A client asks you to write a news release claiming that its product represents a ’revolutionary’ breakthrough in technology. Is that ethical?
A client asks you to write a news release claiming that its product
represents a ’revolutionary’ breakthrough in technology. Is that
Not according to Article 5 of the PRSA code. But it happens every day -
just ask a harried hi-tech journalist.
The PRSA Credibility Index released last year revealed that PR pros
ranked as the least credible public figures after entertainers and talk
show hosts. Anyone familiar with the PR industry knows that
professionals who act with complete disregard for the truth are few and
But although honesty is prized within the industry, outsiders’
skepticism is not unfounded since a standard code of ethics has yet to
be meaningful in the industry.
The PRSA has begun to take a closer look at ethics in hopes of creating
more specific guidelines. It is sinking dollars 100,000 into an overhaul
of the 50-year-old code, long criticized for its vague language, which
puts into words what many view as common sense. The new code will
address day-to-day ethical quandaries that have recently come into play
surrounding the Internet, public affairs and crisis management.
’I’ve been surprised by how many people assume that they can just act
according to their own conscience,’ says Joseph Riser, VP at The GCI
Group in Los Angeles. Riser points out that without an ethical standard,
PR pros are left to make decisions themselves.
This lack of guidelines is particularly dangerous because PR pros not
only deliver information to the public but must also work to encourage
clients to act ethically. ’Too often ethics are determined from the
client or agency perspective, not the target audience perspective,’ says
Scott McGaugh, EVP at San Diego-based Matthews/Mark. He advocates using
the target audience perspective as a guide when faced with an ethical
Two sides to the truth
But few ethical dilemmas are so easily solved. Codes have been
established by organizations such as the PRSA and the IABC in which
these associations stress the necessity of honest, truthful and candid
behavior that is in accord with the free flow of information to the
public. The PRSA code also lists unacceptable behaviors such as
representing conflicting interests or disseminating misleading
’A code of ethics is an important first step, but it’s so broad by
necessity. It says to tell the truth but there can be two sides to the
truth,’ says David Finn, chairman/CEO of Ruder Finn. Indeed, Finn has
hit upon the crux of the issue: defining truth. What one practitioner
sees as simply withholding unnecessary facts another may see as lying to
’The way the code has been written, it’s been hard to determine
unethical behavior,’ says Robert Frause, chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics
& Professional Standards. ’We want to write a clearer code that can be
enforced and that sets a benchmark for the industry.’ But it seems
unlikely that a new code will be able to unequivocally define truth and
lies, right and wrong.
’Our integrity depends on whether we believe what we say. In PR we have
problems if we represent a client without challenging ourselves, without
asking questions,’ adds Finn. Unlike the fields of law or medicine,
which have a codified framework for determining right and wrong, PR pros
have to make their own judgement calls in dicey gray areas.
And even if the wrong call is made, ethical transgressions carry no
Without strict definitions, enforcing an ethical code is nearly
Only a few cases of unethical behavior have been investigated by the
PRSA. Members who are expelled face no consequences in the business
world and can continue practicing.
Moreover, calls for outside regulation of the entire industry by the
state have met significant resistance. ’It would be a nightmare for the
state to try to license the PR profession. We would have to redefine
PR,’ says Frause. Others agree that the PR industry is so fragmented it
would be difficult to establish ethical standards that applied to all
areas of practice.
Many pros feel self-regulation is working well. ’You can only step over
the line so far before clients, the media and the public will know it,’
says Hal Dash, president of Cerrell Associates.
Turning down a client for ethical reasons is not unheard of. Several
years ago, Ketchum declined to represent the National Rifle Association,
and, as with many ethical questions, the issue was not black and
The Constitutional right to bare arms was pitted against concerns over
gun violence, and management made the final decision to decline the
More recently, Porter Novelli ditched a dollars 3 million account with a
gun industry trade group, citing fallout after the Columbine school
shootings (PRWeek, May 24, 1999).
Practitioners are likely to be left on their own to work out such gray
areas. ’There’s really no way of enforcing an ethical code,’ says Donald
Wright, professor of communications at the University of South
’Ethics is more of a personal issue than a professional one. There are
few financial rewards for acting ethically in a capitalistic
However, Wright adds that he has seen an increased interest in ethical
issues within the industry. PR is experiencing a boom time, making it
easier for agencies to decline clients over ethical concerns. Still,
practitioners have few resources to turn to and most rely on their
employers for guidance.
Concerns exist particularly for those new to the industry. ’Pitching
false information is a big hole that must be stressed. New pros will
sometimes do anything to get a client into USA Today, without realizing
the consequences,’ says Jeff Ross, PR manager at Technology & Business
Integrators. While ethics courses are required for a PR degree, most of
them focus on journalistic ethics.
There may be as many different approaches to ethics as there are PR
At Cerrell, Dash says he distributes articles and materials on ethics
but relies on mentoring to promote ethical behavior. At Ketchum, ethics
is considered an everyday issue. All employees must read and sign a code
of ethics very similar to the PRSA code. Urgent ethical issues are
discussed in weekly management meetings, and ethics information is
available on the agency’s Intranet. ’In a larger organization, managers
cannot watch employee behavior all the time. We need to give people the
tools to make the right decisions everyday,’ says president Ray
Searching for guidance
Ruder Finn has taken a more direct approach. An ethics committee meets
every six weeks to discuss issues with an outside guide such as a
professor of ethics, priest or a rabbi. ’The idea is that when we are
faced with a problem, we should go to someone with no interest in the
company to help us think more objectively,’ says Emmanuel Tchividjian,
coordinator for the ethics committee.
Until practitioners have a unified forum for debate on ethical issues,
further clarification seems unlikely. Even the wisest PR sages cannot
expect to define the truth. But more open discussion, along with a
stronger code, could help PR pros make more informed decisions.
Tell us what you think. Answer our ethics poll at