Beyond PR

May 04, 2012

Dear Gracie: Should PR Pros Be Trained in Ethics?

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Dear Gracie,

I recently got into a good-natured debate with one of my colleagues about whether or not ethics can be taught, particularly in PR. Are ethics inherent (that is, based on our upbringing), or can ethics be more clearly defined into black-and-white rules (“right” vs. “wrong”)? Is there a need for ethics classes in the PR industry?

Ethics Evaluator


Dear Ethics Evalutor,

Seven ProfNet experts weigh in:

The Importance of Ethics

“Public relations is a tool, just like a hammer,” says Dan Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “You can use it to build homes for the homeless, or you can use it to cave in someone’s skull.”

Collins provides an extreme example to consider: “I recall watching a documentary where a public relations professional was shown viewing films of Hitler’s infamous Nuremberg rally that was the focus of ‘Triumph of Will.’ He commented that Hitler was ‘using public relations techniques 50 years ago that are just starting to be used today.'”

This is a frightening example of how important morality is in public relations, says Collins. “PR must be used to inform and act with a social conscience — not to manipulate, but to educate.”

Also, consider the recent controversy (from about a year ago) when news broke of a marketing and PR firm that had Libya’s Mumar Quaddafi among its clients.

“Should one do PR for a dictator?” questions Collins.

“If you are speaking on behalf of a client and putting forward an agenda that is potentially criminal, you have to be taken to task,” he says. Claiming the “Nuremberg defense,” — saying “I was only doing what I was told” or “I was only obeying orders” — doesn’t wash. PR people are not above the law.

How Do We Define “Ethics”?

“Don’t confuse ethics with morality,” says Ann Willets, CEO of Utopia Communications. “Ethics is a way of doing something, and yes it can be taught.” Morals, on the other hand, are dependent on one’s culture.

“For example, people may have a good work ethic or a bad work ethic,” continues Willets. “An extreme example is the Nazi party. They had an ethic, but it was immoral. All companies have ethics, but not all of them are moral ethics.”

Willets offers this quote from the TV show “NCIS”: “The ethical man knows he’s not supposed to cheat on his wife; the moral man actually wouldn’t.”

Can and Should Ethics Be Taught?

When Marilyn Gordon, president of Mediatude, taught an ethics class, she would administer an ethics “quiz” and found that the scores surprisingly leaned towards a high percentage of unethical answers.

“Did that mean that some of my students were unethical?” asks Gordon. “I tend to think not, but it did show that in certain instances, there may be a slide towards what I would consider the ‘dark side.'” At any rate, there’s clearly confusion about ethical decision-making sometimes.

“The importance of ethics can be reinforced through the classroom,” agrees Alisa Agozzino, assistant professor of communication arts at Ohio Northern University. Students should be asked to critically examine ethics and how it plays a role in the PR profession.

“All PR programs should instate a mandatory course in ethics,” echoes Julie Sugishita, account executive at The Hoffman Agency. “First, it will help validate the professionalism of the industry. Incorporating generally accepted practices in ethics is commonplace in professions like accounting, medicine and law.” And this is particularly important for PR professionals because they are constantly battling the “spin doctor” stereotype.

Second, with the influx of social media and personal branding, behaving unethically can increasingly tarnish the reputation and career of PR professionals and firms, says Sugishita.

So, like professionalism, ethics — as a code of behavior — can be taught, reiterates Sugishita.

However, Susan Tellem, partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, points out that ethics are mainly learned in upbringing. “You can put a person in a classroom, but if ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ isn’t there from childhood, it probably cannot be learned.”

“I believe we learn our ethical base from our upbringing, culture and other life experiences that we call upon when we think of ‘right’ or ‘wrong,'” agrees Gordon. “We then apply all of these components when an ethical situation arises in our PR job.”

But despite the fact that it is often your gut or that annoying little angel on your shoulder that speaks to you, ethics should be taught in every business or PR college class anyway, stresses Tellem.

What Would Be Taught in a PR Ethics Class?

While there are clear-cut rules that guide what PR practitioners do (just ask the FTC), there are also grey areas in terms of individuals and situations that are not covered by legal guidelines, like how you treat a coworker, says Willets.

“Normative values do not always translate into hardline laws that we can follow in the real world,” agrees Peter Lo, assistant account executive at Zeno Group. When teaching ethics, there should be anything but black-and-white rules.

Using a measuring stick is probably not a good idea either, he continues. It’s “morally unsound” to use selected case studies to dictate what all publicists should do, he explains. “Each publicist will have his or her own individual ideals to appeal to that will match their unique situations.”

On the other hand, despite all of the ambiguities regarding what one should and should not do in ethics, it is still worth questioning what makes a morally good or bad publicist, concludes Lo. “The best thing that could result from an ethics course in PR would be the moral awareness and consciousness that results from the classroom discussions and questions.”

PR ethics classes should also go beyond the ethical decision-making process and focus on compliance, says Willets.

In Collins’ ethics class, he reviews (among other things) the six core values of PR as outlined in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)’s Code of Ethics: Advocacy, Honesty, Expertise, Independence, Loyalty and Fairness.

Willets and Tellem also recommend checking out PRSA’s Ethical Guidance for Public Relations Practitioners.


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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