ANALYSIS: PR Ethics - Does the PR industry need an ethics code? Half of the pros in our industry survey support a universal ethics certification or charter, even if they could be banished from the industry for violating it. With clients and journalists sh

These are heady times for the PR profession. But as the dollars roll in, the industry is still plagued with a reputation for ’spinning,’ hyping and even lying, and many PR pros feel it is time to examine the industry’s ethical standards.

These are heady times for the PR profession. But as the dollars roll in, the industry is still plagued with a reputation for ’spinning,’ hyping and even lying, and many PR pros feel it is time to examine the industry’s ethical standards.

These are heady times for the PR profession. But as the dollars

roll in, the industry is still plagued with a reputation for ’spinning,’

hyping and even lying, and many PR pros feel it is time to examine the

industry’s ethical standards.

PR pros can’t be faulted for taking advantage of the current business

climate. But the talent shortage, demanding clients and shareholders,

and competition for placement in a limited number of news outlets have

created an environment in which a professional can enter murky waters.

’If the price is right, there’s always a way to justify the behavior,’

notes Dennis Wilcox, professor of PR at San Jose State University.

Journalists in Red Herring, The Industry Standard, MSNBC and other

outlets have complained in recent months about a decline in PR practice

and standards.

One went so far as to say, ’Public relations is experiencing a crisis of

integrity. It has lost a degree of trust.’

Argue that if you will - and like all business practices, ethics

attracts more attention in the breach than in the observance - but it

raises the question of whether a universal ethics code or charter is

needed not only as a preventative measure but also as concrete proof to

the outside world that PR pros value ethical behavior.

Enforcing ethics

The only extant codes belong to PRSA and IABC. According to Bob Frause,

chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics & Professional Standards, the

organization has pledged dollars 100,000 to overhaul the current code,

which contains 12 articles and six levels of sanctions. Together with

the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, DC, Frause will attempt to

tighten up enforcement of the codes, and they hope to have a finished

product next month.

It’s clear that an overhaul is long overdue. For example, in the 50

years since the code was drawn up, only 50 cases have been brought to

the PRSA.

And none of them warranted even the lowest sanction - a simple


How could that be? Frause points to the nebulous nature of the code.

’The sanctions are ill-defined in terms of how they can be implemented,’

he says. ’The way the code is written, and the way the lawyers

interpreted them, we didn’t have enough leverage to get at the actual

truth, and the cases died.’

Meanwhile, the IABC enforces its Code of Ethics for Professional

Communicators, revised as recently as last year, with ethical guidance

as opposed to punitive sanctions. Don Bruun, chair of IABC’s ethics

committee, has received two ethical queries during his one-and-a-half

year tenure.

PRWeek’s recent Ethics survey (PRWeek, May 1) suggests that there is

scope for a charter with more teeth. Half of all respondents said they

would support the creation of an ethical certification - even if it

meant that breaching such a charter could result in their ouster from

the profession.

The question: is it realistic? Speculation on how ethics would be

enforced, and exactly who would act as watchdog, whistle-blower and

counsel for ethical breaches, could run headlong into First Amendment

issues. According to corporate communication consultant David Kirk,

because PR pros are in the marketplace of ideas, ’any legal system of

enforcing ethics is problematic because it will try to license free


’I think it’s extremely unrealistic to pursue this type of

certification,’ adds Al Golin, chairman of Golin/Harris. ’I think it’s a

pompous direction for an all-too pompous industry as it is.’ As well as

problematic, many pros believe that creating an ethical code would be a

perfunctory gesture.

’We currently cannot identify everyone in the profession, and only about

20% of us are involved in PR organizations, so a certification system

becomes impractical and unenforceable,’ says Ron Culp, SVP of PR and

government affairs at Sears, Roebuck and Co.

MSNBC Internet correspondent Lisa Napoli, who has written several pieces

exposing PR pros, adds, ’I’m such a cynic that even if there was a

stated code, it would invariably be violated by someone, somewhere. It

seems an extraneous lot of work.’

So what is the solution? Many PR pros advocate that the market should be

left to govern itself. ’I’ve been a lifelong advocate of ethical

practice in PR. But it’s something each individual has to figure out for

themselves,’ says Dan Edelman. ’I don’t believe we need a super-body

that would sit in judgment. There are many gray areas.’ But he adds that

if something further is to be done, it should be the responsibility of

PRSA or the Council of Public Relations Firms.

’The media never forgives a lie’

’All we have with our clients, media, investors and employees is our

credibility,’ asserts Richard Torrenzano, CEO of the Torrenzano


’If you lose your credibility, you will lose your contacts, clients and

employees. The market always sorts itself out.’ Adds Mike Sitrick, CEO

at Sitrick & Associates, ’Word gets around, liability issues surface,

but most of all, it just isn’t good public relations. The one thing the

media never forgives is a lie.’

Sitrick, whose crisis firm is known for its aggressive tactics, is

equally brutal with clients and in-house pros. ’If you are caught lying,

you are fired. Playing hardball is fine - but not crossing the line.

People know right from wrong, and if they are in doubt, we talk about it

before we act, and get multiple opinions. Heaven knows, much of what we

do is open to public scrutiny.’

Many large and small PR firms have their own ethical charters with which

to indoctrinate employees. Ketchum is one. CEO David Drobis argues, ’It

is not enough to say ’we are ethical; we don’t lie.’ It must be

understood and valued in the culture - agreed to by each


Some PR pros have lately advocated more barriers to entry in the

profession as a way of ensuring ethical practice from the outset of

one’s career.

Burke Stinson, AT&T’s senior PR director, acknowledges, ’The lack of

discipline in the core competency is the dirty secret that has crept

into the PR field.’

But it’s not just competency. As the PRWeek ethics survey makes clear,

PR is often merely a messenger: 62% of executives said they had been

compromised in their job by not having access to the full story or being

lied to by a client. And a further 62% said they don’t always have time

to check the facts. To Sitrick, this is unforgivable. ’What that says to

me is there is a need to do more due diligence.’ Adds Don Wright,

professor of communication at the University of South Alabama, ’Part of

ethics is accountability. An ethical PR person has a responsibility to

check the accuracy of facts and statements that a client gives


Perhaps, but as Edelman says, ’Could a PR consultant really question a

quote from the CEO in an earnings report because they feel it’s an

overstatement or understatement?’ Clearly, the issue of ethics is not

about to lie down or go away.

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