There’s no spinning it differently: ethics in public relations takes ongoing work

Do you think choosing public relations as a career is related to being inherently—or at least instinctively—more ethical?

Often I see that point of view put forth by PR practitioners, particularly in posts from (wholly owned) media such as an agency blog. It’s interesting how when the post focuses on “outing” or examining perceived transgressions from another company, the implied suggestion is, “We would never do such a harmful thing, attempt to spin things or cover up the facts. That’s because we are more trustworthy and ethical.”

No matter what our eventual profession, none of us are born ethical. And neither is it instinctive in adults. According to an accounting association’s Ethics Readings Handbook or ERH (a textbook from its certification program of professional study), “Ethics equals a moral authority, a systematic study of standards of human conduct and moral judgment.”

Ethics requires ongoing examination and reflection for humans and our definitely fallible tendencies to do right or wrong (particularly if our employers/clients or we ourselves benefit), as well as evolving societal and personal beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad.

Ethics requires lifelong career training

If adults decide a child shows promise of being a great athlete, the training begins early and needs to be systematic and sustained, including increasingly more difficult physical challenges to test against and overcome. Failing to maintain training and endurance will result in losses at formal events.

Professional (and personal) ethics should be thought of in the same way: not as a one-time successful sprint win, but more like a marathon, requiring methodical, ongoing training. The Melbourne Mandate’s recommended Professional Development Wheel (from the Global Alliance) for public relations practitioners even includes a section devoted to ethics, suggesting training focused on:

  • social responsibility
  • sustainable practice
  • provision of value
  • integrity, honesty and trust
  • accountability—parametres and metrics

Character formation is an important part of morality. And, also from the earlier-mentioned ERH, “Moral life is complicated and highly contextual.”

And for the PR practitioner, whether in-house or consultancy, developing the virtues needed to form character requires deliberate thinking and thoughtful decision making. Who will gain and who might be harmed is part of the Justice (virtue) aspect in the “ethical” distribution of benefits and burdens.

I devoted one of my (social public relations) monthly columns to the two-minute “IBM on Brand” video featuring IBM’s greatly respected Jon Iwata, where he distilled Big Blue’s corporate character. These words resonate most, from an organizational (and ethical) character point of view:

“…. So if we are not going to define IBM by what we make, what defines us? And it comes back to this notion of our corporate character, and that’s our beliefs systems and our purpose and our mission and what makes us, us.

We tend to that…the brand takes care of itself.

Once we have a sense of what makes us, us, it actually is quite clarifying. It also compels us to keep changing…while making sure we don’t change things that should never change and that must endure.”

Iwata’s words are believable because venerable IBM is a familiar entity to most, meaning his words speak to an honest understanding of the company and its “licence to operate” is assured, at least for the immediate future.

But most of us are not present, past or future IBM’ers. This means that operational ethical discussions and decision by PR practitioners may involve more complicated and difficult choices.

Counselling for ethics

In your counselling role, in-house or consultancy, be prepared to argue why you are you in favour of a particular option—persuasion, plus sound reasons—in getting others to agree with you. Beyond persuading for anticipated business outcomes, the ERH recommends the following ethical tests:

  1. Do your arguments stand the light of day?
  2. Can they be verified against available information?
  3. Will they prove acceptable to other fair-minded individuals?

Namely: Can your ethics or decisions stand up to critical scrutiny and be supported by moral reasons?

The online dimension to ethical decisions

Formerly, counsel by PR practitioners was done quietly, perhaps hidden underneath push-messaging speeches or documents or non-disclosure agreements. But today companies and individuals voluntarily give themselves online profile by offering opinions on different areas.

Transparency is a good thing—if, indeed, counsel and “thought leadership” come from an ethical place of morality, character and virtues.

And truth.

And yet…according to a September 2013 article in The Atlantic, How to Catch a Liar on the Internet, most people tell small lies daily and those same untruths or questionable, ick-factor decisions are observed by others, thanks to digital detritus we leave behind in our rush for profile and mindshare.

