Ethics for an Evolving Profession
As the public relations profession evolves, so does the need for revised and refreshed ethical standards. The PRSA Code of Ethics is central to the ethical practice of public relations. Ethical concerns and dilemmas occur daily.
Recognizing and acknowledging ethical issues as they arise is among the reasons the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards was created. BEPS is a service to members, providing an abundance of resources for public relations professionals – from case studies, Ethical Standard Advisories, ethics quiz, blogs and various resources which follow in this section. In addition, BEPS provides opportunities at PRSA’s annual International Conference to explore ethics within public relations.
BEPS upholds and amends, when necessary, the PRSA Code of Ethics. Comprised of senior professionals and PRSA members, BEPS is a sounding board for chapter ethics officers and members who are struggling with ethical actions in their chapters or their professional careers.
The PRSA Code of Ethics sets out principles and guidelines that uphold the core values of the ethical practice of public relations, including advocacy, honesty, loyalty, professional development and objectivity. BEPS provides educational opportunities to explore ethics within public relations year round and provides a hosts of educational offerings in “Ethics Month” in September and at the PRSA’s annual Conference.
Case Studies and Resources
Ethics Case Studies
- Ethics Case Study Safeguarding Confidences | Ethics Case Study Safeguarding Confidences Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Looking the Other Way | Ethics Case Study Looking the Other Way Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Conflicts of Interest | Ethics Case Study Conflicts of Interest Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Competition | Ethics Case study Competition Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Enhancing the Profession | Ethics Case Study Enhancing the Profession Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Ethical Decision Making Guide
- Introduction of the Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas
- Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas
- Ethics Case Study Illegal Recordings
- Ethics Case Study Plagiarism | Ethics Case Study Plagiarism Discussion Guide
- Expropriating Intellectual Property | Exploring Intellectual Property Discussion Guide
- Free Flow of Information| Free Flow of Information Discussion Guide
- Disclosure of Information | Disclosure of Information Discussion Guide
- Disclosure of Deceptive Online Practices | Disclosure of Deceptive Online Practices Discussion Guide
- Ethics Case Study Representing Front Group | Ethics Case Study Representing Front Groups Discussion Guide
- Ethical Use of Interns | Ethical Use of Interns Discussion Guide
Check out “Ethical Public Relations: Everyday Expectations”
Available On Demand │ Free to PRSA and PRSSA members
Test your PR ethics knowledge by taking the PRSA Ethics Quotient (EQ) Quiz.
Guide to Increasing Collaboration Between the Communications and Ethics Offices
PRSA and the Ethisphere® Institute, the global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business, have created a Guide to Increasing Collaboration Between the Communications and Ethics Offices that provides insights from the World’s Most Ethical Companies®, actionable research highlighting best practices for effective communications and a roadmap for building greater accountability.
Ethical Standards Advisories
Applying the PRSA Code of Ethics, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) offers analysis on current practice issues and challenges through Ethical Standards Advisories (ESAs).
ESAs are considered direct extensions of the PRSA Code, and have the same force and effect as any provision within the PRSA Code. Designed to keep the PRSA Code timely through a formal process, ESAs provide practitioners guidance to deal with new situations and circumstances as they arise int he daily practice of public relations.
BEPS continues to build the ESA library. Your input with issues you are facing or have faced are the basis for ESA topics.
- Disclosure (2018)
- Ethics and Social Media (2015)
- Disclosure and Transparency in Native Advertising and Sponsored Content (September 2014)
- Deceptive Online Practices and Misrepresentation of Organizations and Individuals (Rev. June 2012)
- Illegal Recordings (March 2011)
- Ethical Use of Interns (February 2011)
- Plagiarism (September 2010)
- Looking the Other Way (August 2010)
- Expropriation of the Intellectual Property of Others (February 2010)
- Use of Video News Releases as a Public Relations Tool (October 2009)
- Questionable Environmental Claims and Endorsements (Greenwashing) (October 2009)
- Pay for Play (October 2009)
- Engaging in the Use of Deceptive Practices While Representing Front Groups (Rev. October 2008)
- Overstating Charges, Fees and/or Compensation (rev. August 2007)
- Disclosure by Expert Commentators and Professional Spokespersons of Payments or Financial Interests (April 2005)
- Telling the Truth, Especially in War Time (January 2005)
- Reporting Unethical Behavior or Unprofessional Performance (Nov. 2004)
- Disclosure of Employment Status of Client-Based PR Agency Staff (May 2004)
The BEPS Handbook includes the Application to the Board of Ethics and Practice Standards (BEPS) and additional ethics information:
The History of BEPs
- Eight Ethics Questions to Ask Yourself Before Acting
- Six Statements That Should Warn You of a Potential Ethical Violation
- Six Indications That Your Company Has an Ethical Culture
- Eight Ethics Quotes
- Six Practical Recommendations for Building Employer Branding
- Board of Ethics and Professional Standards
Download the full BEPS handbook
The PRSA Code of Ethics exists to inspire ethical behavior, clearly identify malpractice and other improper behaviors and warn and teach members how to avoid them.
As a voluntary Society, PRSA can:
- Establish voluntary practice standards, codes of conduct and practice guidelines.
