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Ethics

Ethics for an Evolving Profession

The PRSA Code of Ethics is widely regarded as the cornerstone of the ethical practice of public relations. First developed in 1950, the Code applies to PRSA members and is designed to be a useful guide as they carry out their ethical responsibilities, setting out principles that uphold core values, including advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.

PRSA provides educational opportunities to explore ethics within public relations year-round, including hosting a variety of offerings during “Ethics Month” in September and at PRSA’s annual conference.

Recognizing and acknowledging ethical issues as they arise is among the reasons the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) was created. Comprised of senior professionals and PRSA members, BEPS provides an abundance of educational resources and training for public relations professionals that include case studies, position papers, blogs and other assets which follow in this section.

BEPS upholds and amends, when necessary, the PRSA Code of Ethics.


BEPS Position Papers

“Pay-for-Play”

As the media landscape continues to evolve, traditional news media organizations have been joined by corporate and institutionally controlled media operations, citizen journalists, bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers and others, all gathering and disseminating information to the masses.

This has blurred the lines between traditional journalistic practice and practices that are not adherent to any professional codes of ethics or conduct. As a result, an increasing number of digital channels and platforms solicit and accept compensation as a quid pro quo condition for coverage and visibility.

In certain instances, particularly in the marketing of goods and services, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has instituted guidelines that require certain kinds of content to be labeled as “sponsored content.” In many other cases, communication is unregulated.

When payment is required for the development and publishing (in print or through digital channels) of content, this is known as “pay-for-play.”  It involves a transaction where the payor makes undisclosed payments to the media channel to feature specific content, whether that content be blog posts, videos interviews, podcast interviews, print or digital columns or interviews.

Due to the lack of transparency, the practice of pay-for-play can deceive consumers into believing that content was selected based on its own merit and is therefore deserving of third-party credibility. In reality, however, such content has not passed such a test.

Our Position

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that “pay-for-play” practices are in conflict with several aspects of PRSA’s Code of Ethics and Code Provisions of Conduct for members.

Consumers of all media have the right to expect advance disclosure about anything that might compromise the integrity of the information they receive. While we recognize that in some cultures, pay-for-play is condoned and expected, BEPS maintains that the standard and aspirational practice of public relations be in line with the position of this paper on pay-for-play.

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Pay-for-Play

More specifically, pay-for-play violates four PRSA Code of Ethics provisions:

  1. Free Flow of Information – Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information which is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.
  2. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
  3. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics.
  4. Enhancing the Profession – Build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations.

PRSA’s Professional Values and Pay-for-Play 

Pay-for-play is inconsistent with the following professional values of PRSA:

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public.
  • Independence – Provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.

 

How to Avoid Pay-for-Play

BEPS recommends that: 

  • Disclosure be requested and included with the final information product in any situation where compensation was provided in return for exposure.
  • Where it is common practice to offer journalists, bloggers, digital channel operators free or special travel, lodging, gifts or non-monetary compensation, we recommend that PRSA members encourage the recipients to disclose those items of material value.
  • PRSA members always act to encourage the clear and obvious disclosure of crucial information that consumers should have, or reasonably expect to have.

Ethics & Social Media

Because all major social media platforms are accessible to billions around the world, regardless of professional training or background, they are largely unmonitored and unregulated through the prism of ethics. More to the point, unless content violates the specific rules of individual social platforms and is policed by the platforms’ own personnel, it is left to stand.

The speed, frequency and accessibility of these platforms have created new challenges for public relations professionals, intensifying the level of professional ethical responsibility for organizations, brands, agencies and clients.

These dynamics make it more incumbent on public relations practitioners to set themselves and their organizations apart through unquestioned credibility and ethical standards, ultimately building and maintaining strong reputations for the organizations those practitioners represent.

Further, the professional public practitioner must be aware that social media activity cannot be viewed in a vacuum, and that the interdependency that now exists between news organizations and social media must be considered in all communications.

Our Position

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that public relations practitioners must not accept on face value certain common practices in the public’s use of social media, but rather, incorporate a higher standard of practice by adhering to the PRSA Code of Ethics in all applications of social media strategies, tactics and utilization.

