Closing the Ethics Gap

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The latest high-profile ethical issue concerning our profession stems from reports that an agency public relations practitioner registered under a false identity to access a “closed” press conference and gather inside information impacting her client. My blog post from last week sets forth my concerns and views on this event. Of course, the question now is “what’s next?” Is this a teachable moment that creates an opportunity for our profession?

In the incident reported last week, the public relation firm’s client asserted its intention to act ethically, as well they should, and we applaud that sentiment.  The next issue, then, would be what kind of resources are being devoted to supporting ethical behavior – what is being done by the profession, by agencies, and by organizations.  Or, to frame the question another way, is there a gap in the profession between intention and action?

Public relations is a demanding profession. We used to talk about a “news cycle” and how it was shrinking. Now, there seems to be no cycle at all, but rather a non-stop, real-time environment. We are all pressed for time, often tasked with doing more with less. As a result, it is likely that things like crisis planning, and perhaps ethics training, are inadvertently put off, despite the best of intentions.

So, what can be done? As the largest organization of public relations professionals, we have the PRSA Code of Ethics that all members are required to commit to and sign. PRSA includes ethics materials in the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations, sponsors “Ethics Month,” provides advisories to guide members in interpreting the Code, runs columns and other commentaries about ethics, and maintains a Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). In fact, the mission of BEPS is to guide and instruct our members in all matters relating to ethical professional behavior whenever the opportunity arises to serve as a resource to PRSA members.

PRSA’s efforts take many forms. Several years ago, PRSA assisted a large U.S. government agency with training and counsel after its public affairs team encountered issues. The overall goal of our combined efforts is to teach, promote and raise the profile of ethical behavior throughout the profession by driving home to professionals and students the value and benefits of ethical conduct.

Perhaps, there is more that we should be doing. In times like this, there are always calls for strict enforcement of the Code — something PRSA has considered at length, but does not support for reasons we’ve explained before. There are other ways to keep the focus on ethics, and we undertake these initiatives on an ongoing basis. However, it must be an effort from all of us, requiring constant vigilance in a profession as vast as our own. Now is a good time to review what each of us is doing — to consider with your organization’s chief ethics officer your internal programs — or, if you do not have a chief ethics officer, to create that position.

Now is a good time to reread our respective organization’s code of ethics and make sure that we know how the code applies in a public relations context. Now also is a good time to propose additional suggestions with regard to what else might be done to strengthen all of our ethics work. In the meantime, PRSA continues to stand ready to provide ethics training support to any firm, agency or other allied organization that wishes to supplement its ethics resources.

Please join us in closing the ethics gap. We all have a critical stake in promoting ethical behavior in the practice of public relations, and welcome your thoughts and ideas on how to continue our efforts.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

About the author

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • I think it is necessary to remind PR agencies and practitioners to have a long-term focus in their endeavors, rather than aiming for any short-term gains. Also, developing courage and providing mentorship are very important for practitioners, especially the younger ones, so that they could gain confidence in their judgments and exercise their decisions despite environmental pressures.

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