Skip links


PR ethics: “With great power comes great responsibility”

By Megan Cotton

Ethics in public relations has always been a hot topic without black and white answers, only shades of gray. To provide an open discussion on this topic, The Plank Center hosted a Webinar, “Ethics in PR Education,” on Feb. 23, 2011, in which the panelists provided their advice on teaching students the importance of ethical practice.

The shared theme of the professionals’ advice: the best way to teach ethics is through real-world examples. All the panelists spoke of using case studies, current events or decision-making exercises to show students the importance of being ethical in the public relations field.

One panelist, Kevin Saghy, a public relations and marketing specialist for the Chicago Cubs, discussed research about how students like to learn. He said results overwhelmingly showed:
• Real world examples trump theory when explaining ethics.
• Students value honesty and transparency in the classroom.
• Students’ main fear is saying “no” to management.

Saghy said none of the students mentioned codes of ethics like the PRSA’s, and he suggests that professionals and students keep these codes handy. These codes provide a secondary source of advice when stuck in a dilemma. He said they back you up in situations when you have a disagreement with management.

“It’s not your word versus his anymore,” Saghy said, concerning the use of a code of ethics in situations when you have to tell management no.

Kathy Fitzpatrick, a professor at Quinnipiac University, outlined her 14-week course on ethics and discussed a few teaching techniques she’s found that work:
• Encourage open discussion
• Use case simulations/decision making exercises
• Do case analyses
• Discuss current events
• Include some lectures (it is a class after all)

“I always let the students know that their voices count,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve always found it’s important to raise more questions than provide answers.”

As a senior graduating in May, I’ve never taken a course devoted exclusively to ethics in public relations. I’ve discussed current events and worked on case studies for assignments, but it would have been valuable to devote an entire semester to one of the oldest problems in public relations.

As our field and world become increasingly digital, universities work to keep up, adding social media classes that teach the PR functions of Twitter, blogs and smartphones to students. But I can’t help but think what Spiderman — yes, Spiderman — lives by, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

What is the point of learning all these great tools if you don’t also learn the importance of being responsible? In 2006, Edelman, a highly respected PR firm, found itself in a scandal that involved allegedly paying employees to blog on a pro-Walmart platform. So, if a trusted firm can make a mistake with the power technology gives us, how are individuals going to know when to draw the ethical line?

As panelist Dr. Shannon Bowen of the University of Syracuse said for PR professionals, reputation and relationships are intertwined, and trust is central to maintaining them.

Universities should require courses in which students discuss ethics and learn from professional examples what they should or shouldn’t do. Keeping credibility and trust in our field is key and should be the top priority of all public relations’ programs.


  1. Post comment

    At the University of Notre Dame (Australia – Fremantle campus) we have one lecture in our e-PR unit on social media and ethics (in fact, it’s next week). I also teach it as past of Introduction to PR. All Notre Dame Students study an ethics unit.

  2. Post comment

    This is certainly a thing I have to find more information about, appreciation for the blog post.


Comments are closed.

Return to top of page