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Social Media

Four PRSA Code of Ethics provisions address professionals’ use of social media:

  1. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
    1. Content providers should fully disclose paid placements and all associations with a product to support informed opinions and rational decision-making.
  2. Safeguarding Confidences: Client trust requires appropriate protection of confidential and private information, especially as it pertains to social media.
    1. Content providers must be aware that, while social media provides an increased ability to reach and engage various publics, it also increases the risk that confidential information, whether personal, corporate or intellectual property, be improperly disclosed via social media channels.
    2. Improper sharing of information, even without intent, can have serious consequences for practitioners, clients, employees, employers and others.
    3. Content providers must be cognizant of an employee’s right to free speech as defined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
  3. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics.
    1. While creating content and taking part in online conversations are effective tactics for branding individuals as subject matter experts, public relations professionals must disclose conflicts of interest when communicating with audiences.
    2. If working with social media influencers and providing product samples, require proper disclosures (per FTC guidelines) are made. If gifts are given, ensure they are nominal, legal and infrequent.
  4. Enhancing the Profession – Build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations.
    1. Social media should keep publics informed and educated about the issues surrounding the profession, share best practices and case studies.

PRSA’s Professional Values and Social Media

The following professional values of PRSA come into play in social media applications:

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public.
  • Advocacy – Serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for our clients and organizations. We best support the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints, and aid informed public debate and stakeholder decision-making when authors or sponsors are fully disclosed and transparent.

An Ethical Approach to Social Media

BEPS recommends that public relations professionals understand that trust is the ultimate currency of social media. In order to enhance trust, build positive relationships, and support a free and informed democratic society, the specific portions of the PRSA Code of Ethics as cited here are clearly understood and embraced in the use of all digital and social media.

Plagiarism

Technology makes it very easy to intentionally or inadvertently engage in the practice of plagiarism, which is the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another content creator and the representation of that content as your own original work.

For this reason, public relations practitioners must be fully aware of the ethical standards surrounding the need to attribute, and as appropriate, pay licensing compensation for the use of others’ content and work in their own content creation. Plagiarism can be treated as fraud or theft of intellectual property. And while it is not the same as copyright infringement, both are violations of someone else’s intellectual property rights.

While copyright infringement involves the misrepresentation of someone else’s words or images without approval or compensation, plagiarism centers on falsely representing another’s ideas or words as your own. You can be guilty of plagiarism even when copyright permission has been granted or waived, or if the material was not copyrighted in the first place. Much original content is in the public domain and cannot be copyrighted, but for anyone to copy this original content and claim it as their own is plagiarism.

 

Our Position  

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that even inadvertent violation of plagiarism standards carries equal weight to the intentional misrepresentation of another’s words and ideas as your own. With this in mind, it is the full responsibility of the public relations practitioner to understand and respect the intellectual property rights of others, along with PRSA’s ethical standards surrounding plagiarism.

Professional public relations practitioners must accept the notion that content is privately owned by the creator. While common terms such as “open sourcing” or “Fair Use” are used to justify the use of others’ original content, in full or in part, proper attributions and permissions are critical in establishing credible, accurate and original content of your own. 

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Plagiarism 

More specifically, four PRSA Code of Ethics provisions come into play: 

Free Flow of Information – Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information which is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.

  1. Competition – Promote healthy and fair competition among profession while fostering a robust business environment by preserving intellectual property rights in the marketplace.
  2. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
  3. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics.

PRSA’s Professional Values and Plagiarism 

Plagiarism is inconsistent with the following professional values of PRSA:

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Expertise – Acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience, advancing the profession through continued professional development, research and education. Build mutual understanding, credibility and relationships among the full range of institutions and audiences.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. 

How to Avoid Plagiarizing Others’ Work 

BEPS recommends that: 

  • In working with reference materials, do not copy content, a sentence, paragraph document or anything from another source even if you edit the material to fit your own needs and present the content as your own work.
  • Use your own words and ideas, and paraphrase, as opposed to copying other content directly.
  • When paraphrasing another’s content, give proper credit to the original creator.
  • Use quotation marks and credit the source or author when you copy/reference exact wording.
  • When using any source form the Internet, including content from websites, emails and newsletters, among other sources, know that someone else created that content and is entitled to proper credit and attribution.
  • Disclose all sources for your work product.

Paid Spokespersons and Influencers

The practice of paying others to represent organizations and brands is now so common that millions of consumers of pop culture are broadly aware of the terms, “influencer” or “paid influencer.” These consumers are aware of the varied levels of financial success individual influencers have achieved, and for some people, influencers are aspirational role models for their own dreams and goals. Many influencers did not have celebrity status before becoming celebrities in their own right by attracting large followings through social media and the Internet. 