- Inspire, educate, and motivate best practice through a wide variety of educational programs, motivational events and practitioners who inspire other practitioners to the highest levels of ethical practice.
- Promote voluntary compliance.
- Establish that ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member.
- Establish reasonable, sensible and very limited procedures and regulations for becoming a member and removing individuals from membership.
- Establish what is unethical, improper, malpractice:
- A threat to the ethical practice of public relations;
- Behaviors inappropriate or inconsistent with the Code;
- Behaviors disruptive or that undermine ethical practices;
- Practices and behaviors destructive to the reputation of practitioners, our profession or Society.
- Warn and teach members how to avoid improper behavior.
Why Did PRSA End Identifying Code of Ethics Violators and Sanctioning Unethical Behavior Nearly 20 Years Ago When the New Code Was Adopted in 2000?
The Six most powerful reasons sanctioning and identifying violators ended nearly 20 years ago are:
- Voluntary codes such as PRSA’s are virtually impossible to enforce. Only four formal sanctionsresulted from investigations conducted by the various PRSA Boards of Ethics and Professional Standards in 50 years.
- Voluntary organizations like PRSA can only require voluntary participation.
- Those organizations that can identify violators and sanction individuals and organizations have the power to do so delegated to them from government action, laws or rules or licensure. As a voluntary organization, none of these circumstances apply to PRSA.
- In a voluntary code, the notions of “violations” and “violators” are gone. The correct lexicon for unethical public relations behaviors includes:
- Unethical conduct;
- Improper conduct;
- Inappropriate behavior;
- Behavior inconsistent with the code, destructive to the reputation of practitioners, our profession or our society.
5. Voluntary organizations attempting to impose sanctions or enforce punishment for violations but not having the authorizations of an empowering agency or law risk serious and expensive legal responses.
6. The potential cost to the Society of lawsuits resulting from enforcement was enormous. During the multi-decade period of attempted enforcement, an outside attorney was retained half-time to advise BEPS.
Why Did PRSA Stop Sanctioning Unethical Behavior?
A study of sanctioning effectiveness by Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, JD, APR former BEPS Member, and member of the BEPS Code redesign team, as a part of developing a new code in 2000 disclosed,
“According to PRSA documents, during the first 50 years in which PRSA had a code of ethics, only 10 of 232 cases investigated resulted in formal sanctions against members for unethical behavior. If letters of “admonishment” or “concern” sent by the PRSA Board of Directors to members are included, the number is at least double the figure for formal sanctions, although existing records do not indicate how many such letters were sent. Additionally, six of the 10 formal sanctions were based on the findings of a court of law rather than the findings of PRSA judicial panels, meaning that only four formal sanctions resulted from investigations conducted by the PRSA Board of Ethics in 50 years.”
Fitzpatrick’s analysis continued,
“In addition to members’ reluctance to report on the behavior of their colleagues, there were other problems. For example, when members were notified that they were being investigated, many simply resigned rather than go through the judicial process, continuing to practice but outside PRSA’s reach. Additionally, accused members often refused to provide evidence related to their conduct – although required to do so under the former codes – relying instead on legal counsel to handle their communication with BEPS. The potential for defamation lawsuits complicated the matter even further.”
Here is Kathy’s full discussion: PRSA Code of Ethics Moves From Enforcement to Inspiration, by Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, APR, JD, past member, BEPS
Decision to End Code Enforcement
The Code revision of 2000 ended 50 years of enforcement.
50 years of experience has taught BEPS members that PRSA is powerless to enforce a code of conduct beyond voluntary obedience absent the legal authority to subpoena evidence and sanction members. Thus, the new code only includes a provision providing PRSA Board the right to expel a member found guilty of misconduct in a court of law.
This experience convinced the BEPS Code redesign team in 2000 to create a code that focused on education, inspiration and motivating ethical behavior. At the same time each code provision provides examples of malpractice, inappropriate and unethical behavior.
Sanctions and violations were ended because they were unenforceable. The revised 2000 code gives examples and descriptions of malpractice, unethical behavior and inappropriate behavior.
As a Voluntary Organization, PRSA’s Enforcement Authority Is Limited
Organizations that have enforceable regulations, rules and procedures are empowered by higher authorities often government or quasi- government organizations who can license or delegate the power to enforce and sanction. Some organizations with enforcement power gain that power from legislation or government executive authority. PRSA has no such legislative or government authorized sanctioning power nor is it likely to gain or seek such power.
Ethics Enforcement Resources
To address these ongoing concerns, and to fully address PRSA’s history with ethics enforcement, members of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) prepared the following essays, which offer significant detail and perspective about PRSA’s education versus enforcement strategy:
- PRSA Code of Ethics Moves From Enforcement to Inspiration, by Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, APR, JD, past member, BEPS
- Why PRSA Ended Punishment and Sanctioning 20 Years Ago, by James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; PRSA BEPS Emeritus
For additional information regarding PRSA’s stance on ethical communications, email the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.
For additional information about the Code of Ethics and PRSA’s stance on ethical communications, email the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to inform BEPS about a particular concern, complete the following form.
BEPS, part of PRSA, is a volunteer group of active public relations professionals. We will make every effort to respond to you in a timely manner. Please allow three weeks before re-contacting BEPS.