Lesson 2: Reaching Ethical Maturity: The Ethical Development of Public Relations Practice

Family reunions can be torture. Distant aunts and uncles who claim family relation pull out obscure photos and tell stories from your childhood – stories that you cannot recollect. They pinch your check, ruffle your hair, and comment on how much you’ve grown. Yet, despite your growth spurt, you somehow remain seated at the kid’s table.

Inevitably someone asks the question, “so, what are you studying in college?” You brace yourself, take a deep breath, and reply, “public relations.” You begin to recite the public relations definition drilled into your head by your "Intro to PR" instructor, but the aghast expression on your relative’s face stops you. You might as well have said con artist or swindler. The response would have been the same, assuming of course that your relative even knows what public relations is, but that topic is for another day and another lesson.

You should have said nursing. Nurses have topped Gallup’s Honesty and Ethics ranking every year since being added to the list in 1999. The least ethical profession – lobbyists. Lobbyists are considered less ethical than advertising practitioners, car salespeople, and members of Congress. Further, they have not shown any ethical improvement in the poll over the last several years. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider that the term “public relations” does not appear in Gallup’s poll. But, its definition of lobbyists, to influence and persuade others, sounds a lot like the press agentry and two-way asymmetrical practice of public relations. So, yes, we might define public relations as developing and sustaining mutually beneficial relationships, but your aghast relative – she’s thinking lobbyist.

Due to public relations’ ethical perception, professionals are encouraged to become more ethically literate. The first step to ethical literacy is to identify personal values and to understand the ethical orientations that guide our behaviors. These initial steps were discussed in lesson one. This lesson assesses the connection between the ethical orientations or principles and public relations practice. It also encourages practitioners to “grow up” in their ethical development.

Next Page: Ethical Development