Ethics Month Is Over; What Do You Plan to Do About It?

While we all like to think we are ethical, most of us struggle with what action to take when faced with an ethical dilemma. While awareness of ethics is great, the ability to act ethically is even better. Ethics cannot be a once-a-year focus. Rather, it needs to be an ongoing focus.

September brought so many wonderful things. The kids were back to school, the weather turned a bit cooler, and according to PRSA, it was ethics month. Ideally, it was a time for us to focus on the ethical aspects of our industry, our respective organizations and, perhaps, ourselves.

If you read Public Relations Tactics, PR Week, PR News, or any other industry publication, you no doubt noticed a laser-like focus on ethics last month. The question is: beyond increased awareness, is any of this moving us to action this month and beyond?

A survey conducted by my colleagues, Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., and Judith Rogala, for their book “Trust Inc”., showed that less than 10 percent of public relations professionals had ever received training on how to make an ethical decision. So, while we all like to think we are ethical, most of us struggle with what action to take when faced with an ethical dilemma.

While awareness of ethics is great, the ability to act ethically is even better. Ethics cannot be a once-a-year focus. Rather, it needs to be an ongoing focus. To that end, PRSA’s Ethics Web page offers some terrific guidance on this, including some real world guidance on issues many of us face on a day-to-day basis. So, in celebration of ethics month, go beyond mere awareness and spend a few moments reviewing these recommendations so you can face today’s challenges with the practical knowledge you need to work as ethically as possible.

Ann Subervi is president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc., an ethically focused public relations agency based in Red Bank, N.J. A member of PRSA’s Counselors Academy’s executive committee, Ann is an endorsed trainer of Trust Inc.’s LEAP methodology for values-based leadership in the United States. For more on ethics in the public relations industry, visit her blog, Ethical Optimist.

To learn more about PRSA’s Member Code of Ethics, or for ethics resources, visit

About the author

Ann Subervi


  • PRSA’s Ethics Month arrived exactly at the right time for me – a time when I was dealing with some ethical business issues that could have caused serious implications for me and my career, and that in which I have built professionally over the years. Thus, the issues I was dealing with called for me to make a big decision. The decision? To quit a job that I recently started or stay and see if the issues I was in front of could be remedied… Needless to say – a big quandary I was in.

    As a member of PRSA and Board Member of the PRSA Health Academy, and as someone who has taken “that oath” as a PR practitioner to always do what’s in the best interest and truth of the public and society at large at all times, it was a no brainier in what I needed to do. Quit the job. The kicker was I quitting without having another job in place, and I was quitting in this bad economy we’re still in; where layoffs keep occurring and companies are either merging or closing, and where jobs are still hard to come by. But as a professional who holds much integrity, I knew my decision was the right one… and that everything that was meant to be would come around and back to me. I was confident in my decision and I felt 100% certain that ethically, it was what I had to do. Did I take a risk? You bet I did. Did some people call me stupid? You bet they did. Did some folks understand and applaud me for what I had done? You better believe they did. Did I look back and question my decision? No. I never did.

    I studied communications and public relations in college and part of my education was focused on media ethics and business ethics. I learned what it meant to be ethical and how to make ethical decisions early on. Having integrity is a part of who I am professionally. It always has been and always will be. However, it was on August 27, 2009, right when PRSA’s Ethics Month hit, that I read this press release from PRSA This announcement and all contained in it resonated exceptionally well with me. I read it a few times initially. And I read it again a few more times a couple days later. Much of it could be applied to what I was dealing with. And it was with this one communication, and few more that followed from PRSA during Ethics month that reminded me I did right, not to look back, and have no regrets.

    I appreciate this post, and appreciate the good work PRSA is doing in the area of ethics.

    Beyond increasing my awareness, “YES! This work has moved me into action and certainly beyond!” So thank you PRSA. And thank you, Ann, for writing this post.

    It is my hope that ethics are still being taught in undergrad communications programs to the degree in which I was taught and that PRSA will always place ethics as a #1 priority and keep educating.

