Lesson 2: The PRSA Code of Ethics
A code of ethics symbolizes the professionalization of a field or practice. In order to be accepted as a professional endeavor, public relations needed to have a code of ethics.
In a 2013 study, Yang and Taylor examined 36 countries and found that all but one had professional codes of ethics for the public relations field. Further, 36% of these countries had codes of ethics that affected accreditation and/or licensure of professionals in the industry. Based on their wide-ranging research, Yang and Taylor confirmed that robust codes of ethics, along with other factors, can help the public relations industry contribute positively to the development of democracy.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) created its first code of ethics in 1950, about fifty years after the practice started to be professionalized with the Publicity Bureau. Over the years, the code has changed considerably, often influenced by the context of modern culture and particular trends within the field.Next Page: History of the PRSA Code of Ethics
History of the PRSA Code of Ethics
In the United States, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has guided the work of professionals in the field since 1948. In 1950, the organization adopted its first code of ethics in order to provide guidance for its members about ethical behavior in the field. Although general in nature, this first code both “laid the groundwork for future codes and established the direction of its successors.”
The 1950 code did not emerge from a vacuum. While the society intended for the code to legitimize the field of public relations as a profession, those who perceived misdoings among the members of the field also advocated strongly for such a guide. Many members hoped that the existence of such a code would eradicate this behavior moving forward.
Enforcement mechanisms in the bylaws of the PRSA were added when the PRSA revised the code in 1954. The rewritten code in 1954, more straightforward than the previous one, used action-based principle statements (e.g., “We will safeguard the confidence…”) to describe and define ethically appropriate behavior by public relations professionals.
When the PRSA revised the Code of Ethics once more in 1959, enforcement language was added to the text of the code. Bylaw revisions at this time established six regional boards to adjudicate ethical violations by PRSA members. In 1962, the society established a board to actively seek out ethical violators, a responsibility that had previously been assigned to PRSA members.
The 1960s saw further revision of the code to clarify guidelines on conflict of interest and the rising problem of so-called front groups. Additional revision during this time brought the PRSA together with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to adapt code sections to the growing area of financial public relations. During this time, guidance was also provided via revisions to the code about the use of public relations for political campaigns.
The PRSA once again interacted with the federal government when an FTC (Federal Trade Commission) review of the organization’s code of ethics, undertaken as part of a larger project, raised some red flags regarding the code’s ban on contingency fees and its provisions preventing professionals from poaching each other’s clients. A 1977 revision of the Code aligned with other PRSA revisions that year, including a new Declaration of Principles that referenced the importance of human rights. 1977 also saw the deletion of a previous provision that prevented public relations professionals from making derogatory statements about other products.
In 1988, the PRSA adopted a three-part code of ethics with a declaration of principles, a pledge of professional conduct, and a 17-item list detailing appropriate behavior on the part of public relations professionals. Two years later, the organization provided specific interpretations of these guidelines, where appropriate, for certain fields such as financial public relations and politics. This 1998 code and its 1990 interpretations remained in place until the revision that produced the 2000 PRSA Code of Ethics, still in use today.
Developing PRSA’s 2000 (current) Code of Ethics
The two-year process to develop the current PRSA code of ethics was undertaken strategically with a number of goals in mind. The 2000 Code differs significantly from its predecessors on three levels:
- It assumes the professionalization of public relations and those who practice in the field.
- It promotes the role of public relations professionals as advocates for their clients.
- It does not include any enforcement component.
PRSA designed its new code to be aspirational in order to “[reflect] the Society’s desire to position PRSA as the ethics brand leader in the industry and to raise the ethical performance of public relations professionals.”
The focus of previous codes on enforcement and punishment had led to an overly litigious approach to ethics in public relations, and those accused of ethical violations often brought in lawyers to contest the charges against them. However, the group tasked with revising the code felt that a code rooted in the ideals and values of the profession would serve the profession better by setting a high standard for professionals to hold themselves to. PRSA leaders involved with the process felt that high expectations for members’ ethical behavior – and a Code that reflected that high standard – would help the profession’s credibility.
