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The State of Ethics in Public Relations

Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the first post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and other new technologies have taken the communication industry by storm in the past five years, rapidly revolutionizing the way that public relations, advertising and marketing professionals communicate with their publics.

Seasoned and new professional communicators alike have scrambled to keep pace with these dazzling new technologies, which have enabled them to build relationships and engage their stakeholders in new, two-way dialogues. Mention the phrase “social media workshop,” and you’re likely to have a packed house for your program.

The problem, for both social media and traditional media, is that in an era of 24/7, rapid-fire communication, the ethical standards that have guided communicators for decades can fall by the wayside. Transparency may be sacrificed for speed of communication. A quick glimpse at recent headlines would give the casual reader the impression that all is wrong in the world of ethics: from The News of the World phone-hacking scandal to American PR firms providing image counsel to dictators to PR firms writing fake online product reviews on behalf of clients.

However, anecdotal evidence and research studies refute this notion. In my own ethics workshops at PRSA and PRSSA conferences, as well as my public relations classes, I’ve noticed how eagerly the students embrace ethics topics, especially small-group discussions of real-life ethics scenarios. Even the seasoned professionals whose ethical standards are tested every day on the job respond well to role-playing and discussions in these workshops. Professors also use ethics case studies, guest speakers and scenarios in a variety of public relations classes to bring the topic of ethics to life.

Ethics units and courses also are important for college public relations programs seeking Certification for Education in Public Relations through PRSA or accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

Public relations scholars have published numerous studies on ethics topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to media transparency to ethical decision-making in organizations; look, for example, at recent issues of PRSA’s online journal, the Public Relations Journal, or the Institute for Public Relations’ “Ethics and PR” studies. And the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer also found that trust in business is trending upward, going from an all-time low of 36 percent to 54 percent in 2010.

Surveys of public relations professionals also underscore the importance of ethical standards in their lives. For example, in the 2011 PRSA membership survey, members once again ranked the PRSA Code of Ethics as the top value.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics, an industry leader for more than 60 years, sets forth a set of professional values and provisions to ethically guide public relations professionals. It’s just one of many resources about ethics on the PRSA website: also look at our Professional Standards Advisories; case studies and discussion guides; PRSA Ethics Quiz; and our newest addition, a list of ethics codes in public relations, advertising, marketing and media, all prepared by members of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

Also check our ethics blog posts, Tweet chats, and webinar during September as part of PRSA’s Ethics Month.

All of these resources should help you, as a public relations professional, to communicate in a responsible and ethical manner no matter what medium or technology you employ.

Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. She also is an associate professor and associate chair of the communication department at Buffalo State College and has presented workshops on ethics topics to public relations practitioners and students.

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