Ethics in Public Relations: Don’t Be ‘Alice’

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“Cheshire Puss…“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where – ,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.

(Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”)

Ah, the dilemma of the “choice.” As public relations professionals, we are often confronted by challenging situations. Some we instinctively know how to handle. Others…not so much.

Unlike Alice, though, we don’t have to rely on the Cheshire Cat’s obtuse advice to get where we “want to get to,” especially when it comes to ethical public relations practice.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics, first introduced in 1954, provides clear guidelines and supporting examples to steer us in addressing potential ethical dilemmas. But practitioners have had standards by which to conduct their business since as early as 1906 when Ivy Ledbetter Lee published his “Declaration of Principles” in which he said, in part, “In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.”

Throughout the years, PRSA has revisited and revised the Code to better address members’ needs as well as the realities of rapidly-expanding international practice, and, today, the Code of Ethics is viewed as an educational guide for practitioners as they develop and conduct their business activities. Members of PRSA are strongly encouraged to set the example for others through ethical business practice.

I’m also happy to report, from the academic side of the equation, that our up-and-coming PR future professionals are being provided a healthy dose of “Ethics in PR” in the classroom. Not only do our public relations textbooks devote a full chapter to the topic; I, for one, require my undergrad PR students at Curry College to analyze and discuss an ethical challenge…citing pertinent segments from PRSA’s Code of Ethics and backing up their arguments with personal observations. At the very least, they cannot use as an excuse in the future “I didn’t know…”!

PRSA devotes the month of September to ethics awareness and encourages chapters and districts to offer special programming to remind and/or educate their members. But ethical practice isn’t a once-a-year consideration. It is an ongoing responsibility that we all, as members of the Public Relations Society of America, have pledged to honor in thought and in deed.

And we can continue to hope that, in time, the words of Edward L. Bernays will hold true universally to our profession: “Anybody with ingrained good sense does not need a specific code of ethics tailored to his profession to tell him how to behave….He will no more falsify facts for a client than a decent lawyer would. Nor will he function where he honestly believes the public interest and the private interest collide.” – Edward L. Bernays, “Your Future in Public Relations” [1961], ch. IV

About the author

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk was inducted into PRSA’s prestigious College of Fellows in 2009 and is one of just two actively-teaching college professors in Massachusetts to have earned this distinction. You can read more of Kirk’s musings at his blog “A Professor’s Thought” and follow him on Twitter @KirkHazlett.

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