Ron Smith's Teaching Notes on ...

Ethical Issues in Public Relations

Ethics and ethical decision-making are crucial for the practice and understanding of public relations. We practice ethical public relations (or at least we attempt to do so) not simply because it is the right thing to do (though it is). Ethical public relations also is the practical thing to do. Our ethical professional behavior, both as individual practitioners and as organizational managers, protects us from legal and regulatory problems. It also helps us build a credible and action-based relationship with our publics, with long-term and positive consequences for our organization.

Updated Summer 2011 as a supplement to Prof. Smith's textbooks,
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and Francis).


Principles of right & wrong
personal conduct or character

Principles of right & wrong
professional conduct or organizational behavior

Principles of right & wrong
civil conduct as minimally acceptable / tolerable


Right / Wrong
-based on standards
-applied to actions

Good / Bad
-based on relationships
-applied to people / organizations


Discussion Point:
Why is a consideration of ethics important to the practice of public relations?


Ethical Loyalties

Duty to Self

Duty to Client

Duty to Employer

Duty to Profession

Duty to Media

Duty to Society

(from Public Relations Ethics, Philip Seib and Kathy Fitzpatrick)



Ethical Principles

Seven "Prima Facie" Duties
A prima facie duty is a deontological proposition that something is objectively good. It is a principal articulated by Scottish philosopher Sir W(illiam) David Ross. While the various obligations may sometimes conflict, Ross believes that, in any given circumstance, one duty becomes an "absolute obligation" that overrides other, lesser duties.

Duty of Fidelity (not lying; being faithful; keeping promises)

Duty of Reparation (correcting an error; righting a wrong)

Duty of Gratitude (acknowledging services rendered; returning a favor; reciprocating)

Duty of Beneficence (promoting the maximum good; sharing good fortune; helping others achieve happiness)

Duty of Nonmalefieence (doing no harm to others)

Duty of Justice (being fair; being equitable; being impartial)

Duty of Self-Improvement (knowing and improving yourself re: virtue and knowledge)



Ethical Values

10 universal and timeless values essential to ethical life
(from the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics)

1. Honesty

2. Integrity

3. Promise-keeping

4. Fidelity

5. Fairness

6. Caring for others

7. Respect for others

8. Responsible citizenship

9. Pursuit of excellence

10. Accountability


"The law is a floor. Ethical business conduct should normally exist at a level well above the minimum required by law"
– Code of Ethics: Caterpillar Tractor Company

"Lockheed Martin aims to 'set the standard' for ethical business conduct. We will achieve this through six virtues: Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Trust, Responsibility, and Citizenship"
– Code of Ethics and Business Conduct: Lockheed Martin Corp.


Discussion Points:
Agree or Disagree

- Some acts are always right (or always wrong)
- Some acts are good if they have good consequences, bad if they have bad consequences
- Some acts are good in some settings and cultures but bad in others, depending on the culture



Ethical Paradigms for Decision Making 

1. An act is always good (in and of itself; regardless of circumstances or consequences) and thus ought to be performed
Deontological Approach
(deontos = "duty; obligation")

Advantage: Clarity; certitude
Disadvantage: Conflicting values; potential intolerance
Challenge: Gaining agreement on the standard
Public Relations Value: Foundational standards


2. An act is good if it has good consequences; thus consequences determine the value of an act
Teleological Approach
(teleo = "end; consequence")

Advantage: Consideration of impact
Disadvantage: End justifies the means; devaluing minorities
Challenge: Predicting consequences & identifying options
Public Relations Value: Relational environment


3. Some acts are good in some circumstances or cultures but not in others
Ethical Relativism

Advantage: Respect for cultural diversity
Disadvantage: Dominance of mainstream culture; infallibility of individual/society
Challenge: Understanding cultural differences
Public Relations Value: Analysis of situation & culture


Blending the ethical decision-making approaches

Before making an ethical determination about a possible action...

1. Consider the existence and value of standards, moral principles, and ethical codes

2. Consider the consequences of action, both short-term and long-term

3. Consider the social environment in which the standards and actions exist


Then determine the best and most ethical course of action.


Discussion Topics

Based on your understanding of the PRSA Code of Ethics, discuss the following scenarios:

1. Accuracy in News Releases. You send a news release quoting the university treasurer that the new budget will cause a $800,000 shortfall this year for your university. Next day, you learn the figure is inflated; it does not consider the $400,000 already saved by low winter-energy costs.
- What practical considerations apply?
- What does the Code advise?
- What is your ethical judgment about this?
- What would you do?

2. Confidential Information. You are preparing a newsletter for a candidate for the town council. Your major opponent champions family values. You learn that there is a common rumor that he has a mistress; meanwhile a friend who works in law enforcement tells you confidentially that police have been called several times because he has physically abused the mistress.
- What practical considerations apply?
- What does the Code advise?
- What is your ethical judgment about this?
- What would you do?

3. Developing Quotes. You are preparing a news release about a new company product, and you want to quote your CEO about its benefits. You have heard the CEO explain these benefits on several occasions, and you helped draft her statement to the board of directors. However, the CEO is on a trade mission to China and is not reachable by cell phone or e-mail for several days, and you want to post the release on the company's online newsroom as soon as possible. One of the company vice presidents suggests that you make up some quotes and put them in the release, attributing them to the CEO.
- What practical considerations apply?
- What does the Code advise?
- What is your ethical judgment about this?
- What would you do

4. Working on Contingency. A friend of your brother-in-law asks you to develop and implement a public relations campaign to help her launch a new business – a financial planning aimed particularly at professional and career women. You believe the economic and social climate in your community is ripe for such a venture, and you believe that it will succeed. However, the woman starting the business cannot afford to pay you unless her business launch is successful, and she asks you to take the job on a contingency basis. That means that you will be paid if and when the business launch is successful, but if it fails (regardless of your public relations role), you will receive no money. Y0ou recently attended a PRSA meeting in which the speaker warned against making guarantees about public relations outcomes.
- What practical considerations apply?
- What does the Code advise?
- What is your ethical judgment about this?
- What would you do