Still, other influencers and paid spokespersons may have gained celebrity status through success in the entertainment, sports, business or other industries.  

Further, some journalists, broadcasters or former journalists have built their own “personal brands” that have led to their trading on those brands through paid endorsement arrangements. It is not uncommon for these individuals to participate in media interviews offering expert opinion, commentary or information related to the companies, organizations or interests they represent. 

Companies, organizations and brands have found that paid spokespersons and influencers are highly effective messengers as part of comprehensive marketing and communications programs. 

Because the platforms for communication are many and diverse, there are numerous opportunities to create the perception that these spokespersons and influencers are not compensated for their endorsements and related activity.   

Our Position  

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that anyone who is paid to serve as a spokesperson, advocate or influencer for an organization, company, brand or special interest, must disclose the contractual arrangement in place or the relationship between the spokesperson and the interest that is providing the compensation.  

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Paid Spokespersons and Influencers 

More specifically, three PRSA Code of Ethics provisions come into play: 

  1. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
  2. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics. Act in the best interest of the client or employer. Avoid actions or circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgement or create a conflict between personal and professional interests. Disclose promptly any existing or potential conflict of interest to affected clients or organizations.
  3. Enhancing the Profession – Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession, acknowledging that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.

PRSA’s Professional Values and Paid Spokespersons and Influencers 

The following professional values of PRSA come into play: 

  • Advocacy – Serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. Provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.
  • Independence – Provide objective counsel.
  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. Respect all opinions and support the right of free expression. 

How to Maintain Ethical Standards in Utilizing Paid Spokespersons and Influencers 

BEPS recommends that: 

  • Commercial relationships must be disclosed in advance of or simultaneous to the same public forum to ensure that those affected or potentially influenced can make informed, knowledgeable decisions.
  • Every party involved in the contractual relationship has an obligation to disclose the relationship. Failure to disclose is improper conduct under the PRSA Code of Ethics.
  • Be honest and accurate in all communications, revealing the sponsors for causes, programs and interests that are represented and any financial interest they or their clients may have in the outcome of events or individual decisions.
Representing Front Groups

A “front group” is an organization that is created or labeled in such a way as to mislead the public and others as to its true mission. Front groups are most often created as part of larger strategies to create deception by hiding true intent. 

While the rationale behind the creation of front groups can vary from one organization to the next, the common assumption is that the unpopular nature of the actual mission of the organization is such a liability for communication that deceptive practices are required to establish credibility and gain the trust of unsuspecting publics. 

Our Position  

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that any effort to deceive the public or others is a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics and other common ethical standards. Professional public relations practitioners are required to act in the public interest, which means members are charged to uphold the principle that open communication and transparency are essential for informed decision-making in a democratic society. 

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Front Groups 

More specifically, four PRSA Code of Ethics Provisions come into play: 

  1. Free Flow of Information – Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information which is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.
  2. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
  3. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics. Act in the best interest of the client or employer. Avoid actions or circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgement or create a conflict between personal and professional interests. Disclose promptly any existing or potential conflict of interest to affected clients or organizations.
  4. Enhancing the Profession – Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession, acknowledging that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.

PRSA’s Professional Values and Front Groups 

The following professional values of PRSA come into play: 

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. Respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.
  • Advocacy – Serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. Provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.

How to Maintain Ethical Standards on the Matter of Front Groups 

BEPS recommends that PRSA members recognize that assisting front groups and individuals that represent undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants, even if such activities are lawful, constitutes improper conduct and should be avoided.

Overstating Fees or Compensation

While the practice of overstating charges, fees and/or compensation can happen in any business and industry, and public relations professionals within those organizations can find themselves aware of this activity, the primary focus of this paper relates to when public relations consultants engage in these practices. 

When a business or organization claims compensation or credit for work that was never performed and is compensated on that basis by a customer or a client, the entire profession of public relations can be harmed. 

While such practices may indeed be in violation of contractual obligations and can be found to be illegal, they are at the very least unethical and can weaken the public’s trust in the public relations profession as a whole, and individual practitioners, specifically.

Our Position  

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that members who provide public relations services to paying clients charge clients only for services rendered and in accordance with all existing contracts and related obligations. This includes the proper reporting of services rendered, time spent rendering those services as agreed upon, out of pocket charges and other related fees. Any attempt to inflate or overstate charges or fees and related support data is a violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. 

