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Ethical Standards Advisories


Ethical Standards Advisories

Introduction and Summaries


Ethical Standards Advisories (ESAs) are considered direct extensions of the PRSA Code and have the same force and effect as any provision within the PRSA Code. In 2004, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Directors adopted the creation of ESAs. Designed to keep the PRSA Code timely through a formal process, ESAs provide practitioners specific current guidance to deal with new situations and circumstances as they arise in the daily practice of public relations, thus keeping the Code intact as a basic instrument of practice guidance.

Each ESA is designed to address a specific, highly focused area or issue of public relations practice. The format of each ESA includes an explanation of the topic, background information, examples of unethical practice, as well as recommended best practices. Many ESAs contain links or references to additional information an individual practitioner might find helpful when confronted with an ethical dilemma or decision. BEPS welcomes suggestions for future ESAs from practitioners. Please send your ESA suggestions to PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-19 (September 2014)

Native Advertising and Sponsored Content

  • ISSUE: The blurring of lines between editorial/news content and advertising/promotional messaging (both in print and online/social media platforms) potentially threatens the ability of consumers to develop informed opinions and to make rational decisions. It is critical that a clear distinction between editorial content and sponsored content be apparent to the consumer.

    While the use of advertorials began in the 1940s, the practice has expanded to new platforms and is now commonly called native advertising – a paid placement that mimics the user experience of organic sharing of information via online, print, or broadcast media. The sponsor of the content should be clearly identified. However, in some instances, sponsorship is hidden or left off altogether.
  • BACKGROUND:  In 1917 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) first addressed a case against advertising disguised as content, both regulatory bodies and consumer advocates expressed concern about paid messages that may deceive consumers. The legal and ethical debate on the topic continues now, decades later. However, the pace of today’s competitive media markets has driven the discussion of native advertising to the forefront. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has described native advertising and content sponsoring as the fastest-growing advertising format.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-18 (March 2011)

Illegal Recordings

  • ISSUE: Recording conversations and interviews via audio and/or video is a tool long used by public relations professionals and the media to ensure accuracy in reporting and as a memory aid. However, you must first consider applicable state and federal laws that govern when you may legally record another individual. Recording telephone calls or in-person conversations without proper consent may expose you not only to the risk of criminal prosecution, but also potentially give an injured party a civil claim for monetary damages against the individual doing the recording. As a rule of thumb, you must receive consent from at least one, if not all, of the parties participating in the conversation. It would be prudent to ask for permission prior to recording and repeat the fact you are recording after you have turned on the recording device.
  • BACKGROUND: Federal law allows recording of phone calls and other electronic communications with the consent of at least one party to the call. It is almost always illegal to record a conversation to which you are not participating, do not have consent from at least one of the parties involved to make a recording and could not naturally overhear the conversation. However, state laws vary widely, and it is best to review the law or consult with an attorney before recording a conversation.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-17 (February 2011)

Ethical Use of Interns

  • ISSUE: Unpaid internships remain widely available in the American workplace. This Ethical Standards Advisory (ESA) addresses the ethical implications regarding internships in public relations firms, businesses, government agencies and anywhere public relations internships are possible. 

    Employers value work experience when hiring. Job candidates who wish to be competitive willingly accept unpaid positions to gain work experience. This raises questions for both the employer and vulnerable job seekers. The question for employers is: “Does the position being offered meet the legal standard set by federal law for an unpaid internship?” For the student, the question is,“Can the internship be a significant career builder as opposed to just a mindless activity that provides little or no immediate academic or work experience?” For both parties, there are ethical questions to consider.

    BACKGROUND: In reviewing this issue, PRSA determined five key issues that need to be assessed to properly understand the ethical implications and concerns regarding the use of unpaid interns in the public relations industry. Those issues include: Federal law, state legislative rules, student factors, institutional factors and the public relations internship environment.    

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-16 (September 2010)


  • ISSUE: Plagiarism is an all too frequent practice that involves the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work. The user fails to make any attempt to attribute the work. Plagiarism can be treated as fraud or theft of intellectual property. Plagiarism is different than copyright infringement, although both are violations of another’s intellectual property rights.

Copyright infringement is the expropriation of another’s words, images or other creative works without approval or compensation.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, deals with falsely representing another’s ideas or words as your own. It is possible to be guilty of plagiarism even when copyright permission has been granted or waived or if the material is not copyrighted. This ESA addresses just the issue of plagiarism and its ethical implications within the practice of public relations.

