Advocacy Ethics

It’s Time for PR to Get Serious about Ethics

PRWeek took a welcomed shot across the bow at the public relations profession with its lead editorial this month on the state of ethics in PR. Titled “Ethics mishaps of a few are a concern for the entire industry,” the piece represents a clear call to action for the profession to have an open and forthright discussion about where things stand when it comes to PR ethics.

More specifically, PRWeek’s unsigned editorial asks whether it is time for the profession to undertake a “proactive approach … that cements ethics within the very fabric of agency and in-house communications departments.”

We certainly think so. And we applaud PRWeek for shining some much-needed light on one of the profession’s most pernicious issues.

Raising the ethical standards of public relations is imperative. This is especially so in the digital age, when ethical missteps quickly gain mainstream attention and risk damaging the public’s and business community’s trust in the value of public relations.

Unfortunately, when ethical mishaps occur, what we often see is the profession engage in a swift volley of hand-wringing followed by an equally swift refusal to examine why the same issues crop up over and over. Little is accomplished but our credibility with the public and clients continues to erode.

It’s time for the profession to get serious about ethics.

For more than 60 years, PRSA has championed robust ethical standards for public relations, through our Code of Ethics, advocacy on the matter and a proactive education program that informs the public, media and business community of the profession’s ethical pillars. It’s for this reason that we strongly support PRWeek’s call for the PR profession to address its ethical transgressions together in order to “maintain the heightened credibility it has earned with the C-suite.”

It is time for a very open and frank discussion of the state of ethics in PR. PRSA is happy to lead such a discussion, just as we do each year through our Ethics Month activities and other ethics-related advocacy initiatives.

In the weeks ahead, we will review some of the ethical transgressions we have written about in this blog and other forums. We’ll attempt to analyze where things went wrong, what should have happened and initiate a frank and transparent discussion about what the profession can learn from those transgressions and how it can ensure they do not happen again.

We plan to take this call to action a step further by hosting an Ethics Summit later this year. We’ll bring together agency executives, in-house communications leaders and other professionals for the type of honest discussion about ethics that is too frequently ignored or missing from the profession’s daily work. By hosting such an event, we hope to shine a light on the issue and foster broader understanding of how to enhance the profession’s ethical standards.

The modern role and value of public relations continues to grow and prosper for a variety of reasons. But that growth can be quickly stunted if we do not appropriately and transparently address the ethical issues that persist.

Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

About the author

Deborah Silverman, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Hi Deborah:

    My name is Howard Rauch and I serve as ethics committee chairman for the American Society of Business Publications Editors.  I am very interested in your work, especially the upcoming ethical transgressions review.  Perhaps there are situations involving difficulties with B2B editors that I should be bring to the attention of our members.  ASBPE has its own highly-regarded ethics code;  very shortly, we plan to launch a newsletter totally devoted to ethical issues.  I can be reached at or by phone at (201) 569-7714.

  • Great job, Deborah. I would add that the vast majority of these ethical lapses come from practitioners (note I didn’t say professionals) who are not PRSA members. If organizations want to ensure they are receiving ethical counsel from PR professionals that will lead them to successful outcomes, they should help their staff make the financial and time investment into PRSA membership and professional development programming. When we engage in thoughtful discourse, we are better equipped to handle the challenges that face our companies and agencies. An ounce of prevention (in this case, a PRSA membership) is worth a pound of cure. 

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