Using Data Ethically to Inform PR Strategies

Share this article
The next S&T Live is on Sept. 22 at 1 p.m. ET. Join us for a conversation on LinkedIn on the ethics of data with Michele E. Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA, a professor in the School of Media & Journalism at Kent State University.

Accessing and analyzing data generated from social media platforms, websites, mobile apps, email and other digital channels can lead to more effective PR strategies and tactics. 

While the benefits of data-driven communication are vast, PR professionals may often encounter privacy issues, subjective data interpretation, algorithmic bias, unfair profiling and targeting audiences and other ethical challenges. 

The 2020-2021 North American Communication Monitor (NACM) study, which was conducted among 1,046 PR professionals working in Canada and the United States and organized by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, identified mining and analyzing audiences’ personal data as one of the top three types of ethical challenges concerning PR professionals in digital communication. 

Juan Meng, Ph.D., associate professor and head of the Department of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Georgia and lead researcher of NACM, noted that communicators in both agency and corporate settings indicated that retrieving and analyzing “massive” consumer data is “one of the biggest ethical concerns for practitioners to consider when they apply communication practice” using social media and other digital channels. 

“With so many different social channels, different media platforms and the technology, we are dealing with an evolving landscaping,” Meng said. “Sometimes, we don’t have the most effective responsive plans until another innovative ethical issue is rising because of that changing and evolving digital platform.”

Navigating ethical challenges when using digital data

According to Cayce Myers, Ph.D., APR, director of graduate studies and associate professor public relations and advertising division, School of Communication at Virginia Tech, the largest ethical component when using data, in any context, is privacy of user information.

“Knowing how the information is collected and used is important to users, and in today’s digital world there is a heightened awareness of privacy concerns,” Myers said. 

For example, consumers may share data to use a health-tracking app, but these consumers may not understand this data may be shared or even sold for other uses. PR professionals must work to ensure their companies or clients follow ethical guidelines for data usage and understand the importance of educating both internal and external audiences about data access and usage.

PR professionals should clearly disclose the scope of data collected and how and when this data will be used. The PRSA Code of Ethics emphasizes honest and transparent communication to build and maintain trust with audiences. 

“When designing a plan to gather data, it is important to get it right the first time,” Myers said. 

Meng discussed potential ethical challenges if audiences aren’t aware or don’t understand how demographic and psychographic information can be accessed through their digital channel usage. 

“Some privacy-related ethical concerns may arise if PR professionals are going to use those parameters to target audiences and group them to do further segmentation for the message development purposes,” Meng said. 

While this data may help to more effectively engage and serve audiences and achieve communication and business outcomes, PR practitioners must ensure the data mining and analysis adheres to ethical guidelines.

Myers noted the usage of data and transparency in its collection directly impacts an organization’s reputation. 

“Honesty guides communications regardless of client, context or public,” Myers explained. “PR professionals are in an industry that values transparency, so this is in line with a time-honored custom for PR practitioners.”

Many ethical challenges can be identified and addressed prior to data collection and analysis; however, PR professionals need to be ready to recognize new ethical dilemmas as digital channels and technology evolve. 

Meng discussed the “emerging discussion and discourses surrounding the new concepts of ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) and unbiased algorithms” and how new ethical concerns are developing. A first step with addressing new ethical challenges is to apply current ethical principles and codes for guidance. 

“One of the most important considerations a PR practitioner can make regarding ethics within data usage is keeping up with trends and recognizing that new directions in data use still resonate with the ethical codes of the past,” Myers said. “Just because a new technology emerges doesn’t mean that time-honored ethical guidelines don’t address the problem.”

Experiencing ethical challenges and the role of leadership

The NACM study examined how frequently PR professionals experience ethical challenges during their day-to-day work. An intriguing finding indicated communicators who serve in a team or organization leadership role reported they were more likely to confront ethical issues than younger, more junior employees. 

“It’s very interesting to see the differences (in ethical experiences) are changing along the leadership hierarchical line,” Meng said. “Communication practitioners residing at the senior leadership position feel they more frequently encounter ethical issues or challenges.” 

Meng said the study revealed as the leadership level decreased among study participants, the likeliness of dealing with ethical dilemmas steadily decreased. Meng said that this difference may relate to team members who are more focused on daily tasks and less focused on ethical dilemmas and organization risks, as well as less ethical training for junior team members compared to leaders. 

Meng further explained study respondents who were organization or team leaders also have more experience with ethical discussions and challenges, which helps them become more sensitive to potential ethical risks. She noted the study documents a need to provide ethical training to junior PR professionals who are digital natives and often working in digital communication. 

Meng also emphasized the importance of PR students to learn about ethics and how to gain experience with critically thinking about ethical issues and applying ethical guidelines. 

“We need to challenge students to think about how they will respond and what are the possible and appropriate ways to respond if they were in different ethical situations or scenarios,” Meng advised.

Accessing resources for ethics training and guidance

Here are some resources for PR professionals and students to learn more about the ethical use of digital data and other digital ethics issues:

The PRSA Code of Ethics provides a framework for understanding ethical issues in public relations and the core values are designed to guide the decision-making process and behaviors to elevate the integrity of public relations.  

• The PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) issues the Ethical Standard Advisories (ESAs) addressing 21 ethical dilemmas including Ethics and Social Media, Deceptive Online Practices and Misrepresentation and Misinformation, as well as Position Papers and on-demand ethics webinars. 

The Web Analyst’s Code of Ethics shares guidelines for organizations and internet users globally of digital data collection and usage. 



Each September, PRSA recognizes Ethics Month as a way to bring increased attention to the core foundation of the communications profession. Programming this month includes two free webinars:

Other activities include blog posts at PRsay. Please visit prsa.org/ethics for updates on programming.

Return to Current Issue Lifelong Learning | September 2022
Share this article