  • BACKGROUND: The opportunity for using the work of others but failing to acknowledge or get authorization is ever-present. An ethical practitioner respects and protects information that comes into his or her possession and makes an effort to preserve the integrity of that information. An ethical practitioner uses the works of others appropriately, with proper author/creator attribution.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-15 (August 2010)

Looking the Other Way

  • ISSUE: Among all of the staff functions in an organization, it is the communicator and communications department that seem to be in just about everyone’s backyard, everyone’s meetings or plans and everyone’s strategic discussions, including those where ethical dilemmas arise. All too frequently, when questionable behaviors occur, the alarm fails to be sounded at an early stage for reasons ranging from fear to self-consciousness, to wanting to keep the boss happy, to “it’s just not my concern.” This behavior is looking the other way and it can be unethical.
  • BACKGROUND: In many professions, “Codes of Silence” have developed. These are situations where unethical behavior may be ignored for reasons of custom, internal pressure, the threat of external punishment, or fear of being shunned from professional camaraderie. The result is that unethical behaviors, decisions, actions and consequences are intentionally ignored. In some public relations firms and departments, certain practitioners are allowed to belong to professional organizations that have codes of conduct, some including penalties. These same firms and departments have other practitioners who intentionally avoid belonging to these professional associations.  Work and assignments that may cross the line, in terms of conduct, can be conducted under the rubrics of “turning a blind eye,” “neither seeing, hearing, nor speaking evil,” or “willful blindness.”

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-14 (February 2010)

Expropriation of the Intellectual Property of Others

  • ISSUE: All too frequently, a prospective client takes ideas from a new business presentation, but fails to hire, compensate or get permission from the proposing consultant or organization. This practice is unethical and can trigger serious legal and reputational consequences. The situation is exacerbated by the increasing use of blanket confidentiality agreements, which state that all ideas shared, shown or suggested become the property of the soliciting party by simply responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP).
  • BACKGROUND: The problem of expropriation of intellectual property extends to all consulting fields. This ESA is limited to the ethical practices of client-side public relations practitioners in whatever client setting they find themselves. Expropriation can occur in virtually every arena in which public relations and the generation of ideas plays a role. The goal has to be to foster respect for intellectual property and improve agency-client relationships. It is entirely likely that different agencies could submit similar, if not identical, ideas to the same prospective client. By ensuring, up front, the obligation to negotiate or clear up any questionable uses of intellectual property, much of the uncertainty can be eliminated and greater clarity introduced into the consultant-client relationship.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-13 (October 2009)

Use of Video News Releases as a Public Relations Tool

  • ISSUE: This Ethical Standards Advisory (ESA) concerns the distribution of Video News Releases (VNRs) to broadcast and cross-platform media such as newspaper websites, in addition to portals such as YouTube and CNN’s without clearly identifying the source of the material, i.e., who produced and paid for it. Materials packaged as news stories, background footage commonly referred to as B-roll and clips are considered to be VNRs in this discussion. Additionally, there have been issues in the past with VNRs that featured former broadcast journalists or voice-over talent who announced that they were “reporting live” from the location where the piece supposedly originated. Compounding the problem, television stations that use some or all of a VNR and networks that feed the material to affiliate stations may remove the source identification or label.
  • BACKGROUND: A VNR is simply a news release that has been converted into a video format and is often distributed digitally. VNRs have been valuable public relations tools for almost 40 years. They are used by public relations professionals practicing in almost all areas. VNRs were widely scrutinized when they were distributed by government agencies during George W. Bush’s two terms (2001 – 2009). Though VNRs have been produced by government agencies during administrations led by both political parties, they were brought to the attention of both Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a result of studies released by the Center for Media and Democracy, one in 2005 and a second in 2006. The studies and scrutiny that followed treated VNRs equally, whether they were fully narrated or packaged as news stories, or offered as B-roll with un-narrated footage or interview clips, even when the material was edited by networks or television stations to report entirely different stories that, in several instances, were negative. As Web-based and cross-platform media become more prevalent, opportunities for VNR use are also likely to expand, along with increased visibility come more occasions for scrutiny by the FCC, Congress and interest groups. As PRSA commented in its 2005 testimony to the FCC, “In a free society, almost any subject matter could be deemed controversial or political in nature by some individual or special interest organization.” Public relations professionals are urged to make full disclosure of sources in all VNRs and accompanying material, and to include contact information.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-12 (October 2009)

Questionable Environmental Claims and Endorsements (Greenwashing)