    Keep keepin’ on.

  • What saddens me is that only 10% of PR professionals have had ethics training, so I guess we’re hoping that their parents taught them right from wrong and that the PRSA code of conduct inspires them to build on their ethical upbringing. The issue of ethics is not new, but it certainly is something that confronts us more and more everyday; all you have to do is read about all the ethical lapses in our politics, both local and national, to realize that we should have ethics month every month and not just in our industry.

    It’s heartening to know that several major MBA programs have now instituted more robust ethics training. Where have they been all along? Is that closing the barn door too late vis a vis the major ethics crisis we’ve witnessed that brought us the Great Recession and other abysmal events?

    As for Leigh Fazzina in the previous comment taking a stand, that’s what we all need to do. But a friend of mine, who is still working in an ethically compromised company, told me the other day: “I need the job so I close my eyes and try to get less tainted each day.” There’s the sad reality. While you cannot put ethics in your bank account, taking a stand against what is ethically compromising feeds the spirit and leads us to where the sun really does shine. I, too, have quit jobs where the ethics were questionable and I can honestly say it was the best thing I could have done.

    I encourage all PR pros to make ethics the primary focus of what they do and perhaps, perhaps we can help reshape the landscape. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision.

  • Leigh Fazzina pointed me to this posting.

    Ethics–if all it required was an understanding of the English (the language, not the British) then there wouldn’t be much to say.

    I am not someone who believes there is a need for ethics training. The rules for what constitutes ethical behavior have not changed. Something is either ethical or it isn’t. What has changed are the boundaries. Individuals constantly shift the boundaries, expanding the realm of what is ethical. In the minds of most individuals, those boundaries differ by person and by situation.

    I operate from a mindset that ethical boundaries are fixed. As an example, consider the boundaries between the US and its neighbors. Those are fixed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t those who don’t like where the boundary is between the US and Canada, or those who would argue that the boundary should be different, or those who believe the boundary is different. Disliking the positioning of the boundary, or disbelieving the positioning of the boundary does not invalidate the boundary.

    When people expand the boundaries for what they choose to call ethical behavior, they rarely do so at their own peril. Generally, they do so for their own convenience, they do so to remove any latent feelings of guilt. Each time they move the boundary, it makes it that much easier to move it the next time. Taken to its limit, at some point there are no boundaries.

    Setting larger boundaries in some sense allows people to draft their own sets of Commandments, like little mini-Moseses descending from Mount Sinai with their sets of ethics. Unlike Moses’ stoned-carved commandments, the mini-Moseses draft theirs on an Etch-A-Sketch, making them much easier to change.

    However, I don’t think ethical behavior need stem from nor be limited to any religious belief. It need not be employed because of some fear of punishment, but because of a love of righteousness and out of respect for others.

    My perspective is integrity is doing what’s right even if nobody is watching. A person of ethics knows what’s right even if nobody is asking, and ethical behavior requires action in order to be expressed.

  • The world has changed quite a bit since I joined the full-time PR fray fifteen years ago.

    As PR professionals, we know it is often difficult to take the high road; but for those who make that choice, especially Leigh Fazzina, there is a knowledge that charting that less favorable path will lead you to a better place in the end.

    It’s quite ironic that PR professionals never enjoyed favorable PR within the profession. The PRSA hired a PR Director to help us overcome the “flack” stereotype, that a publicist will do and say anything for that placement. But, it is simply not true. Many of us are prominent in our positions because we stand behind the products and services we represent. The publicists I admire, including Leigh, have conviction, passion and pride for what they do. They are tested regularly, facing all sorts of challenges. But, the belief they have in their skills and their profession trumps any fear or despair. And that is an important lesson we need to get out to all the aspiring publicists and corporate communicators on a college level.

  • I’m so pleased to see such a robust dialog in response to my post. It’s not always easy to take the high road in any business, let alone PR, but maintaining one’s reputation in the long term will always reap benefits.

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