Ethics Thought Leadership

What Is Your Personal Code of Conduct?

The preamble to ENRON’s code of ethics (before their crash) reads: “Moral as well as legal obligations will be fulfilled openly, promptly, and in a manner which will reflect pride on the Company’s name.”

As a professional, you live in the world of conduct codes. Every profession has them; industries have them, many individual businesses and organizations have them. Over the years, as my career has progressed, the problems I help others resolve become more complicated. I find that while industrial, professional and other formalized conduct codes can be helpful, when the decisions become more acts of leadership, how things go depends more on the leader’s personal code of conduct than other standard professional prescriptions.

I mention this because one of the most important aspects of giving advice to senior people has little to do with communication, how the media works, innovative social media tactics or most of the other tools for which PR experts are employed. When leaders are troubled, confused, afraid or stressed out, the conversation tends to turn to personal beliefs and emotions rather than the technicalities of a good press release.

If you want to be in on those discussions, you need to have your own personal code of conduct and be able to discuss it, advocate for it, challenge it, suggest alternatives, and find and focus on the truth. This can be a pretty risky business. At the same time, this is the highest level of practice for a trusted strategic adviser.

If all you have to offer is something about why reporters do what they do, you will rarely be invited to the altitude at which real and pressing leadership decisions and discussions take place.

So what are the elements of a personal code of conduct? For me, I call them “The Principles That Guide Jim’s Practice.” The list grows longer each year, but here’s where it currently stands.

  1. Seek the truth first and find ethical pathways promptly and urgently.
  2. Ask better, tougher questions than anyone else.
  3. Be 15 minutes early.
  4. Avoid surprises. Forecast trouble.
  5. Raise your hand. Consistently challenge the standard assumptions and practices of our profession. Build its importance and enhance the ability of all practitioners to better serve others. Say things no one else is willing to say.
  6. Do the doable. Know the knowable. Get the getable. Arrange the arrangeable.
  7. Be inconsistent. This is the greatest virtue of the strategist. Everybody, including your boss/client, thinks they are good, even great, communicators. Think differently. Be surprising. Think inside out. Successful strategies are built on inconsistency.
  8. Say less; focus on things that matter. Write less but make your words really important.
  9. Go beyond what those you advise and those you work with already know or believe.
  10. Intend to make a constructive, positive, ethical difference every day.
  11. Intentionally look at every situation and circumstance from different perspectives.
  12. Look out for the real victims. Always put victim interests first.
  13. Remember, it’s your boss’s “bus.” They get to drive it wherever they want. Your role on “the bus” is to help the driver drive better. If you don’t like it or can’t deal with it, then hop off and find somebody else’s bus (or drive your own).
  14. Remember that every issue, question, concern or problem is a management issue, question, concern or problem first.
  15. Start where leadership or management is or you will arrive at different destinations.
  16. Propose fewer simple, sensible, positive, constructive, helpful, honorable and ethical action options — those that will prevent failure or more victims and bring true honorable success faster. All other approaches lead to trouble.
  17. Strive to assess what you learn every day. Ask yourself at least one of these five questions at the end of each day. Keep a log:

In addition, here’s your “Personal Daily Professional Growth Assessment Questionnaire”:

  1. What is the most important thing I learned today?
  2. What are the most interesting things I learned today?
  3. What do I know now that I didn’t know at 9 o’clock this morning?
  4. What questions arose today that need answers, and from whom?
  5. How or what will I change tomorrow based on what I learned today?

What are the principles that guide your practice? What is your personal Code of Conduct? I am always open to conversation about these ideas. Contact me at, subject line: “Personal Code of Conduct.” If you do write or call me, I will send you my powerful one page “Model Personal Profile, The purposes and passions of my life.”

James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, served on the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) for 22 years. In 2016, he was the first BEPS member to be given Member Emeritus status by the PRSA Board. Among other activities, he was co-chair of the PRSA BEPS Code of Ethics redrafting effort led by Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA. The PRSA Assembly unanimously approved the revised Code in the fall of 2000.

About the author

Jim Lukaszewski


  • Having a personal code of conduct is one of the best ways that public relations practitioners can serve their client’s needs. Lukaszewski’s personal code of conduct is one that I want to implement in my professional (and personal) life. This was a great and important read for a soon-to-be college graduate. —Cara Bolt, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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