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:

    1. Voluntary codes such as PRSA’s are virtually impossible to enforce. Only four formal sanctions resulted from investigations conducted by the various PRSA Boards of Ethics and Professional Standards in 50 years.
    2. Voluntary organizations like PRSA can only require voluntary participation.
    3. 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.
    4. 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;
      • Malpractice;
      • 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.

Yes, but 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:

For additional information regarding PRSA’s stance on ethical communications, email the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.