Professional Codes of Ethics

Lesson 1 Topics

Values and Ideals – The Cultural Building Blocks of Ethical Codes

This lesson defines and describes the differences between values, ideals, and principles and shows how these concepts are culturally located. Examples provided show how a culture’s values and ideals influence its principles, or guidelines for behavior.

Codes, Policies and Laws – Formalizing a System of Ethics

This lesson shows how policies are formalized into codes, policies, and laws. It differentiates between the three based on their level of formality and structure as well as the extent to which violators are punished for their behavior.

A (Brief) History of Codes of Ethics

This lesson gives a background to the use of formalized codes of ethics in business, starting in the 1980s. It shows the evolution of ethical codes and gives two examples to show how codes of ethics are often highly situational.

Roles and Responsibilities of Codes of Ethics

This lesson talks about the role that ethical codes play in professional behavior. It shows students how a code of ethics can be useful to a profession and the importance of all involved parties understanding the role that the code is intended to play.

Shortcomings of Codes of Ethics

This lesson describes the potential negatives that can arise from utilization of a code of ethics. It suggests that ethical training, rather than codes, is best suited to promoting ethical behavior in a profession.

Lesson 2 Topics

History of the PRSA Code of Ethics

This lesson provides a history of the PRSA Code of Ethics from its beginning in 1950 through its current iteration, passed in 2000. It explains the professional and regulatory forces that guided its evolution and shows the many forms that this code of ethics has taken over time.

Developing PRSA’s 2000 (current) Code of Ethics

This lesson describes the process of creating the 2000 PRSA Code of Ethics, the code that currently applies to practitioners in the field. It also discusses the motivation behind the decision to remove the element of enforcement from the Code.

Features of the PRSA Code of Ethics

This lesson outlines the tripartite format of the current PRSA Code of Ethics, comprised of a preamble, statement of professional values, and six code provisions of conduct. It provides descriptions of the sections and shows how they relate to each other and the overall purpose of the Code.

Applying the PRSA Code of Ethics

This lesson gives students an understanding of how the PRSA Code of Ethics can be used as a tool that provides ethical guidelines for behavior in professional situations. It shows them how to look first for direct parallels to the Code’s example situations and, lacking that, how they can use the Code’s listing of professional values to suggest appropriate ethical behavior.


Module Overview

Lesson 1 Overview

Many professions create and expect their members to operate under a code of ethics specific to their field. Professions design and implement these codes in hope that they will ensure that their members’ professional actions follow traditional ethical guidelines. But what are professional codes of ethics, and where do they come from? This lesson helps students understand the context for professional codes of ethics so as to more clearly see these codes’ roots in a profession’s values.

Lesson 2 Overview

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) created its first code of ethics in 1950, and over the years, the code has changed considerably, often influenced by the context of modern culture and particular trends within the field. This lesson provides a history of the PRSA Code of Ethics and examines it in its current format. Finally, this lesson suggests to students how they can use the PRSA Code of Ethics as a tool when they are working as communication professionals.

Citations & Resources

Lesson 1

Benson, G. C. (1989). Codes of ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 8(5), 305–319.

Brien, A. (1998). Professional ethics and the culture of trust. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(4), 391–409.

Davis, M. (1991). Thinking like an engineer: The place of a code of ethics in the practice of a profession. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 150–167.

Eriksson, S., Höglund, A. T., & Helgesson, G. (2008). Do ethical guidelines give guidance? A critical examination of eight ethics regulations. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 17(01), 15–29.

Kaptein, M. (2004). Business codes of multinational firms: What do they say? Journal of Business Ethics, 50(1), 13–31.

Schwartz, M. (2001). The nature of the relationship between corporate codes of ethics and behaviour. Journal of Business Ethics, 32(3), 247–262.

Stevens, B. (2008). Corporate Ethical Codes: Effective Instruments For Influencing Behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 78(4), 601–609.

Valentine, S., & Barnett, T. (2003). Ethics code awareness, perceived ethical values, and organizational commitment. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 23(4), 359–367.

Lesson 1 Case Study

Denino, N. (2012, September 25). Global Bacon Shortage: Baconpocalypse Is “Unavoidable” Next Year With Higher Pork Prices. International Business Times.

Hsu, T. (2012, September 24). Bacon, pork shortage “now unavoidable,” industry group says. Los Angeles Times.

Lucas, L. (2012, September 20). EU faces bacon shortage as herds fall. Financial Times.

Perman, C. (2012, September 25). Time to Panic? Predictions of a Coming Bacon Shortage! CNBC.

Tepper, R. (2012, September 24). Global Bacon Shortage “Unavoidable” Next Year, Says U.K.’s National Pig Association. Huffington Post.

Yglesias, M., & Olen, H. (2012, September 26). There Will Be No Bacon Shortage. Slate.

Lesson 2

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2002a). Evolving Standards in Public Relations: A Historical Examination of PRSA’s Codes of Ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 17(2), 89–110.

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2002b). From Enforcement to Education: The Development of PRSA’s Member Code of Ethics 2000. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 17(2), 111–135.

Griese, N. L. (1977). AT&T: 1908 origins of the nation’s oldest continuous institutional advertising campaign. Journal of Advertising, 6(3), 18–23.

Huang, Y.-H. (2001). Should a public relations code of ethics be enforced? Journal of Business Ethics, 31(3), 259–270.

Public Relations Society of America. (2000). PRSA Code of Ethics.

Yang, A., & Taylor, M. (2013). The relationship between the professionalization of public relations, societal social capital and democracy: Evidence from a cross-national study. Public Relations Review, 39(4), 257–270.

Lesson 2 Case Study

Amos, A., & Haglund, M. (2000). From social taboo to “torch of freedom”: the marketing of cigarettes to women. Tobacco Control, 9(1), 3–8.

Apollonio, D. E., & Bero, L. A. (2007). The creation of industry front groups: the tobacco industry and “get government off our back.” American Journal of Public Health, 97(3), 419–427.

Brownell, K. D., & Warner, K. E. (2009). The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died. How similar is Big Food? Milbank Quarterly, 87(1), 259–294.

Velicer, C., & Glantz, S. A. (2015). Hiding in the Shadows: Philip Morris and the Use of Third Parties to Oppose Ingredient Disclosure Regulations. PloS One, 10(12), e0142032.

Module Developer

Jessalynn Strauss

Dr. Jessalynn Strauss

Assistant Professor, Elon University

Jessalynn Strauss, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of strategic communications at Elon University. Her research examines the casino industry in Las Vegas, NV, exploring history, communication, and corporate social responsibility. Recent publications have included an examination of public relations by Las Vegas casinos and an examination of early corporate social responsibility in Las Vegas’s mob-run casinos. In 2015, she published Challenging Corporate Social Responsibility: Lessons for Public Relations from the Casino Industry (Routledge), which uses the gaming industry as a case study to consider the risks and rewards of corporate social responsibility.

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