Ethics Thought Leadership

PR Ethics Take Center Stage

Editor’s note: As we celebrate Ethics Month this September, PRSA invited members of the Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) to provide their views and thoughts on the pressing ethical issues affecting the PR industry. Track the series and join the discussion by using the hashtag #PREthics. For a full list of Ethics Month activities visit the 2014 Ethics Month section of the PRSA site

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Navigating Ethical Challenges in a Transformative Media Environment

It’s no secret that in recent years the proliferation of social media has massively impacted the public relations profession.  News and information travels faster than ever before and the dialogue between organizations and their stakeholders are played out in public forums that can be instantly viewed – and forever captured – by anyone with an online connection.

PR has never been a profession for the faint of heart but the pace, visibility and potential impact of our work is unprecedented.  Decisions are made at breakneck speed, new social channels seem to be emerging every day, and PR pros often find themselves crossing into territory that was once owned by traditional marketers.

With all of this change comes great opportunities, significant challenges and a host of new ethical considerations.  Native and integrated marketing and sponsored social media content is now common practice but what constitutes crossing the line? Does your organization have policies in place to police against improper practices like astroturfing?  Or an action plan if an employee falsifies their identity and posts comments beneath a story?   The prevalence of social media has made it possible for everyone in an organization to be seen as a brand ambassador and there is no shortage of examples of how ethical infractions by a single individual can tarnish venerable brands.

This September marks “Ethics Month,” a time when PRSA comes together as an organization to shine attention on the importance of practicing ethical behavior.  This year, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) is spearheading an aggressive campaign to educate our members and the larger profession on best ethical practices in today’s transformative media environment.

I encourage members and non-members alike to both take part in the “Ethics Month” conversation that will be occurring across the Chapter, District and Section level as well as in our own social media channels.

One of the great aspects of being a PRSA member is that we challenge ourselves and the profession to follow best ethical practices at all times.  At times we’re all subject to poor decision-making, whether it’s done willfully or not.  A poor choice or action made in the heat of the moment lives forever in the click of a screen grab, and can take down companies and careers.

As has always been the case, a key to sound decision-making is planning and foresight, and the ever-changing nature of today’s media landscape means that PR pros are constantly in danger of suffering from pitfalls of which they might not even be aware.  Taking time to think through potential ethical challenges before they arise and defining personal ethical standards (which ideally align with PRSA’s Code of Ethics), will leave you that much better prepared when pressure moments do arise.

Fostering public trust is an intrinsic tenet of the practice of sound public relations. Practicing good ethics isn’t just the right thing to do, it is absolutely essential, particularly in today’s “age of transparency.”

I applaud the leaders at every level of our organization who will be working tirelessly throughout September to promote Ethics Month, and I look forward to joining many of you in rich and engaging conversations in the weeks ahead.


Joe Cohen, APR, is 2014 Chair of PRSA.

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Joe Cohen, APR

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