  • ISSUE: As the United States appears to be entering a resurgence of concern and attention to environmental sensibility, sensitivity and preservation, there is an equal and, perhaps, accelerating use of environmentally friendly endorsements, which may be inaccurate, exaggerated or completely unfounded. Practitioners are advised to examine each of these claims of environmental responsibility, compliance, sustainability, or even of public or customer acceptance, with an eye toward assuring that, when used, these accolades are clear, grounded in facts, information and data; and are valid, reproducible and appropriate.
  • BACKGROUND: This Ethical Standards Advisory is designed to alert communicators to all of these areas of restriction, regulation, control and rule, as well as good communication practices that adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics and its Code provisions and values.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-11 (October 2009)

Professional Conflicts of Interest

  • ISSUE: Conflicts of interest have the potential to undermine or compromise the impartiality, credibility or trustworthiness of a practitioner due to the possibility of a clash between the practitioner’s self-interest and a professional interest, or their public interest, or their client’s interest.
  • BACKGROUND: Conflicts of interest situations occur all the time in our personal lives and in our professional lives. We also live in a very competitive world, where, by definition, individuals, corporate and public interests are in conflict. A professional in the public relations industry must avoid situations of conflict of interest, or situations that have the appearance of conflict of interest.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-10 (July 2009)

Phantom Experience: Inflating Résumés, Credentials and Capabilities

  • ISSUE: Inflated résumés, credentials, documentation and capabilities are a growing problem in American industry and commerce these days. Within the public relations profession this is called “Phantom Experience.”
  • BACKGROUND: Phantom Experience means providing information that overstates or distorts the actual experience being brought to the table by an organization, a company, a group, or an individual. The practice of falsely claiming experience, knowledge, and/or implying direct experience or knowledge is, per se, unethical, and may very well be unlawful in certain employment circumstances, and in government contracts and contract applications. Phantom Experience has roots in psychology where, for example, people imagine things they eventually believe what they imagine to be true (Gallager, P., Desmond, D., & MacLachlan, M., 2008). Within the public relations industry, for example, this behavior can be observed when the practice of overstating, embellishing or making false claims becomes truth or fact. The problem for the practitioner is that once these phantom facts and examples are included in a résumé, capabilities brochure, contract applications or descriptive material left with clients, put on the Web, included in professional presentations, or published in other ways and places, this information taints even the most correct and authentic information and calls into question the character of the person making the claim, if discovered. The insidious aspect of Phantom Experience is that, after a while, those who practice this come to believe that they actually have the bogus experience they claim. We see top executives lose their positions because they falsely claim a business school degree. We see high profile professionals with the same problem — claims of recognition from academic institutions, industry organizations, or life accomplishments that turn out to be Phantom Experiences.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-9 (October 2008)

Pay for Play

  • ISSUE: Pay for Play (PFP) occurs when there is intent to hide an exchange of value between a PR professional and a journalist. It occurs when PR professionals make undisclosed payments to journalists or media to publish or broadcast a client’s story. Or, when PR professionals compensate journalists or media to allow placement of stories that appear to be editorial material, again, failing to disclose that the information was provided by outside sources and for which compensation (including advertising) was provided in some form in exchange for publication or broadcast. The payment can be in various forms, including gifts and future favors.  A variety of Pay for Play practices occur in many industries and countries. Business behaviors and customs vary widely. The purpose of this discussion is to provide guidance for PR practitioners on how to address these practices while remaining faithful to the PRSA Code. As publics demand greater transparency from institutions, internationally and inter-culturally, it is important that public relations practitioners do their part in addressing any undisclosed practice that could significantly affect the credibility of communications channels. Media professionals are responsible for their own ethical issues. The ethical practitioner encourages disclosure of any exchange of value that influences how those they represent are covered.
  • BACKGROUND: Pay for Play (PFP), the undisclosed compensation of reporters or media for the placement of editorial material, is improper under the PRSA Code of Ethics. Readers, listeners, and viewers have the right to expect advance disclosure about anything that might compromise the integrity of the information they are getting. There are gray areas, in that definitions of ethical impropriety may vary widely between industries, countries and individuals, and PFP is condoned and expected in many cultures.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-8 (rev. June 2012)

