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Ensure you bring ethics into your PR activities

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Public relations is one of the most maligned professions. Our critics flay us with criticism:

“PR stunt”

“PR ploy”

“PR exercise”

“Spin doctors”

“Public relations is organized lying.”

“Public relations ethics is an oxymoron.”

Why does this denigration happen? How can our profession, which professes to be expert in building positive reputations for others, suffer from such a poor reputation itself?

Some of the problems arise because public relations is an umbrella term that covers a multitude of activities and practitioners who are located at all points of the ethical spectrum.

As public relations practitioners we don’t have to be registered; we don’t need to be qualified and we don’t need to belong to a professional association requiring high standards of professional and ethical practice. Anyone can call themselves a public relations practitioner, even the untrained, the incompetent and the unscrupulous.

Most high-profile problems relating to the profession originate from non-members of public relations professional bodies. These people can legitimately engage in public relations as they see fit and are only subject to laws, not ethical standards of behavior.

Our profession is vulnerable because many practitioners are merely technicians or implementers – messengers for the management of the organization or client. The PR persons in these situations have no authority over what they do; they are merely mouthpieces for other people who may or may not be ethical. However, the PR practitioners are held responsible by recipients for the messages they disseminate.

Also, there are many cases of practitioners who allow themselves to fall short of good practice. Reporters continually complain about the multitudinous times PR people have sent them un-newsworthy rubbish either because they didn’t know better or they allowed their employer or client to pressure them into knowingly sending unsuitable and untargeted information. Just visit on any day to see a sample of the vast wasteland of information served up to the US media release distribution service daily.

You may say “ethics are all very well, but I need to get on with the real work.” However, you may not realize how many ethical decisions are needed almost every day in PR work. How well are you equipped to deal with ethical decision-making that will stand up to scrutiny? How would you handle some of these real-life scenarios?

  • Do you wait to return the telephone call from a journalist who wants some sensitive information until just after their deadline so they can’t use the information?

  • What angle do you take in writing an article on a staff member you don’t respect?

  • Do you avoid saying “no” to a senior manager or client whose expectations of communication are unrealistic, because you don’t want to jeopardize the relationship?

  • Your boss hypes up your draft of a media release. You know the reporter receiving it won’t use it now. What do you do about your boss?

  • Your marketing department has made dubious claims about a new product. How do you handle this?

  • Your organization is in the middle of a difficult issue and your CEO decides to make public statements only after the lawyers have watered down your draft statement. What can you do?

  • You have been recruited by a competitor of your previous employer. To what extent can you use your knowledge of your previous employer’s work in your new job?

If you belong to a public relations association, it is likely to have a code of ethics in place to govern the behavior of its members. However, the code of ethics may not seem to cover your specific situation.

There are three broad approaches to ethical dilemmas:

  • The utilitarian (teleological) approach, which focuses on consequences or what action will be best for the most people. It requires people to consider all alternatives and the consequences of their actions. “The ends justify the means.”

  • Advocacy (deontological) ethics is about rules and duties, of right or wrong, about actions and not ends. “Do what is right, regardless of the consequences.” A common deontological position in public relations is advocacy of the employer or client’s position above all other interests.

  • Situational ethics, also called ‘ethical relativism,’ suggests that every dilemma must be evaluated in its particular context or situation. Instead of applying a rigid set of rules in each decision, people decide on a case-by-case basis. This approach can be helpful when there are several ethical obligations to resolve in the one issue and when blindly following rules would cause significant harm. It does deal with the principle that just because one class of individuals does something, that doesn’t mean it is right.

You can think about which approach or combination of approaches is most compatible with your organization’s values and policies. This will be helpful as a guide to making the ethical decisions as outlined below.

Practical ways to build ethics into PR programs

Lofty ethical philosophy is fine, but what can be done in your everyday practice of public relations? These practical guidelines will help resolve ethical dilemmas:

  1. Define in writing the specific issue or conflict. (The act of writing or typing it out as hard copy helps to clarify it in your mind.)

  2. Identify the relevant internal or external factors, eg political, social, financial, that may influence the decision.

  3. Identify and rank the key values and principles involved. What reasons can you provide for prioritizing one competing value or principle over another?

  4. Identify the parties who will be affected by the decision and define your obligation to each. Do you need to confer with those parties about the potential risks and consequences of alternative courses of action?

  5. Select ethical principles to guide your decision-making process.

  6. Make a decision.

  7. Develop and implement an action plan that is consistent with the ethical priorities you have determined as central to the dilemma.

  8. Reflect on the outcome of this ethical decision-making process. How would you evaluate the consequences of this process for those involved?

This process should help you deal with ethical dilemmas.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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