PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Journalism ethics do not apply to public relations
© 2012 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Is "public relations ethics" an oxymoron?

Absolutely not! -- 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 ...) there is no universal standard for 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 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.

The same should be true for public relations. It is, after all, a well-established field of professional endeavor. And, it has professional organizations such as The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the somewhat broader and more encompassing International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) that have codes of ethics.

How well these organizations of communication professionals enforce their own codes of ethics can be discussed another day.

The problem is public relations people are often judged by the standards of other professions.

Regrettably, 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 would have to be different. This doesn't, however, mean that one is any more or less ethical than the other. It just means they have different goals, guidelines, and norms and should only be judged by the standards of their own profession.

Public relations and journalism have very different professional standards.

To see how different these standards are, compare the ethical codes of the largest professional organizations for public relations practitioners with the code of ethics for professional journalists.

Communicators need to be aware of one another's professional standards.

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. And, this is not merely an academic admonition. It's practical advice that could pay long-term dividends once you're working and 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 Code of Professional Standards            

Online Readings in PR Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page
15 Oct 2016