Practicing Public Relations
Public Relations Codes of Ethics

Because public relations has roots in journalism and many PR practitioners were once journalists, some people try to apply journalism standards to public relations. That's misguided and unfair to both professions. Despite using similar skills and tools, the two fields are fundamentally and philosophically different in the goals they have and in how they pursue them. They also have very different professional standards. One is not any better or any worse than the other. They're just different, and it's important to remain aware of those differences.

Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC
Professor Emeritus, Northern Kentucky University

PR and journalism have some similarities, but . . .

The ethical guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) all agree about the importance and value of such key concepts as truth, accuracy, fairness, human rights, freedom of speech, and democratic principles. But, that can be somewhat misleading.

The underlying differences between public relations and journalism are far more basic and far more critical than the similarities in what they value. According to their own professional standards and codes of good practices, there are fundamental differences in whom they represent and whose well-being they most directly serve.

  • Journalism serves the general public, and journalists are expected to act in the public's best interests even if such actions have detrimental effects on their employers.
  • Public relations, in contrast, serves the specific organization or client who is paying the practitioner to build and manage relationships that help that organization/client achieve its goals.
Note, however, that principled public relations practitioners and organizations such as PRSA and IABC which they have established are quick to append the caveat that even though public relations is meant to serve the needs of its clients/patrons, practitioners are simultaneously expected to refrain from any action that would have a deterimental effect on the general public.

Given this fundamental difference in orientation, it's inevitable that the specific standards which govern practitoners actions would have to be different. As stated above, this doesn't mean that one set of standards is inherently better or worse than the other. Nor does it mean that one group of professionals is more or less ethical than the other. What it means is that practitioners should be judged by the standards of their own profession and not by those of another field.

Some actions that would be appropriate and commendably ethical for a public relations practitioner would be viewed very differently and be condemned as unethical by the SPJ if they were performed by a journalist. Conversely, some highly regarded practices in journalism would be considered inappropriate and unprofessional according to PRSA or IABC standards if performed by a public relations person.

The following readings offer further discussion of parallels and divergences between journalism ethics and public relations ethics:

Journalists primarily serve the public's right to know.

Begin your comparison of the differences in journalism and public relations ethics by reviewing the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics at its website.

SPJ Code of Ethics

It outlines and explains the mainstream professional view of what are currently considered to be the acceptable norms of behavior for reporters, photographers, editors and other journalists working in the United States. But, don't jump immediately to the lists of prohibited behaviors and don't focus solely on the distinctions between what's acceptable and what's unacceptable. Start with the preamble and get a clear sense of to whom the professional journalists say they owe their primary allegiance and what they see as their over-riding purpose. Then you can go on to consider the values journalists say they espouse in more detail and in an appropriate context.

Accepting the code at face value, the needs and interests of the public always come first. They are even supposed to be placed before the needs and interests of the journalists' employers.

Public relations people primarily serve their clients' needs.

The clearest evidence of the difference between journalism and public relations' standards and values is found in the Public Relations Society of America's Code of Professional Standards which is on-line at the following link.

PRSA Code of Professional Standards

Wade through the introductory comments until you reach the PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values which "presents the core values of PRSA members and, more broadly, of the public relations profession," presumably in order of importance. It clearly indicates that advocacy for clients/employers is the primary purpose and value of public relations. It does, however, also noted that this advocacy should be done responsibly and in the public interest.

Other public relations related organizations' codes of ethics used to be similarly explicit, but all have undergone revision -- and, in my personal opinion, watering down -- within the past decade. They now seem less open and less willing to admit public relations' role as an advocate for its clients and to have an over-inflated -- and perhaps unrealistic -- emphasis on "the public welfare".

Consider, for instance, the following statement from the pre-1995 International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics:

    "Communicators should encourage frequent communication and messages that are honest in their content, candid, accurate and appropriate to the needs of the organization and its audiences. (emphasis added)

Now, compare that concise, direct statement to the current but much more ambiguously worded International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators. Although the practitioner's obligation to the client is frequently implied or alluded to in this version of the code, it isn't fully and directly admitted anywhere.

IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators

Were these professional codes of ethics recently revised?

Not in the last few years, but shortly after the turn of the century many professional organizations, including the PRSA, IABC, and SPJ, made sweeping changes in their long-standing codes of ethics. Each organization created its own special committees and undertook a thorough and careful review of its code, drafted revisions, and then submitted them to their entire membership for review and approval, a process that took as least a full year or, in some instances, longer.

In part, this was done because many of the codes were old and hadn't been reviewed or revised in decades. This meant that many of them had failed to take dramatic changes in communication technology and the increasing speed of modern life into account. They were way behind the times, and revisions were long overdue.

A second, perhaps more compelling reason was a fear of lawsuits. During the 1990s there had been a few high-profile, very nasty, and very expensive lawsuits filed by disgruntled practitioners against professional organizations which had publicly censured them or imposed sanctions on them for violating their organization's ethical standards. The embarrassed and angry professionals claimed they were unfairly treated by the organizations and had suffered financially and reputationally from these actions. In some cases, the courts had sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the organization that censured them to pay substantial damages. Not all of the cases went this way, but enough of them did to scare the professional organizations into taking a closer look at their codes of conduct and the ways they enforced them.

According to legal experts, many of these organizations' codes of standards and practices, as they existed at that time, were "unenforceably vague" and/or included too little "due process" to fully protect the legal rights of alleged violators. And, as was mentioned above, some of them were simply outdated and failed to address modern communication technology such as digital recording and playback, video surveillance, data collection and retrieval, social media, and the Internet.

So, even though the revisions were long overdue, they were primarily driven by fear of the legal and financial repercussions of possible future lawsuits and by concerns for the profession's image and reputation. They were, in short, made at least partially for public relations purposes.

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© 2003; 2017 Michael Turney