Pull Stunts Like That and Word Spreads Fast …

I would hope that as public relations practitioners who disseminate information to the public and our clients, we would hold ourselves to the highest standards and operate with the utmost honesty and integrity, always adhering to the principles set forth in the PRSA Code of Ethics. The Code is intended to serve as a guideline for ethical conduct among PRSA members.

I’ve served as ethics officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) San Diego Chapter for the past five years. During that time, I’ve received numerous phone calls, e-mails and heard countless complaints from colleagues “ratting out” other colleagues about unethical behavior. They want the bad apple kicked out of PRSA or barred from practicing public relations altogether. Frankly, after hearing some of their stories, I don’t blame them. I want that too!

The problem is that the re-written PRSA Code of Ethics is not intended to be enforced.

You read that right. It’s no longer intended to be enforced.

So what’s the point of having a Code of Ethics if it can’t be enforced?

The point is that acting morally and ethically is the responsibility of all practitioners no matter what industry they serve. It’s really the responsibility of all humans on this planet. But I won’t go there.

It’s About Individual Accountability
I would hope that as public relations practitioners who disseminate information to the public and our clients, we would hold ourselves to the highest standards and operate with the utmost honesty and integrity, always adhering to the principles set forth in the PRSA Code of Ethics. The Code is intended to serve as a guideline for ethical conduct among PRSA members.

When the Code of Ethics was originally written decades ago, it was intended to be enforceable. However, no matter how much the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards tried to enforce it, there was always something preventing them from being able to boot a fellow member out of the Society. I believe only once was a member ousted from PRSA and that’s because he was convicted of a felony and he actually resigned on his own before the PRSA Board of Directors asked him to leave.

Emphasis on Enforcement of the Code
The Code was re-written 10 years ago and now states that “emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code.”

Whew. Glad that’s still in force. But that’s the only way a member can be kicked out of PRSA.

Stunts Leave Lasting Impressions … and Consequences!
That’s too bad, because I would surely like to see the guy get punished who deliberately called another local agency’s employees at their place of employment and spread malicious rumors about their boss and tried to hire them away on the spot, jeopardizing his growing business. Or the time one agency submitted work and passed it off as their own when clearly it belonged to someone else, and that someone else reported it to me and proved that it was their work. Stolen. Copyright infringement. The nerve!

Another that blew me away was an employee who silently collected data while employed by her agency, then did everything she could to sabotage that agency. She was discovered and fired, threatened with a lawsuit, and more. The agency principal reported the ethical violation and asked me to serve as an independent expert witness if the suit went to trial. It settled out of court. The employee then had the audacity to apply for PRSA membership (which requires agreeing to abide by the Code of Ethics).

Thankfully by that time we were alerted to her shenanigans. I don’t recall whether she actually made it into the Chapter or not, but I do know we kept a very close eye on her. The stories go on.

Trust me, you pull stunts like that and word spreads fast. We might not be able to enforce the Code of Ethics, but there is a reason we talk about reputation management. Start by managing your own reputation!

Know the Code
Brush up on the Code of Ethics on a regular basis so that it stays top of mind. You’ll have plenty of instances when a friend or colleague will call you with a scenario and you’ll be caught in a situation that will leave you scratching your head wondering whether you should go one way or another.

Should you get involved in that client deal? It could increase your billings but something in your gut tells you it seems off. Hmm. Or what about sending that reporter your company product so that she can write a review? Everybody does it, right? The product is pricey and the reporter would love to have it. Would she write a favorable review if you didn’t send her the product? Think about it. Eliminate doubt. KNOW what you should do and operate with a clear conscience. It makes you look better, feel better and it’s best for our entire profession.

Check out the Code of Ethics. Then take the PRSA EQ online quiz to see how well you know your ethics. It’s confidential, and if you miss a question, the program explains the correct answer, further reinforcing what you should know.

After all, isn’t that what we all want, to advance our profession to higher standards?

Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA is ethics officer of the San Diego Chapter of PRSA. She is president of CIM Incorporated, a San Diego-based public relations firm with offices in San Diego and Los Angeles and affiliates throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. She works with clients ranging from world-renowned brands to startups. Connect with Marisa on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @mvallbona.

Click here to learn more about the PRSA Code of Ethics.

About the author

Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Am I a bad person for saying that I actually agree with the PRSA’s policy to only enforce the code if the violator has been convicted or sanctioned? The code of ethics is extremely important and should be enforced. I applaud those PRSA members who are coming forward to report corrupt colleagues who violate the code of ethics. But at the end of the day we’re still talking about people’s reputations, and if the PRSA goes out of its way to kick out any member who was ratted out for violating something in the ethics code, what’s to stop disgruntled colleagues from making false accusations against their boss or co-workers or some member with a higher influence in PRSA from spreading vicious rumors about a rival colleague or an emerging PR professional they’d like not to see succeed?

    Ethics violations are tricky situations that need to be handled delicately. If the organization acts too quickly, someone’s reputation could be ruined on false grounds, and once the floodgate’s been opened, they don’t get that reputation back. Those rumors follow them for the rest of their career. The code of ethics should be enforced, but it should be done delicately. If the PRSA throws someone out without hard evidence to back malicious accusations, the organization could walk a fine line into libel/slander territory.

