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Ethics Education in the PR Classroom

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Editor’s note: As we celebrate Public Relations Ethics Month this September, PRSA invited members of the Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) to offer their views and thoughts on the ethical topics affecting the PR profession. Follow the blog series on PRSAY and join the national social media discussion by using the hashtag #PREthics. For a full list of Ethics Month activities visit the 2015 Ethics Month section of the PRSA site.

Ethics Month offers a superb opportunity to reflect on the role of public relations ethics in the lives of professionals and students alike. PRSA and PRSSA, along with their chapters throughout the country, offer a variety of ethics programs; so do many PR agencies, corporations, and nonprofits.

But what about PR students in the classroom?

In general, they’re receiving ethics instruction in all of their PR courses, based on the findings of a recent research study that I conducted with Dr. Karla Gower, director of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama, and Dr. Elmie Nekmat of the National University of Singapore.

Our 2014 study was inspired by my work as chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. Members of BEPS wondered if students were studying ethics in their public relations courses, which courses, and how ethics is being taught.

So my research partners and I invited the approximately 600 public relations educators who are members of PRSA’s Educators Academy, the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC), and the Public Relations Division of the National Communication Association to participate in a web-based survey. A total of 104 educators participated in the survey. We followed up with in-depth telephone interviews with 15 of the survey respondents.

Overall, our respondents believe that teaching ethics to PR students is important; 80 percent felt it was “a great deal” important. They feel strongly that ethics should be embedded in all public relations courses – and indeed, ethics is most commonly taught as a unit in all PR courses, including Principles of Public Relations, Public Relations Writing, PR Case Studies, and Public Relations Campaigns, rather than as a freestanding course.

The educators felt that the most effective pedagogical methods for presenting ethics are case studies, simulations, and small group discussions; the least effective methods included Socratic dialogue, research papers, and lectures. As one educator noted in a phone interview, “I think (ethics) is something that’s particularly apt for discussion. We have a lot of students who face these issues, they have internships, and surprisingly, some of them are called upon to do things that are unethical, so they have something to say.”

Regarding the placement of the ethics unit in a public relations course, responses were mixed. Some professors place their ethics units at the beginning of the course, others place ethics in the middle, still others embed ethics throughout the course, and some save ethics until the end.

According to our respondents, the most helpful resources for teaching ethics are current events, followed by the PRSA Code of Ethics, which is frequently studied along with classical theories of ethics.

Educators assess their students’ knowledge of ethics through various means, depending on the specific course and number of students enrolled, but most do so through tests, sometimes in combination with papers, case study analyses, class participation grades on ethics discussions, writing a personal code of ethics after studying various professional codes, or portfolio review.

The educators we surveyed acknowledged that it can be challenging to get students to think about ethics issues, but they reported a number of rewarding outcomes from teaching ethics, especially an “aha!” moment from their students. As one educator said, “I’m always happy when students get good grades but I’m exceptionally happy when they find ways to mention Plato and Aristotle in term papers. And beyond that, when they ask questions in service learning, such as ‘Is this ethical, should we be doing this?’ With our little agency that the PRSSA runs, ‘Do we want to be doing this?’”

Our respondents offered a number of suggestions for professional organizations, such as PRSA, to improve ethical behavior in the workplace, including more continuing education programs, more linkages between PR educators and practitioners on ethics topics, more in-house ethics training programs, and more communication (blogs and columns). Most of the educators felt that accreditation of PR professionals is a promising avenue to ensure ethical behavior, provided that the PR industry can convince more employers of the value of the APR and that accreditation is made more affordable. One respondent also suggested that public relations professionals should lose their accreditation if found by a board of their peers to be guilty of unethical behavior.

For more information, see our complete study, “Assessing the State of Public Relations Ethics Education,” published in the Winter 2014 edition of PRSA’s Public Relations Journal, Volume 8, available online at: http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Vol8/No4/.


Dr. SilvermanDeborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is an associate professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo State and faculty advisor to its PRSSA chapter.

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