After an initial meeting to discuss the need for the Code revision and what the new code should entail, research to support the new code actively engaged PRSA’s members in contributing their thoughts on public relations ethics. A nonprofit engaged by the PRSA to assist in the effort, the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), solicited feedback from local PRSA leaders and later conducted focus groups among PRSA members. Finally, the ERC developed and conducted a survey of all PRSA members based on the knowledge gained in the previous research efforts. This 79-item survey was sent to more than 20,000 PRSA members in January 2000; just over 10% of members completed the survey.
PRSA tasked a nine-member team with turning the survey results into an operable code of ethics. Driven by the research, this team developed a two-part code of ethics built upon the PRSA mission that elaborates the core values of the profession. The new code of ethics, which describes six professional values and six code provisions based on core principles of the practice, was approved at the 2000 PRSA Assembly Meeting.
The decision to eliminate enforcement from the 2000 Code was not without controversy. Although both leaders and members of the PRSA supported a means of enforcing the code, all were reluctant to actively engage in the enforcement process by turning people in or testifying as a witness. This took the teeth out of the enforcement process, as cases were often dropped before they were seen through to their resolution.
Some have criticized the lack of enforcement of the current code, arguing that such an element is necessary to the achievement of professionalization of the profession. Ultimately, the PRSA leaders engaged in the process of building the 2000 Code decided to focus on education about an aspirational code, rather than enforcement of a punitive one, as the best way to promote ethics in public relations.
Features of the PRSA Code of Ethics
The current PRSA Code of Ethics consists of three parts:
- A preamble that sets out the goals and role of the document
- A statement of professional values, which identifies and describes six values of the public relations profession
- A list of six “code provisions of conduct,” each of which is elaborated with a core principle and examples of the provision in practice.
At the end, a pledge to uphold these values and promote the reputation of the profession – as well as to accept any appropriate sanctions for aberrant behavior – can be signed.
Reflecting the code’s aspirational nature, the preamble to the Code of Ethics describes the ethical orientation of the PRSA and the desire for ethical behavior on the part of its members. It clearly states that, while no formal system of enforcement is in place, the PRSA may restrict association membership to those who violate the code.
Six professional values are listed, described as “the fundamental beliefs that guide our behaviors and decision-making process”: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. These values serve a number of purposes for the field of public relations. They seek to improve the reputation of the industry (expertise, fairness, honesty) while also emphasizing the value of its services to clients (advocacy, loyalty, independence). More detailed descriptions of these values can be found in the graphic below.
The next section gives six code provisions of conduct. For each code provision, a guiding statement (identified by the code as a core principle) and 1-2 statements explaining the provision’s intent are followed by specific guidelines for behavior by public relations professionals. For each provision of conduct, 2-4 related examples of improper conduct are provided.
For example, the provision titled “competition” outlines the equitable and appropriate competition between professionals in the public relations industry. Its core principle, “promoting healthy and fair competition among professionals preserves an ethical climate while fostering a robust business environment,” is followed by the stated intent “To promote respect and fair competition among public relations professionals” and “To serve the public interest by providing the widest choice of practitioner options.” It gives the following guidelines:
A member shall:
- Follow ethical hiring practices designed to respect free and open competition without deliberately undermining a competitor.
- Preserve intellectual property rights in the marketplace.
It then provides the following examples of improper conduct under this provision:
- A member employed by a “client organization” shares helpful information with a counseling firm that is competing with others for the organization's business.
- A member spreads malicious and unfounded rumors about a competitor in order to alienate the competitor's clients and employees in a ploy to recruit people and business.
All in all, 14 potential examples of improper conduct are covered among the six provisions of conduct. Clearly, this list does not exhaustively cover all potential ethical crises that might face public relations practitioners. However, it does provide some concrete examples for comparative use by professionals who find themselves in a questionable ethical situation.