Remember, in addition to online friends, your actions and opinions—even if the required Disclosure: Client line is included—are being observed and judged by fair-minded individuals who might feel compelled to speak up when they sense questionable organizational decisions and personal lack of forthrightness regarding motivation and benefits.

I don’t believe it was due to timing or chance that my Making Honest B2B Endorsements through Social PR, Part II had record-breaking PageViews (five figures and still growing); rather it was probably because public relations practitioners warmed to the words chosen deliberately for the title: “honest” and “endorsements.”

I wrote if from a place of my beliefs and longer-term observations of less-than transparent practices, so its attention was gratifying.

Although the success of my two-part article resulted in increased profile, the primary goal was to help companies and PR practitioners themselves gain the attention they deserved from partner companies in an honest and ethical fashion.

Keep up the ethical good work

I applaud PRSA for devoting one month each year to thoughtful contemplation about the study and implementation of ethics in our professional and personal lives.

I’m not sure if it was inaugurated under the watch of that ethical practitioner, the late Arthur Yann, APR (I continue to think WWAD in my own growth and reflections), but I know he was a huge advocate of ethics and morals, character and virtues…and understood these things take ongoing work.

As do most important things in life.

Judy Gombita is a Toronto-based hybrid public relations, communication management and social media strategist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-content editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the global, collaborative blog, PR Conversations and also contributed a monthly column on social PR on the Maximize Social Business site.

About the author

Judy Gombita


  • Ye gods, Judy, PRSA does NOTHING to enforce its code of ethics and hasn’t done for decades.

    Arthur Yann said the organization had no intention of enforcing its code, telling a PR Conversations poster on July 15, 2011:
    “PRSA is a member organization, not a legal or regulatory body. We often use the analogy that a church doesn’t kick out the parishioners who sin, it helps to reform them. In that regard, and with no enforcement powers beyond our own 32,000 professional and student members, we try to educate the profession on what does and doesn’t constitute ethical behavior.”

    • Bill – As Arthur pointed out, PRSA does not have any enforcement authority and therefore has no legal remedies for enforcement. When gross violations by members arise, a committee is convened to review the actions and consider expulsion from membership.

      • And when is the last time a committee was convened and someone was expelled? Saying you have no enforcement powers beyond your 32,000 members doesn’t mean that PRSA should enforce its own code and members shouldn’t submit to its discipline.

    • Bill, the request from PRSA regarding submissions for #PREthics month (September) relate to PERSONAL beliefs and practices that other PR practitioners might benefit from hearing about..

      It’s unclear to me why you are conflating my own study (and writings) and resources and beliefs with the perceived “non-enforcing” role of the Public Relations Society of America.

      Perhaps you rushed a little too fast to gain profile and “mindshare” with this online (negative) comment that does not really relate to the many areas I discussed? If you want to comment (negatively) upon the arguments that I put forth, I think that would be a better use of our time.

      I leave that to other fair-minded individuals as to where you sit regarding the Justice virtue.

      Judy Gombita

  • Hello Judy,

    Thanks to you and the PRSA team for putting a spotlight on this very important topic. Doing the right thing every time is not easy – knowing what is the right thing to do is even harder sometimes. Developing and fine-tuning our inner ethical and moral compass indeed needs lifelong training.


    • I really appreciate you weighing in, Suchitra Mishra, not only because you offer an international perspective (from India), but also because I know your formal training (if not current employment expertise of business operations management) is in engineering.

      I would be interested to know how engineering ethics were taught to you in either university or by the certifying body? Was a lot of it reading case studies, reflecting and then opining on the most ethical path to take?

      Engineering is an interesting comparison point (to public relations), because the field revolves so much around physical structures and ensuring they are built correctly and environmentally safe, etc., so that no one who works in the building or drives on the road, etc., will be harmed by “design and construction” decisions made.

