Ethics in Communications

02.06.2018 | Jennifer Gehrt

At the beginning of each year, I review and sign the PR Council’s “Code of Ethics and Principles” as part of Communiqué PR’s membership renewal. The PR Council is an industry association committed to advancing its member firms’ business and there are more than 100 firms who belong to the organization. Firms of all sizes have joined the PR Council for its proprietary data and research, roundtable and networking events, and for its education programs, which are designed to empower the next generation of communication professionals.

Every year when I read the Code of Ethics, I am reminded of the importance of acting with the highest level of ethical conduct as we provide public relations and communication services to our clients. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the topic of ethics and explore what it means for our industry.

First, a refresher on the meaning of ethics. According to Wikipedia, ethics, also referred to as moral philosophy, “is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.” In the practice of public relations, the PR Council and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have well-established and helpful guidelines for ethical behavior and/or conduct that adheres to professional industry standards.

In today’s media and political climate, it is more important than ever to review these principles and to ensure we act in a manner that is honest, transparent and morally sound. We need to conduct our business so we systematically adhere to these guidelines – even when it is difficult or challenging to do so.

Consider the following: In adherence with the PR Council’s Code of Ethics around protecting the integrity of client information, member firms reserve “the option to represent more than one client in an industry sector, but any apparent conflicts must be vetted with relevant clients.”

This means that if a PR firm represents Alaska Airlines, it has the right to provide services to Delta Airlines, but that the partnership must be transparent with both parties. Clearly, this is the right thing to do, because of potential conflicts of interest and representing companies with competing interests could make it difficult or impossible to fulfill one’s duties in an impartial manner.

When representing more than one client in an industry sector, there is also the potential of damaging one’s credibility with journalists. Imagine a PR professional contacting a journalist on a Monday to espouse the benefits of Alaska Airlines over other airline competitors. How could this same PR person possibly call the same reporter on a Tuesday to promote Delta Airlines? This would be damaging to the PR person’s credibility with the journalist. This example is extreme, but it illustrates the point.

Another principle that stands out as deserving special attention is the need to “honor our role in society.” As the PR Council outlines, the services we provide day-in and day-out are vital to facilitating public discourse. The conversations about key issues and initiatives regarding technology, medicine, science and new products are essential to our democracy and society. Oftentimes, when one is working a pitch or campaign, it is easy to forget the importance of our work and how it supports the larger society. However, by supporting the sharing of accurate and timely information with journalists and others, we enable vital education, debate and examination. Just take a look at some of the press releases that communicators have developed and distributed recently:

Society Under Strain: Americans Struggle with Technology’s Impact, Look to Policymakers and Internet Companies for Solutions
Robust Job Market for Grads Continues in 2018
The War on Cancer has Failed

While scanning these press release headlines, one can only imagine the sorts of questions and debates that might arise as journalists write and publish articles, and readers comment and react to them.

In any event, I would encourage anyone in the business of public relations or communications to review the PR Council’s Code of Ethics and the PRSA’s Code of Ethics. There are some powerful reminders about the best ways to conduct oneself as a PR professional.


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Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, EXPERTISE, INDUSTRY, Our Results, Strategic Public Relations book

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