Applying the PRSA Code of Ethics
Professionals who find themselves in an ethical dilemma can look to the PRSA Code of Ethics for guidance as to how they should act in their situation. As mentioned in Lesson 1, codes dictate the appropriate actions for professionals in a field, based on the field’s values and ideals. Although not always enforced via punishment – as are other codified structures based on values and ideas, such as laws – codes provide a member of the profession with a good idea of what is considered ethical behavior in the practice.
Professionals with an ethical dilemma can look first to the examples of improper conduct to see if they can find a parallel to their current situation. A situation that matches or resembles very strongly one of these explicitly mentioned scenarios is likely unethical, and the professional should act accordingly. Checking the situation against the stated intent of the code provision and/or the core principle of each code might also provide some insight into the situation’s ethical standing.
Lacking a clear parallel to one of the sample scenarios or the code provisions, a professional can assess his or her ethical dilemma by considering the stated values of the profession. While these values are also reflected in the remainder of the code, they can stand alone as drivers of ethical practice by public relations professionals.
Case Study: Smoke and Mirrors: RJ Reynolds Creates Front Group
The tobacco industry has not had the cleanest track record with respect to honest and ethical communication with consumers and the public. Public relations pioneer Edward Bernays famously sold the pro-smoking “Torches of Freedom” march as a women’s rights effort. The industry was silent, and in fact even denied, for years that the use of its products had health implications for smokers.
The tobacco industry in particular has been known for the use of third parties and coalitions of organizations to promote its interests indirectly. As tobacco products and their negative effects on smokers became more well known, the industry and its corporations tried to mask their efforts to fight regulation of tobacco products. This case study looks at one particular effort to use a so-called “front group” – funded by a tobacco corporation but not publicly affiliated with it – and its ethical implications with respect to the PRSA Code of Ethics.
In the mid 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) proposed policy changes that would influence the way that tobacco was regulated by the government. Specifically, the regulations would consider alcohol a drug and eliminate smoking in the workplace. Concerned that the regulations would lower their profits, the tobacco companies decided to take action.
However, the companies themselves had become so unpopular that they could not advocate directly to the public and to lawmakers in hopes of halting the changes. Instead, they created an opaque effort to stop regulations aimed at smoking by taking aim at the regulations themselves.
Course of Action
Launched in 1994, the “Get Government Off Our Backs” campaign was led by a public relations firm employed by tobacco giant RJ Reynolds. However, there was no mention of the tobacco company’s involvement in public materials about the campaign. The messaging of the campaign portrayed so-called “average Americans” complaining about the increasing role of government in their lives.
Of course, there were no “average Americans” involved in this campaign. As the campaign grew, it amassed a coalition of lobbying organizations in and outside of the tobacco industry. In fact, the group became so powerful – and its origins so nebulous – that organizations began proactively seeking to attach to the group in hopes of taking part in its share of media attention.
The PRSA Code of Ethics was revised in the 1960s specifically to address the problem of front groups such as Get Government Off Our Backs. Such groups, while often effective, are fundamentally dishonest in the way they represent their funding and intent. This violates the PRSA Code’s provision emphasizing the free flow of information and the professional value of honesty.
In addition, a public relations firm that undertakes an effort like this one runs the risk of harming the reputation of the public relations industry overall. Such underhanded efforts perpetuate the notion that public relations is an unethical, win-at-all-costs profession that cares only about achieving its clients’ results. This violates the code provision about enhancing the profession, which states that ethical behavior by public relations practitioners should benefit the overall reputation of the field.
Moral of the Story
Ultimately, the efforts of the Get Government Off Our Backs front group were successful, at least for the RJ Reynolds tobacco company: The FDA did not regulate tobacco as a drug, and OSHA did not act to outlaw smoking in workplaces. However, the stated success of the group’s efforts should not be obscured by the serious ethical considerations presented by the use of front groups and other opaque efforts that deny consumers the ability to make educated decisions based on available, truthful information.