ANALYSIS: PR Ethics - PR faces the nagging truth: a code of ethics The PRSA is spending dollars 100,000 to update its ancient ethics code, but will it matter? Most PR pros believe their conscience can guide them through ethical gray areas - and feel ethic

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 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

far between.

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 public.

’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

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