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Movement of Ethical Public Relations Practices: What is Next?

Posted At: October 27, 2008 12:23 PM
by Eyun-Jung Ki, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

For the past two decades, the field of public relations has been searching for methods to ensure more ethical public relations practices. As an effort from the industry, several national and international public relations associations, including the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), have established and mandated official codes of ethics to guide more ethical public relations practices among their members.

As the importance of ethical practices in public relations gained greater attention, universities started to incorporate ethics as a standard part of the public relations curriculum. We introduced future public relations practitioners to the PRSA Code of Ethics, the most widely accepted ethical guidelines in the field.

The reasons why the PRSA Code of Ethics does not work

The PRSA Code of Ethics, along with other organizations’ ethical codes, has helped to promote the public’s perception of the public relations field. However, scholars cite a pair of reasons why they are skeptical about the PRSA code’s effectiveness in preventing unethical practices among PR practitioners.

First, Michael Parkinson, a professor at Texas Tech University, criticized the code as neither proper nor practical for the profession. He pointed that it does not reflect public relations’ specific professional ethics. Second, there is no way to ensure that non-members do not violate these ethics guidelines. Public relations practitioners are not required to join a professional association such as PRSA and only one in five practitioners holds membership. Therefore, the inherent problem of such ethical codes lies in their lack of enforceability.

A new solution to deter unethical public relations practices

Establishing ethics codes within public relations firms can offer a solution to the enforceability issue that comes with professional organizations’ ethical codes. By defining its own ethics code, a firm can clearly express the core ethical values it strives to uphold. Also, the code reflects a firm’s supportive environment for promoting ethical public relations practices. Furthermore, unlike the PRSA code, a specific firm’s ethics code can act as an essential decision-making instrument in ethical practices, because the code can be enforced among employees, the public relations practitioners.

The current status of ethics codes of public relations firms

Considering the previous concepts, Soo-Yeon Kim, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, and I reviewed Web pages of 1562 public relations agencies listed in 2007 O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms to investigate the status of ethics codes in public relations firms. Among the 1562 agencies reviewed, less than 40 percent provided contents about ethics for public relations practices.

Some firms may only communicate ethics code internally, and the outcome of this study could thus underestimate the extent to which public relations firms establish and promote their own ethics codes. Even considering this possibility, it is fair to say that public relations firms lag far behind other industries in terms of ethical standards.
For example, more than 70 percent of Fortune 1000 corporations have ethics codes (Weaver, Trevino, & Cochran, 1999). Patrick E. Murphy, a professor at University of Notre Dame, surveyed large U.S. based and multinational corporations. He found that more than 90 percent possess an ethics code, and 50 percent even provided multiple ethics statements.

So what are the implications of this situation? More public relations firms should establish ethics codes or at least communicate core ethical values as part of an effort to promote ethical public relations practices. To increase the success of such an effort, the management team should model desired behavior by explicitly following the codes themselves and communicate the expected standards to their internal and external publics.

Ki, E.-J., & Kim, S.-Y. (2008). Ethics statements of public relations firms: What do they say? Paper presented at the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada.

Murphy, P. E. (1995). Corporate ethics statements: Current status and future prospects. Journal of Business Ethics, 14(9), 727-740.

Parkinson, M. (2001). The PRSA code of professional standards and member code of ethics: Why they are neither professional nor ethical. Public Relations Quarterly, Fall, 27-31.

Weaver, G. R., Trevino, L. K., & Cochran, P. L. (1999). Corporate ethics practices in mid-1990s: An empirical study of Fortune 1000. Journal of Business Ethics, 18, 283-294.

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