Deceptive Online Practices and Misrepresentation of Organizations and Visuals

  • ISSUE: Misrepresentation by organizations and individuals using blogs, viral marketing, and anonymous Internet postings with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading identities or descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants. (Note: The term “Flog” has been coined to describe a “fake blog,” where an organization or its representative creates an online forum that appears to be from a private citizen expressing personal opinion or experiences, when, in fact, it is being maintained for hire with an undisclosed agenda.)
  • BACKGROUND: A number of websites and deceptive social networking postings have surfaced on behalf of issues, candidates running for public office, and products blindly sponsored by individuals, industries and organizations. PRSA members are reminded that open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-7  (Rev. October 2008)

Engaging in the Use of Deceptive Practices While Representing Front Groups

  • ISSUE: Representation of front groups with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants. (Note: The term “Astroturfing” is often associated with unethical front group activities. Because Astroturf is a registered trademark, it is recommended that the term “front group” be used.)
  • BACKGROUND: A variety of organizations -  known as “front groups” – as well as individuals have surfaced on behalf of issues and products blindly sponsored by industries and organizations. PRSA members are reminded that open communication is essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society.

Ethical StandardsAdvisory ES-6 (April 2005)

Disclosure by Expert Commentators and Professional Spokespersons of Payments or Financial Interests

  • ISSUE: The failure of commentators and professional spokespersons to disclose that they have been paid to promote a cause or point of view, or that they have a financial interest in the products or organizations on which they purport to provide expert opinion, commentary or information.
  • BACKGROUND: In recent months, attention has been focused on commentators (some even posing as news reporters and expert analysts) whose views were presumed to be independent, but who had been paid to endorse a cause or product and had not disclosed that relationship. In one controversy, syndicated columnists supported initiatives of the administration but were later shown to have been paid fees by the government channeled through a public relations firm. Similarly, supposedly independent consumer product experts appeared on news programs and endorsed specific products, but were later found to have been paid for those endorsements or to have had prior financial relationships with the manufacturers.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-5 (January 2005)

Telling the Truth, Especially in War Time

  • ISSUE: Telling the truth, especially in war time.
  • BACKGROUND: There are great dilemmas in wartime communication. Accurate public reporting of military activities is a crucial tool for military communicators to gain and maintain support from civilian leadership for military operations. This is especially true in an era when virtually every part of the battlefield can be covered in real time by embedded journalists, or monitored electronically and observed by many parties representing a spectrum of interests, concerns and motivations. It is also true that military personnel and civilians can die as the result of careless communication. Institutions and individuals can lose public respect and confidence when people or institutions deceive, misinform or obfuscate. Public policy decisions may suffer if military credibility is called into question.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-4 (August 2004)

Reporting Unethical Behavior or Unprofessional Performance

  • ISSUE: Proper reporting of unethical behavior or unprofessional performance.
  • BACKGROUND: One of the most vexing areas in practice is determining what is unethical. This is sometimes even more challenging than determining what is ethical or the right thing to do. The greatest confusion seems to be among those issues that are business problems, legal questions, contract related, or matters that are considered “common practice” or “usual and customary.”

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-3 (July 2004)

Representation of Front Groups With Undisclosed Sponsors

Representation of front groups has been updated and consolidated with ESA-7. For details on the issue, including background, relevant sections of the Code, examples and recommended best practices, see ESA-7.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-2 (rev. August 2007)

Overstating Charges, Fees and/or Compensation

  • ISSUE: Overstating charges, fees and/or compensation, financial or otherwise, for actual work performed by a public relations professional.
  • BACKGROUND: At a time when questionable business practices are being routinely revealed, honesty, fairness and ethical dealings are mandates for public relations professionals and the companies they represent. The practice of claiming compensation or credit for work that was never performed is unethical and weakens the public’s trust in the public relations profession and individual practitioners. Additionally, such practices may be in violation of contractual obligations and may be illegal. This Ethical Standards Advisory lists a wide range of improper practices under the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Ethical Standards Advisory ES-1 (May 2004)

Disclosure of Employment Status of Client-Based PR Agency Staff

  • ISSUE: Disclosure of employment status of public relations agency staff or independent public relations consultants who work on-site at a client’s offices.
  • BACKGROUND: Today there are a variety of practices for engaging public relations counsel in the client-agency/consultant relationship. A practice that is apparently being used more frequently is one in which employees of an agency or independent consultants work on-site at the client organization, in either a full- or part-time capacity. Sometimes they are identified with company titles. Having agency staff or consultants on-site can benefit the client company by providing face-to-face access to their counsel and support. Plus, the additional personnel are available to handle routine or specific PR responsibilities. However, at a time when openness and transparency in communications is recognized as a “best practice” for companies and organizations, public relations professionals must consider the issue of disclosure.
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