  • Kristina,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response.
    The points you raise are exactly why PRSA could not enforce the code. Consider the legal ramifications involved in each case. Every time an ethics violation was brought before BEPS, these points had to be considered. It has been a very difficult process to get to where the Code is now. PRSA works very hard to educate its members about the Code of Ethics through ethics programming in September and a complete library of ethics documents on the PRSA Web site. All chapters have an Ethics Officer, so members should feel free to reach out to him or her if they have any ethics issues or questions. We need to keep these issues at the forefront of our profession!
    All my best,

  • Thought-provoking blog, Marisa. You put the emphasis on individual accountability, which is where it should be. Although those who violate the code will no longer be officially sanctioned, there are plenty of other ramifications from peers and clients that come to haunt the violators. Karma always catches up with them!

    Ethics Officer, PRSA Phoenix Chapter

  • Ms. Vallbona, APR:

    Thank you for this thought provoking blog. I became aware of it via (another fantastic public relations education resource).

    It is fantastic the chapter that has the Diogenes Award (believe you now call it Edward Bernays ( Award); was home to Allen Center and Glen Broom, should come out with something so thought provoking.

    Also appreciate the fact you’ve cared enough about the field to become accredited. This shows you care.

    It is refreshing for those of us who live in an area where employers hire practitioners not so dedicated to principles that sets public relations as a profession. Your article does not reference how public employers, like Arizona’s #1 employer, state government, as well as schools (colleges, etc.) and school districts, local municipalities and county governments that comprise five of Arizona’s top 10 employers, feel about ethics in public relations; and the individuals they hire to handle relations with the public.

    As one stalwart described public relations in Arizona, it’s practiced by “22 year old green eyed blonds without any thoughts of diversity.” A post at ValleyPRblog referenced something similar

    You can tell by the image Arizona has obtained in the national media that something is amiss in public relations professionals utilized by Arizona’s governments (as stated, five of the state’s top 10 employers).

    Again, your level of commitment to the field is deeply appreciated. Wonder if anyone “ratted out” your fine blog piece to Jack O’Dwyer?

  • Julie,
    Thank you for your feedback. I fully agree that we reap what we sow. It’s just like I state in the blog — if you’re going to behave badly, word will get around. Your reputation will eventually kill your business.

  • Dear Marketing Sociologist,
    Your comments are spot on. I would have addressed so much more in my blog if space allowed. Trust me, I was only getting started! Thank you for your comments, feedback and interest. Please keep up the support for proper professional development and solid ethics among our peers.

  • Thank you Ms. Vallbona. Wonder which comments you thought were “spot on.”

    Also, I may not be popular in PR circles anymore following comments I made about PRSA on another Valley PR Blog post,, and

    It is my assertion if you’ve been in a professional organization more than 3 years without being accredited, something is wrong. That’s why I appreciate your APR. Shortly after getting my MBA, I made weekly trips (500 miles each way) to the Poway/Rancho Bernardo area to have coffee with Allen Center as a means of getting more education. Same time I got lucky and met and became friends with Chester Burger. No, did not get an APR, an MBA instead, and now CIW Web and social media master certificates – including E-Commerce.

    It is a shame so few people feel that public relations is a profession, rather than a job to go to parties, that only 1 in 5 of all PRSA members are accredited. There are so many organizations out there – American Marketing Assn., IABC, many government and education communications organizations. I would think PRSA would make it mandatory that after 3 or 5 years you need to be accredited. If not, it is a way of telling the world you don’t care about becoming a communications professional. Not all accountants have CPAs, either. Just the ones who believe it is a profession. Not all lawyers are accredited by a bar, just the ones who want to practice before a judge (there’s politics, clerking, law librarian – you do not need a bar exam to be in the legal field).

    Wait – if I’m correct, Ms. Villbona, you are a prestigious Fellow on the national board (one of the highest honors in PR) and can present my request that all members be accredited after a certain length (years) of membership!

    Again, thank you for this post and caring.

    Richard Kelleher, MBA
    @phoenixrichard Twitter and Friendfeed

  • Hi Richard,

    You do have a way with words, and a way of putting this blogger on the spot. I’m not on the national board, but I have held national positions such as chair of the Universal Accreditation Board 2007 and most recently I co-chaired the 2009 International Conference with my colleagues Denis Wolcott, APR and Brook DeWalt, APR. My next goal is to be on the PRSA national board, a position to which I applied yesterday as Director, Western District.

    I’m curious, Richard… as a very eloquent proponent of accreditation, why have you not pursued the APR for yourself?

    While you make some valid points about our profession and the APR, please look to yourself to answer your own questions. If you have not pursued the APR, you must understand that our fellow practitioners have similar reasons for not pursuing it as well. The Universal Accreditation Board works to keep a pulse on the reasons practitioners don’t pursue the APR and reasons range from time, expense, perceived value, fear of failure, perceived necessity in the workplace, and other reasons.

    From my personal experience, the APR is what each of us makes of it. It is a very personal endeavor. If you pursue the APR for your own reasons, then it will serve you very well. If you pursue it believing that you are owed something by obtaining it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

    I also believe that having the APR does not make one practitioner better than another and we need to get away from that mindset. It is simply a professional capstone and achievement that should be applauded. It is not an elite club that should be exclusionary of others. There are many misconceptions about the APR and there are many practitioners who don’t have the APR who would be fantastic candidates to sit for the examination. I’m fully confident they’d pass.

    What’s this got to do with ethics? Nothing, really. Just that you brought up the APR and I wanted bring up a different viewpoint if you’ll allow. I’d like to get us away from this elitist thought that APRs are better than non APRs. Fair enough?


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