PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
PR ethics became more confusing as public relations evolved away from journalism
© 2012; 2017 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Every profession has scoundrels as well as saints. The scoundrels are no reason to condemn the entire profession, nor are the saints a reason to glorify it.

Although they aren't universally observed, the codes of ethical standards endorsed by the PRSA and the IABC gradually became the key benchmarks for professional public relations behavior totally displacing the Canons of Journalism and Professional Standards of the Society of Professional Journalists that had once guided many early public relations practitioners.

Practitioners 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 be forced out of the profession.

In an earlier article about ethics I asserted that the same should be true of public relations professionals since it is a well-established field of endeavor with respected professional organizations such as The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the somewhat broader and more encompassing International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Both have long-standing codes of ethics.

There are, however, two complications that cloud this perspective.

  1. Some scholars refuse to accept public relations as a true "profession" because it doesn't meet all the criteria they normally associate with a profession. In particular, they point out that public relations practitioners aren't required to have a professional license or mandatory certification. Nor does public relations have a single, universally recognized and authoritative ruling body that issues sanctions for misbehavior. There are several professional organizations for public relations people, most notably the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the International Public Relations (IPRA), but membership is purely voluntary.
  2. Public relations has changed dramatically in the nearly two-hundred years that it has been possible to earn a living doing public relations work. And, as the field and its focus changed, its standards of acceptable behavior correspondingly evolved.

At least some journalism standards applied in the early days of public relations.

Public relations scholars usually divide public relations history into three or four phases in which its primary emphasis and methods of operating have differed, but they don't agree on the names, timing, or number of phases there have been. My version of this evolution is outlined in a series of online readings that begins with The three phases of public relations development. It traces the progression of public relations from its publicity phase through its explanatory phase to its current mutual satisfaction phase.

In its first phase, public relations was not an organized profession. It probably wasn't even a uniformly recognized type of work. -- It's only in hindsight that we see the seeds that eventually grew into a separate field. -- It was essentially an adjuct to, or sub-set of, journalism that tried to get publicity for its clients. In fact, many of the early corporate departments that would be called public relations departments today were then called press bureaus.

There were no professional organizations for public relations practitioners, and there were certainly no public relations codes of ethics. The earliest hint of anything remotely like a code of ethics was Ivy Lee's Declaration of Principles. He issued it to the news media when he began doing public relations work for the coal industry in 1906, but it only applied to him and his partner.

Looking back on those days when public relations was closely allied with journalism and most practitioners were former journalists and still saw themselves as providing information to the general public, it can be argued that the ethical standards of journalism, certainly those relating to truth, verifiability, and citation of sources, did apply to public relations. -- And, some of them still do. -- But, public relations today is no longer a part of journalism.

As the field of public relations evolved, so did its view of truth.

After World War I, public relations moved into its explanatory phase, a period some writers call its "persuasive period." That's when changing practices within the field produced widely divergent opinions about the role of truth in public relations.

Given these differences in thinking and in practices it's not surprising that questions and uncertainties about the ethics and professional standards of public relations arose. It pretty much remained that way until the end of the 20th century. That's when a wave of concern about ethical standards swept through the communication professions and most of the major organizations of professional communicators reviewed and revised their codes of ethical practices, Both IABC and PRSA made major changes. They also instituted policies that require members to periodically "renew" their commitment to their organization's code of ethics by signing a statement that they have carefully read the code and promise to abide by it.

At about the same time, the Society of Professional Journalists also reviewed and updated its Code of Ethics. Not surprisingly, there were many similarities in both the content and the style of changes that were made in all of the various codes. In many ways, they became more alike than they had previously been, and they all became broader in their scope to accommodate changes in life-styles and communication technologies. But, they also retained their unique perspectives and purposes. There are still -- and there should be -- different codes of ethics for different types of communication practitioner.

But, differences in ethical standards don't imply a lack of ethics.

Neither the widely divergent opinions about what constitutes ethical public relations behavior nor the fact that some public relations practitioners choose to ignore ethical considerations justifies an assertion that public relations has no ethics. Nor does it justify condemning the entire profession.

Just as Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called "Angel of Death" who conducted hideous and immoral experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, has never been a valid reason for condemning the medical profession, the fact that there are sleasy, lying con men who call themselves public relations people is no reason to condemn this profession or to deny the existence of public relations ethics.

There are multiple codes of ethics for public relations. Both the PRSA and the IABC have ethical standards, and those who want to call themselves public relations professionals ought to follow them. If you are - or if you aspire to be - a public relations practitioner, you should become familiar with these standards so you can ...

"Protecting integrity and the public trust are fundamental to the professionís role and reputation... Successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners."
-- PRSA Code of Professional Standards            

Online Readings table of contents Further discussion:
Journalism ethics are inappropriate
for public relations
Practicing Public Relations homepage
12 February 2017