Ethical Challenges for New PR Professionals

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A recent study from the Ethics Resource Center caught my attention. The report, “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics,” noted that younger workers are more susceptible to experiencing ethical dilemmas on the job.

The report examines trends among four generational groups: Millennials (born 1981-2000), Gen X (born 1965-1980), Boomers (born 1946-1964), and Traditionalists (born 1925-1945). Significant world events and different cultural trends shaped each generation, so it is perhaps no surprise that each one shows distinct differences when it comes to ethics. The study found that certain age groups are more “at risk” on four measures of ethical performance: misconduct, pressure to compromise standards, reporting, and retaliation. According to the report, the younger the worker, the more likely he or she is to feel pressure, observe misconduct, and experience retaliation for reporting misconduct.

A few sobering findings from the survey:

  • Nearly half of Millennials (49 percent) observed workplace misconduct.
  • Pressure to break the rules is significantly higher for the youngest workers.
  • The youngest workers (29 percent) were significantly more likely to experience retaliation than Gen X’ers (21 percent) and Boomers (18 percent).

These findings caused me to reflect on a pair of ethics cases in the news involving newer public relations practitioners – both cases pertaining to the “honesty” professional value and the “disclosure of information” provision in the PRSA Code of Ethics. Last year, a California PR professional in her twenties lost her job – and her PR firm lost the Walmart account – when she posed as a college student journalist at a Walmart union meeting.

Just last month, a former long-time TV news anchor-turned-PR professional resigned from his public relations firm after the Dallas Morning News revealed that he had posted blog comments on the newspaper’s website under fake names. He had been hired by the law firm representing a luxury condominium that was accused of producing glare on the Nasher Sculpture Center.  The Dallas Morning News examined the blog postings because they closely resembled the developer’s arguments and discovered that the true author was the PR professional. After his resignation from the account and his PR firm, the law firm stated that it didn’t know anything about the use of screen names and it wouldn’t condone it. The PR professional subsequently admitted he had made a mistake in using the fake names.

Having served as chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards for the past two years, I think there are likely to be a number of reasons for ethical missteps by newer practitioners and seasoned practitioners alike. Pressure to please a supervisor and ignorance of PR codes of ethics are among the explanations. How can the public relations profession – and employers – best address these problems? I believe that education is critical. As the Ethics Resource Center notes in its “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics” report, the best way to address the challenges of a workforce spanning multiple generations is to implement an effective ethics and compliance program, and to build a strong ethics culture that encourages every employee to do the right thing.

Professional organizations such as PRSA play a vitally important role in education. The emphasis in our current code is on education, rather than enforcement. Our Board of Ethics and Professional Standards works throughout the year with local chapters on ethics programming ideas and stands ready as a resource for chapters, districts, and sections.

In September, PRSA marks Ethics Month with a series of special programs and events as a reminder of the importance of ethics in our profession. This year, we are offering the following, in addition to individual PRSA chapter ethics programs:

  • A “roundtable” ethics article in the September issue of Tactics
  • Ethics blog posts on PRSAY
  • An ethics Tweet chat focusing on new professionals’ questions (Sept. 12 at 9 p.m. Eastern time), co-hosted by PRSA’s New Professionals section
  • A Google+ Hangout, “Ethics in New Media: Navigating Sponsored Content, Influences and the Changing Media Landscape” (Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern time)
  • A social media ethics webinar (Sept. 24 at 3 p.m. Eastern time)

We also are updating the PRSA ethics web pages, ethics quiz, and Professional Standards Advisories, and creating new ethics scenarios (formerly called “case studies”) and Ethics Minutes (brief ethics ideas for inclusion in a longer chapter program). And we encourage all of you to make use of our new, free mobile ethics app, developed by PRSA in partnership with MSLGroup earlier this year. It can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Market. This summer, the Scripps PRSSA chapter at Ohio University had its students download the mobile ethics app and share one thing they learned about ethics as a result!

These resources are available to all public relations professionals to help you communicate in an ethical manner. If you have any ethics concerns, feel free to email PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at

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

About the author

Deborah Silverman, APR, Fellow PRSA


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