The PRSA Code of Ethics and the Overstatement of Fees or Compensation 

More specifically, one PRSA Code of Ethics provision is primary: 

  1. Enhancing the Profession – Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession, acknowledging that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.  

PRSA’s Professional Values and the Overstatement of Fees or Compensation 

The following professional values of PRSA come into play:

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. Respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.
  • Loyalty – Be faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

How to Address Issues of Overstatement of Fees or Compensation 

BEPS recommends that PRSA members pledge to adhere to a rigid code of conduct and the highest standards of professional integrity and responsibility. This means that members and the companies they represent, including agencies, consultancies and other organizations, bill clients and others only for services they perform and expenses they incur on behalf of clients in accordance with all existing contracts.

Native Adverting & Sponsored Content

Whether the media platform is digital or traditional, the lines between organic content and advertising and promotional messaging continue to blur as platform owners charge fees for a presence on those platforms. Quite often, that presence mimics unpaid organic content to the extent that visitors, readers, listeners and viewers cannot distinguish between what is sponsored content and that which is organic.

While the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has established certain rules and guidelines with regard to sponsored content in the context of the sale of goods and services, much of sponsored content goes unregulated. At the same time, an increasing number of media outlets, bloggers, podcasters, video creators and others do not make an effort to distinguish between the transactional nature of paid versus unpaid content. 

The practice is not new. Since the 1940s, “advertorials” were carried in numerous print media. Digital and new platforms have expanded the practice of transactional editorial content in the form of native advertising.

Our Position  

PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) takes the position that it is critical that a clear distinction between organic content and sponsored content be made apparent to the consumer. The sponsor of the content should be clearly identified. 

The PRSA Code of Ethics and Native Advertising & Sponsored Content 

More specifically, five PRSA Code of Ethics provisions come into play: 

  1. Disclosure of Information – Build trust with the public through all communications by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making.
  2. Free Flow of Information – Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information which is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision-making in a democratic society.
  3. Competition – Foster healthy and fair competition for a share of voice in the evolving media environment.
  4. Conflicts of Interest – Avoid real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest to build the trust of clients, employers and the publics. Act in the best interest of the client or employer. Avoid actions or circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgement or create a conflict between personal and professional interests. Disclose promptly any existing or potential conflict of interest to affected clients or organizations.
  5. Enhancing the Profession – Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession, acknowledging that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession.  

PRSA’s Professional Values and Native Advertising & Sponsored Content 

The following professional values of PRSA come into play: 

  • Honesty – Adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • Advocacy – Serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for organizations. Support the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints and aid informed public debate and stakeholder decision-making when sponsors are fully disclosed and transparent.
  • Fairness – Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. Respect all opinions and support the right of free expression. 

How to Address Native Advertising & Sponsored Content 

BEPS recommends that: 

  • Public relations professionals work to ensure that sponsorship of content is fully disclosed within the context of that content and made consistently clear to consumers.
  • Disclosures should be clear and appropriate to the medium. Sponsored content and advertising should be easily discernable from organic content and must not attempt to deceive the consumer into believing the content comes from an independent or objective point of view.
  • When disclosures of sponsored content are made, they should be easily identified and recognized, and should serve to effectively differentiate paid content from organic content.

Case Studies and Resources

Ethics Case Studies

Downloads:

Professional Conduct

Content Issues

Digital Issues

Organizational Issues

Ethics Webinar
Check out “Ethical Public Relations: Everyday Expectations”
Available On Demand │ Free to PRSA and PRSSA members

Ethics Quiz
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.

Available ESAs:

Ethics Blog Posts

 

BEPS Handbook and Application

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
  • Application
  • Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

Download the full BEPS handbook

Understanding the PRSA Code of Ethics

The PRSA Code of Ethics exists to inspire ethical behavior, clearly identify improper public relations practices and teach members how to avoid them.


As a voluntary organization, 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 and interactive dialogue with practitioners who inspire others 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 and improper:
    • 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 behavior destructive to the reputation of practitioners, our profession or PRSA.
  • Teach members how to avoid improper behavior.

As a volunteer organization, PRSA’s enforcement authority is limited.
Organizations that have enforceable regulations, rules and procedures are empowered by higher authorities such as 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. 

 

Contact BEPS

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 beps@prsa.org.

If you would like to inform BEPS about a particular concern, complete the following form. BEPS 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.

Are you a PRSA Member?