Ethics Thought Leadership

Ministers, Moms and Public Relations Ethics

Various newsmakers are drawing media attention today as much for their use of public relations, as for the actions that thrust them into the public spotlight in the first place.


First it was Ted Haggard’s apologetic publicity tour, in which he spoke about his sexual conduct and the related allegations against him. Then it was Rod Blagojevich making the talk-show rounds to explain how he plans to clear his name, in the wake of his impeachment as Illinois Governor. And now, it’s Nadya Suleman and her decision to engage a public relations firm to deflect the media maelstrom over her use of in vitro fertilization, which resulted in her giving birth to octuplets, when she already had a young family of six children.


What’s amazing in all of this is that the media, along with industry watchers and commentators, are questioning the ethics of representing clients whose actions and choices they don’t support—while at the same time creating a feeding frenzy that would be impossible to navigate without professional help.


This is an issue our industry periodically faces. How could we possibly agree to represent companies that produce alcoholic beverages or tobacco products, or causes that advocate pro-life or pro-choice positions, or countries whose policies clash with America’s?


PRSA’s position on the ethics of representing such interests is clear.


Our Society’s Official Statement on public relations says that: “Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions.”


Even more importantly, our Code of Ethics also makes it clear that there should be no question about whether such interests deserve the right to public relations representation.


With regard to advocacy, it says “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”


About fairness, it notes that “We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”


And on conflicts of interest, it requires that a PRSA member shall “Act in the best interests of the client or employer, even subordinating the member’s personal interests.”


While controversial and ripe for tabloid banter, these examples remind us of our duty in the marketplace of ideas, the value of diverse opinions, and the role of information in the decision-making process.


While we will not agree with the actions of every company, cause or individual we represent, we are a profession built on the First Amendment and the right to freedom of expression. Complex and controversial issues require our expertise and counsel, and the public good benefits when we tell their stories in accurate, truthful, respectful, and otherwise ethically sound ways.


Don’t you agree?


Michael Cherenson, APR, is PRSA’s 2009 Chair and CEO

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Hear, hear! Well-said, Michael, and a timely reminder that just as anyone with legal concerns deserves the best representation possible, so do ordinary folks and companies in a public controversy.

    And as you surely know, Nadya Suleman’s sure-footed spokesperson is Joann Killeen, APR, Fellow PRSA . . . and a former LA chapter professional of the Year.

    She clearly gets it.

  • I agree in theory with the concept, but let’s remember that Ivy Ledbetter Lee lost the title of “Father of Public Relations” to Edward Bernays in part because of Lee’s counsel to the Nazi party.

  • Every side deserves representation, but not necessarily by me. Let’s be clear about “subordinating the member’s personal interests.” The PRSA Code of Ethics says members should “avoid actions and circumstances that … create a conflict between personal and professional interests.” The old code (pre-2000) was even clearer with language to the effect that it was unethical to represent a company or product that the public relations practitioner did not personally support. Every side deserves an advocate, but it is not ethical to be a professional advocate for something with which you have a fundamental difference in core values.

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