      For the most part public relations revolves around non-physical “harm” (i.e., the spoken or written communication about an organization–is it “constructed” in an ethical fashion).

      • Interesting question, Judy – I had 19 years of formal education. Ethics were “taught” in the first ten years only – part of a convent school education where we had a subject called Moral Science taught by Sisters. That laid the groundwork, I guess. There was nothing remotely related to ethics that was part of my engineering course ware. Come to think of it, it probably should have been….


        • Are you aware Suchitra of the “iron rings” that (practising) Canadian engineers wear on their pinky finger? I looked around and I think this Alberta site gives the most relevant information in a reasonably length article:

          Anyhow, this means that you know if the person sitting next to you is wearing an iron pinky ring, she or he is almost guaranteed to be an engineer.

          As was the fellow sitting next to me last night at our first Doc Soup screening (the fascinating “Google and the World Brain” btw, which threw up its own ethical challenges about are you really bettering the world if you are going to profit from making digital all of its books of knowledge?).

          So I asked him the ethics question!

          In his university studies there was an optional course on ethics, which he did take.

          But it was for his P.Eng. designation/certification that studying ethics was a requirement. Ethics and the law comprised (I think he said) almost one-quarter of the final examination. He said studying for the P.Eng. involved a very big textbook full of a variety of ethical readings.

          Back to the ring. Although it’s not in the site I’ve given to you above, I remember an engineer telling me that when he wrote with a pen/pencil, the pinky ring would do a thunk-thunk on the (table) surface. He said it reminded him daily of the obligations upon him to ensure that the structures he designed, etc., would be sturdy and not hurt anyone.

  • Nice post Judy. I picked up on PRSA ethics month in 2011 with my own post: When I read it through, I still stand by every word and am disappointed that the PR industry still focuses on codes and training which in my view tend to “simplify the issues that are worthy of deeper reflection and understanding.” Perhaps the PRSA (or Global Alliance more widely) would be willing to consider ethical month taking up my suggestion of launching a centre of ethical enquiry for public relations – an approach that is evident in medicine, law, accountancy and business ethics.

    It is time to go beyond the PR approach of an awareness month, or the Melbourne Mandate suggestion of training/professional development – and establish a credible leadership position globally for PR ethics.

    • Thanks, Heather Yaxley. I do think your idea of a centre of ethical enquiry is a wonderful dream and concept…but the pragmatist in me (who worked for so many years in an association environment) remains skeptical about how it would come about, including factors such as:

      – “ownership” of the concept, let alone the physical (or online) space where the knowledge would reside

      – funding for both research (thought leadership) and administration

      – peer review (by whom–professors or practitioners? what nationalities? what other things would need to be taken into consideration, such as economics, race, creed, religion)
      – offerings of training or at least how the knowledge would be communicated/shared
      – enforcement (if indeed any kind of universal standards of ethics is determined)

      Yes, codes of ethics from national PR associations are only one measure and most training (and choice of what to take and where) is dependent upon its own funding approvals and willingness of practitioners (and employers) to undertake it.

      But both codes and training are better than trying to figure out ethics in a void.

      The EHR talks about how both laws of the land and (trained) police forces are necessary, because left to their own devices a large chunk of the populace would be lawless and commit crimes against people and property with impunity….because it would be felt there were no consequences of those unethcial/illegal actions.

      And of course public relations is not a “profession” in the traditional sense (like law, medicine, engineering or accounting), so the “licence to operate” in an ethical fashion still stems more from the individual (and her/his employer) than an external body, whether it be a national PR association (which is still a private body) or an idealistic centre of ethical enquiry for public relations, as suggested by you.

      It’s not easy being an ethical practitioner…..

      • Judy – I don’t think my suggestion is idealistic as it is a concept that works in other fields. Yes, those such as law, medicine and accountancy may be underpinned more by regulation and requirement to belong to bodies. But the factors you mention are details that at the least could be worked upon rather than seen as insurmountable barriers. Simply to continue with the same old approaches of codes and training (all opt in and reliant on much of the same personal ‘figuring out’ you criticise), suggests the adage of the futility of expecting different results from continuing the same behaviour.

