Ethics Thought Leadership

Ethics: It’s All About Honesty


Each September, PRSA recognizes Public Relations Ethics Month, supported by programs presented by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). This year’s theme, Public Relations Ethics: Strengthening Our Core, guides a special focus on the six core values highlighted in the PRSA Code of Ethics. Please join the discussion through blog posts, webinars and Twitter Chats (#PREthics) scheduled throughout the month of September and consider the content a catalyst for integrating ethics and ethical practice into your daily communication activities.

Recently, a PRSA member asked me for ethics advice: His company had asked him to write glowing online reviews of a company product that had slumping sales. After talking with me, he decided to refuse to write the reviews, explaining to his supervisor why it would be unethical to do so. So far there haven’t been any negative repercussions for him at work, but this anecdote underscores the importance of one of the PRSA Code of Ethics values: honesty.

When I chaired PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, I observed that the value of honesty was the most violated value in our Code. Consider real-life situations like these:

  • A company that wants to gain more Twitter followers fakes a hack of its Twitter account, posting a series of confusing, random tweets. The stunt gains thousands of new Twitter followers, but mixed responses from PR professionals.
  • An account executive at a PR agency that represents a big-box retailer poses as a journalist at an event organized by a labor union trying to organize the company’s employees. The PR professional was subsequently fired by the agency, and the retailer fired the agency.
  • A major department store sends free dresses to dozens of trendsetters on Instagram, paying each woman thousands of dollars to post photos on Instagram of themselves wearing the dress. The posts reached millions of Instagram users and the dress sold out. The Federal Trade Commission investigated, resulting in an agreement with the department store to settle the charges and to correct the posts.
  • Writers are secretly paid to post hundreds of positive articles about companies on financial websites in an effort to influence investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged the individuals and companies with attempts to mislead investors; the defendants agreed to pay millions of dollars in fines and to refrain from further wrongdoing.
  • Companies send free lipstick and other beauty products to consumers, who then post positive reviews on their Instagram accounts without disclosing that they received the beauty products as gifts. Consumer watchdog groups have complained to the Federal Trade Commission, triggering investigations.

Honesty is one of six core values in the PRSA Code of Ethics, which is widely regarded in surveys of PRSA members as one of the most valuable offerings of PRSA. In its discussion of honesty, our Code of Ethics notes, “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” Honesty is essential in building trust between an organization and its key publics. As business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffett famously observed, “Trust is like the air we breathe; when it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.”

There’s no better time than PRSA’s Ethics Month, with its theme of “Public Relations Ethics: Strengthening the Core,” to consider the role that honesty plays in our personal and professional lives. If you’re facing one of the aforementioned ethical dilemmas at work, contact the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards for guidance.

Honesty — one little word, but so important.

Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is a former chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and a former member of the PRSA Board of Directors. She is associate chair and an associate professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo State.

About the author

Deborah Silverman, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • I like that this piece explains some of the ethical situations professionals in our industry can face; however, honesty is always the best policy! I think it is important for all of us to take time this month to review the PRSA Code of Ethics. -Parker Rocco, Platform Magazine Editor/Writer

  • Nice discussion Deborah, It took me back to the Bernie Madoff scandal. As the story goes one of his sons, an officer in their business whose job was to sign affidavits regarding the phony investments that were being made. He was very troubled by it so he asked a confidant if he could still be considered an honorable person if the preponderance of his life was lived honestly.

    Don’t know what the advice was that his friend gave, but too often in our profession we forgive ourselves in advance and do things that are dishonest or only marginally truthful and we tell ourselves that so long as the preponderance of what we do is right and proper we can call still ourselves honorable people.

    Maintaining one’s integrity is very challenging. Especially because operations people have a tendency to ask for things they know to be improper or worse. All ethical infractions are intentional, Volkswagen didn’t accidentally tamper with the pollution controls of 400,000 cars.
    5,000 Wells Fargo employees didn’t accidentally defraud more than 2 million customer’s accounts. And the number keeps going up. as internal investigations continue.

    When their are ethical infractions always look to the top of the organization. Ethical infractions never start in the mail room much as those responsible would have us believe.

  • Deborah,
    Excellent article about the significance of honesty, one of the most revealing characteristics of an individual, group or organization. IMHO, honesty is one of those core values instilled early on as part of your upbringing and environment. As adults, we bring our personal commitment to and application of honesty to the workplace, and as Jim astutely pointed out, to leadership positions. Ultimately, the decision to be honest is a personal one – one that summarily reflects your character. Thanks for the post!

  • This is Ethics Month. And today’s news highlights British PR firm Bell Pottinger’s outrageous and unethical behavior in service (?) to its client of Oakbay Capital, a front group/astroturf operation that sowed divisive racial and ethnic communication to further aims of a corrupt South African strongman, Jacob Zuma. I’ll be writing more later today when I’ll be wearing my hat as one of the co-authors of the PRSA Code of Ethics and Professional Standards,
    You name it: Wikipedia entry revision; Twitter; captive television fake news — all hearkening back to an “economic apartheid” supposedly being spread by Zuma’s opponents. So glad British PR and Communication Association condemned campaign effort, and kicked out Bell Pottinger. Will PRSA in US make a strong statement condemning same (I am calling for it as of now)?

    • Dr. Wyckoff — Thanks for this comment and for bringing up this important matter. Has PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards responded to your inquiry? Curious what the feedback from leadership has been. -Mary Beth

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