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A Collaborative Effort: Advancing Ethics in Public Relations

Published on November 7, 2018, at 4:25 p.m.
by Anna Claire Toxey.

Using terms such as “spin” and “propaganda” to describe the work of public relations practitioners is common practice among many people today. The negative connotations associated with these words often tarnish the reputation of both the public relations industry and communications professionals, and make it increasingly difficult to prove the validity of the profession.

As a result, PR practitioners continuously face the task of promoting ethical behavior across the profession in an attempt to combat negative viewpoints. However, the advancement of ethics in the industry is not something that can be achieved by the efforts of PR professionals alone. It is something that can only be achieved through collaboration among PR students, young professionals and seasoned professionals.

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One of the most essential components of promoting ethical practices is encouraging ethics-centered dialogue between students and professionals. Often, ethical dilemmas are not black and white. Sometimes the best solution is not clear and leads to confusion. Therefore, taking the time to discuss ethical situations, possible solutions and desired outcomes is a proactive way that PR students and professionals can work together to ensure that they are prepared to navigate questionable, ethical situations they may encounter.

“[We should] constantly be engaging in conversations with peers, professors and practitioners in the industry,” said Katrina Waelchli, Capstone Agency PRSA Ethics client team media coordinator.

According to Waelchli, one of the most proactive ways for students to expand their ethical knowledge is to talk with fellow students and professionals about their concerns and uncertainties. For students who are skeptical about an ethical situation they face in an internship or job, she advised that they “go an extra step and ask someone ‘Is this ethical?’” to determine the best course of action for the scenario.

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While facilitating dialogue among students and practitioners is a step in the right direction when it comes to advancing ethics in the profession, it is not the only solution. Students and professionals should also study and consult available resources to make informed decisions about ethics.

“It is important that students leaving school  and entering the workforce have an understanding … of PR ethics, because they could make unethical decisions very early in their career that could derail the rest of their career,” said John Matson, APR, PRSA Alabama president-elect.

In order to avoid making unethical mistakes that can jeopardize a career, Matson suggests that students familiarize themselves with the PRSA Code of Ethics. The code outlines six values and six core principles and serves as a guide that can be used to help practitioners navigate difficult ethical situations.

In addition to learning and becoming familiar with the code, Matson said that both students and professionals should refer back to it often during their work. It should be readily available on a phone or desk for easy access, consultation purposes and to refresh one’s memory as needed.

“When we have public relations professionals that don’t make ethics a priority and never refer to the Code Provisions, then we are, as a profession, going to slide backward,” said Matson.

Lastly, students and professionals can work to ensure compliance with ethical practices by collaborating on the creation and implementation of specific ethics protocols and policies in their internships and jobs.

According to PRSA Alabama Ethics Chair Stacy Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, “[Practitioners] need some standards and processes to be able to manage the business ethically.”

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In her role as ethics chair, Smith sees firsthand the benefits that well-developed ethics standards  bring to individuals and organizations. Knowing ahead of time what your organization will and will not allow when it comes to certain ethical situations can save time and ensure that your organization is consistent in its decision-making processes.

The need for promoting and advancing ethical      practices will undoubtedly grow as the public relations field continues to expand, and it will hinge upon the efforts of collaboration between PR students and professionals.

“As young public relations professionals and current practitioners in the industry, we rely on each other to be ethical individuals in the sense that the practitioners in the industry are our pioneers. They are paving the way. They are creating the future landscape,” Waelchli said.

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