        There are plenty of experts in ethics outside the world of PR who at the least should be engaged in looking at the typical challenges that those working in the industry face, alongside others who from academia or practice or both, bring practical experience to the debate.

        It is not easy being an ethical practitioner, but it is hard to believe that the industry is serious about providing guidance or debating the complexity of situations facing practitioners. Even ethics month does not feature the level of intellectual debate around typical ethical issues that I hear most weeks on BBC radio where experts present different perspectives and encourage depth of thinking that frankly is missing in PR.

        Ethics month, codes and training may be better than nothing. But seriously – can we really argue that ‘better than nothing’ is good enough?

  • Well said, Judy. Ethical behavior is not easy simply because there are so many grey areas in which we find ourselves operating. But that’s not an excuse to not act, think, and advice ethically. As you so rightly say, “Ethics requires ongoing examination and reflection for humans.” It’s not an “okay, I checked that off; I’m done here” situation. Lots of food for thought in your post!

    • Thanks for the positive feedback, Kirk Hazlett. I think the three ethical tests CGA Canada’s Ethics Readings Handbook suggested (in one section on Virtues) do serve as good (but ongoing) “checklists.”

      I also think this online world of pseudo-transparency (and “relationships” that are sometimes based more on mutual advantage, rather than more solid fundamentals) has thrown a lot more grey area into the mix.

      I hope you share with your Curry students that article from The Atlantic with its salient point at the end, where the author argues that younger generations already expect to live out much of their lives online (and be judged) and that they will hopefully think twice before posting less desirable photos, actions and opinions.

      And I’m looking forward to reading YOUR #PREthics submission, based on my past appreciation for your thoughtful posts.

  • Judy, as always, a highly intellectual and thoughtful post. There are far too many people for whom ethics are situational. They might never conscience lying to their friends or families, but think nothing of doing their work on a mountain of stinking mendacity.

    Some of that, no doubt, is the modernist (or properly post-modern) view that there is no such thing as truth, that everything is relative, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, etc. And there does need to be some appreciation for the grayscale view, else we all turn into Inspector Javert on the topic.

    This would be touched upon as regards your comment that our actions “are being observed and judged by fair-minded individuals who might feel compelled to speak up when they sense questionable organizational decisions and personal lack of forthrightness regarding motivation and benefits.”

    Sensible differences of opinion about what is or is not ethical, what is or is not moral, and perhaps conversely, what is proper and appropriate, do indeed require a reflective, consultative and disciplined discussion.

    It’s not so easy to have such discussions in an age where people simply do not reflect.

    Our brain chemistry is changing due to the media we consume, the brevity and shallowness of our relationships, and the constant focus on the short term. Even as writers, we are lured into complacency by spell-check, auto-correct, type-ahead. We make decisions capriciously, without a grasp of the facts, considering alternatives or thinking about future impact.

    How can anyone be truly ethical without a foundation of objective morality?

    I am not hopeful that this situation will improve, though perhaps not for the reasons Bill Huey notes — a lack of enforcement. Remember that police are historians by trade, they do not protect. Even their power of deterrence rests to a large extent on the majority of people who do not commit crimes; patrols in “bad” neighborhoods don’t seem to have much impact on behavior among criminals!

    Ethics in PR according to the hoi polloi is an oxymoron; any of us who represent for an ethical and moral view may be spiritually rich, but those willing to operate in grayer schemes appear to be winning the material race.

    • So I should say at the front end that I double-checked the meaning of mendacity and I’m still pondering your comment that “police are historians by nature” (particularly as police will play a role in my second part of my
      two-part PR Conversations post on social public relations and crisis management). 🙂

      Sean, I really like the comment you made about far too many people who think of ethics as being situational. I think this is particularly true when “quiet deals” are made at the front end in social media, whether it is
      practitioner-to-practitioner or consultant-to-client (although I suspect this
      happens less in-house).

