from admonishment to expulsion from the organization (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.24). “That is a far cry from the punitive power wielded by organizations in professions in which practitioners are licensed” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995, p.24). Lawyers and physicians can ultimately be banned from their occupation when violating canons of professional ethics, but a public relations practitioner is “protected” by the freedom of speech. In 2002 the case of the lobbyist Moritz Hunzinger became very popular in Germany. Hunzinger had paid high amounts of money to several German politicians - amongst others the German minister of defence - for PR appearances, which led to their resignation. Hunzinger was officially admonished for harming the reputation of the profession by the German Council of Public Relations (DRPR), the German PR sector’s organ of voluntary self-control.


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Ethics in Public Relations
What is the purpose of professional codes in the field of PR and how effective are they?
University of Westminster
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ISBN (eBook)
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468 KB
pr, public relations, ethics, code, code of conduct, code of lisboa, dgpr, ethik
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Marlena Bräu (Author), 2010, Ethics in Public Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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