Ethical Leadership in Public Relations

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

In this presidential election year, I’ve been thinking a lot about ethical leadership, not only among our elected leaders, but also among leaders in the public relations field. They have the power to inspire and motivate the new professionals who work for them, encouraging them to make ethical decisions on behalf of their clients.

That’s not always an easy task, a fact made painfully clear by several recent ethics cases involving newer practitioners: a public relations firm that used hidden cameras to record food bloggers’ reactions to a dinner, another firm hired by a company to pitch negative stories about its competitors to newspapers, and, this summer, an employee of a PR firm who posed as a college student journalist in order to infiltrate a workers’ union meeting on behalf of her client. What’s happening here?

As a public relations educator, I teach ethics units in all of my PR courses, and as a scholar, I am conducting research on the role of ethics education in the PR classroom and the workplace. My current study, with Dr. Karla Gower, director of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama, shows that ethics is firmly embedded in PR courses across the entire curriculum at most colleges in the United States; globally, other scholars have found a similar role for ethics in the PR programs of countries ranging from New Zealand to the United Arab Emirates. For college PR programs that are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Journalism and Mass Communications or are certified through PRSA’s Certification in Education for Public Relations program, ethics is one standard that reviewers examine when those programs are up for renewal.

Students learn about classical theories of ethics and professional codes such as the PRSA Code of Ethics and frequently discuss ethics case studies. Could educators do more, such as including ethical decision-making exercises in their classes? Or does ethics seem like an esoteric topic to idealistic college students who aren’t yet out in the PR workplace?

Students who complete PR internships are introduced to the realities of the workplace, including occasional ethical dilemmas, but I believe that the real test comes when they are hired for their first PR job after graduating from college. If their workplace fosters an ethical climate, they are more likely to behave ethically – as shown in a number of studies.

One recent study of Fortune 500 companies by the Ethics Resource Center notes that a comprehensive ethics program includes written standards of ethical workplace conduct, ethics training, an office, phone number or email address to contact about workplace ethics issues, a means for employees to confidentially report violations, evaluation of ethical conduct as part of performance reviews, and disciplinary measures against employees who violate the organization’s ethical standards.

This report and several recent academic studies also emphasize the role of senior leadership in building a strong ethical culture – leadership by example. Formal approaches to sharing ethical knowledge, such as codes of ethics, case studies, and ethics training programs, provide an important foundation for ethical behavior, supplemented by mentoring programs for new professionals and modeling of ethical behavior.

In the legal profession, supervisors, partners, and managers at law firms are required to ensure that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct . In the public relations profession, it’s not a requirement for managers, but this is surely a good starting point for creating an ethical climate in the public relations workplace.

PRSA’s ethics web pages provide guidance for both senior managers and new professionals alike, including our Code of Ethics, rated by PRSA members as the association’s top value for years, Professional Standards Advisories, case studies and discussion guides, an ethics quiz, and 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. We also have a new ethics e-group which members can opt-in to.

PRSA offers these ethics resources to help its members foster and maintain an ethical workplace. If you have any ethics concerns or suggestions, feel free to email PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at

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.

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