      I remain perplexed why the argument was made that enforcement leads to better ethics. I have, in fact, been the staff liaison on an accounting association’s discipline committee and resulting tribunals for a few cases (I was seconded to the role when the regular liaison was on maternity leave) and later I worked with an in-house lawyer (responsible for discipline, as well as his first love and incredible strength, government relations) to overhaul the multi-page Code of Ethical Principles and Rules of Professional Conduct to make the language and guidance intent more consistent and clearer.

      This is a self-regulating body—recognized by provincial statute—and the disciplinary process is well-developed. But you know what? Despite all of the staff, outside contracted lawyers and volunteer committee members’ time that went into ensuring the structure was in place and complaints given a thoughtful hearing, very few decisions resulted in either a suspension or expulsion of membership.

      Why? Because you have to do something seriously wrong—hurt people or companies or break the law—to warrant the loss of certification (which is itself a multi-year program, wholly controlled by this same association).

      With all of these calls for unregulated, industry associations such as PRSA, to be more punitive, I do wonder what exactly are the “crimes” the critics
      argue will be exposed, let alone whether expulsion would have that great an
      impact on the individual’s ongoing business?

      If there were such great transgressions on a regular basis, don’t you think both the jurisdictional governments and the general public would be demanding such a system of regulation (and even licensing) be in place?

      Ergo, the things I observe and actions I dislike in some practitioners aren’t
      technically illegal. As you say, they are more along the grey lines of dubious decision-making and counsel. I guess the thrill of being paid attention or lauded (from less-knowledgeable individuals or those of a similar inclination) is enough to quell that personal ethical heart in those practitioners or companies who accept the advice as being the most efficacious thing to do.

      If indeed they possess that kind of moral compass.

      The best organizational public relations continues to be done quietly, both in
      terms of work and relationship building. In the end it comes down to the
      reputation each practitioner builds as to whether what she or he says and does is uncompromised by self-gain or other more-dubious motivations.

      As always, thank you for your thoughtful commentary that adds to the discussion on my contribution, first and foremost!

      • Judy – namaste.

        Further follow-up. I wonder whether the cynical nature of many people these days is a reflection of our ethical greyness. Remaining positive and hopeful in the face of adversity is difficult enough when one has a moral perspective. It has to be nigh impossible when there’s no appreciable difference between right and wrong, or when the conflicts between right and wrong rest on semantics, situations or similes.

        I’ve written before about the postmoderist philosophy of deconstruction, where logic and reason are mere constructs, and morality entirely subjective. What would be the point, in that case, of arguing for some sort of ethical standard? Why bother, if everything is relative?

        Maybe I’m just drinking too much caffeine…!

  • Hi, Judy, I just found your post and wanted to say I enjoyed reading it. You give a different (aka outside-PRSA) perspective on ethics, and I love the sources you quote and reference. I agree that ethics is not situational, and that we are tested everyday, in small ways. I don’t always pass the test, but I am at least aware that I am being tested – and that the small things do add up to the big things, and ethics should be thought of more than one month out of the year. I’m not as eloquent as you, but hopefully you understand what I am saying. 🙂 Thanks again. -Sarah

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Sarah! I’m glad you enjoyed my take on ethics, as well as the various resources I included. It was utter serendipity how I received my September copy of The Atlantic in the mail right around the same time I was asked to write something.

      I suspect the ethical framework and process of “Western” countries isn’t that different. (And the Global Alliance is the association of PR associations from different parts of the world, so its PD approach is reasonably universal.) And even other parts of the world and philosophies still tend to share many of the same core values about what is right and wrong, good or bad….although sometimes the interpretation is based on other areas, such as ancient texts or religious writing.

      And I’m certainly not a paragon of ethics….but I do TRY to be good, honest and fair.


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