Brothers in Ethical Arms: PR and Journalism

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 fourth post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

I remember walking into the board room of a downtown New York City office complex filled with some of the highest ranking executives in the public relations world. As I traded business cards and glad-handed my way around the room, I couldn’t help but sense the collective power of these people. To say it was intimidating is slightly understating my feelings.

But it was also an honor to have been asked to attend this famed Ethics Summit of 2005 because I was the only person in the room carrying the banner for journalism and newsrooms. Maybe that was an added sense of pressure.

A bit of background is needed.

I was serving as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Ethics Committee when we received a request from PRSA to come to an ethics summit to discuss shared interests in maintaining and promoting the highest ethical standards in our professions. Leaders in PRSA thought it would be helpful to talk openly about ethics with their counterparts in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how our principles were interwoven. It was something of an unusual request, for no other reason than it had never been made.

I thought it was a proposal worth pursuing. A small number of our committee were in agreement, but the majority (make that most vocal of the majority) didn’t see it that way. They saw no commonly-shared principles, and therefore, no commonly-shared interest in participating. I can remember the mantra in that conference call. It went something like this: “They serve their clients, and we serve the public. That creates a division of interests and loyalty, and we cannot share the same ethical principles so long as there is that division.”

Now, let me step back a bit further.

I started my career in newspapers after earning a traditional undergraduate degree in print journalism. Within three years I moved into public relations where I enjoyed a great opportunity to use my journalistic training for my corporate employer — a hospital system. I moved back into a newsroom six years later and eventually made my way into academics, where I taught hundreds of students in journalism classes who had career ambitions in public relations.

So, to say that there were no common principles, wasn’t just wrong, but arrogant.I worked both sides of the track and I never felt I jeopardized my ethics by changing vocations and employers. In fact, given the lack of ethics I’d been subjected to in the newsrooms I’d worked, I’d say our integrity and character was above reproach at my new company.

So, I accept the invitation and report back. We talked about our different missions and we recognized and accepted those. But, what we also learned is that our foundational principles are still based in the bricks and mortar of honesty, fairness and responsible, professional and ethical relationships with those we serve. And, yes, the one common client we both serve is the public.

To follow up, PRSA officials invited me to serve on a panel at their national convention that year in Miami. We would reciprocate and hold a similar panel at our SPJ national convention. Perhaps this would be the start of a professional understanding and relationship to improve and protect the ethical standards of both our organizations and its members.

Sadly, Hurricane Wilma cancelled that 2005 PRSA International Conference and SPJ leaders didn’t hold that panel when our meeting came around. So, the efforts of that day washed away with the heavy rains of the storm. That’s too bad, but this blog might return us to the table one day.

Take it from someone who’s been in both camps — as honest people we will always stand for the best in our profession and work to improve our standards and uphold our ideals. Those who elect to embrace unethical behavior will continue to operate among us. And we will fight them with our respective ethics codes and counter them with our behavior.

You see, it doesn’t matter what the initials are that make up your organization. If you stand for the highest ethical principles in delivering information to the public, we will always work from a common, shared strength.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Ethics Committee and the Society’s immediate past president.

About the author

Kevin Smith


  • Kevin, I wholeheartedly agree with your view and approach to ethics. No matter which side of the aisle you are on, we must all strive for clarity, transparency and full disclosure when we present information. The word “spin” should be considered a four letter word by all of us. When one person whether journalist or public relations practitioner discredits themselves by a sleight of hand with the truth, he or she discredits all of us. We need to respect the roles each of us plays and support each other in the quest to fully inform our audiences, instead of considering our professions to be adversaries. I’ve been a broadcaster, columnist, public relations professional, and academic, sometimes all at the same time. I approach each role with the same objective and same set of ethics.

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