A core responsibility of communicators in public relations is to manage issues. Public relations holds the substantial moral responsibility of defining issues, communicating about those issues with publics and the media, and working to prevent and resolve problems between organizations and publics. This weighty responsibility includes deciding what concepts are related or unrelated to an issue, what facts are relevant or irrelevant, and what potential solutions exist. A moral responsibility to conduct these activities in an ethical manner is inherent in pursuits of such significance, and public relations professionals worldwide are therefore obligated to act with ethical rectitude by the very nature of their responsibilities.
Critics argue that public relations has no ethical compass, engages in unrestrained advocacy, or even that it is among the most immoral of fields. Proponents argue that public relations professionals should (and do) act as “ethical consciences” within their organizations, or for clients. Both points of view are able to offer examples and cases in which their beliefs are illustrated. Ethical public relations is one of the foundations of the research supporting excellent public relations management (Vercic et al. 1996; Grunig 2001; Bowen 2007), making management more reflective and responsible to external publics. Others (van Ruler & Vercic 2005) expound on the societal role of the legitimation of organizations in society and the role that public relations plays in enabling communication that contributes to social discourse. Although debate continues, the majority of scholars and authorities on public relations argue that the field has a basis in ethics stemming from the moral nature of informed free choice, education and rational debate on issues, and the duty of dialogue.
Consideration of the power held by public relations to communicate and define issues necessitates analysis of public relations activities through the lens of moral philosophy. Both utilitarian and deontological (Kantian) approaches support the view of public relations as an ethical pursuit. A utilitarian analysis concludes that public relations serves the interest of the greater good by providing a free and open flow of information and discourse for the greatest number of people, thereby benefiting society as a moral good.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s deontological approach provides arguably the most rigorous and analytical moral analysis yet developed. Autonomy is central to Kant’s deontological approach because he argued that only the rational will, free of subjectivity, can conduct an ethical analysis. Rational autonomy, or free moral choice, implies the knowledge, access to information, and debate of competing interests necessary to make an analytically sound judgment of right versus wrong. Therefore, the public relations function bears a moral responsibility because it facilitates communication between organizations and publics, supporting the ethical standards of autonomy and dialogue.
Ethical issues are also examined in terms of asking whether they maintain the dignity and respect of the involved publics and organization(s), as well as whether the moral test of a good will can be met. If it can, the intention behind the decision is one to uphold a moral choice rather than serve selfish ends. In this sense, public relations is responsible for consistent organizational decision-making that helps build long-term relationships with publics. Research shows that these relationships are based on trust, among other variables. Ethical decisions work to enhance trust, and trust enhances the reputation of the organization as a credible and morally responsible entity.
Analysis of ethical issues is complex and time-consuming for public relations professionals, particularly in industries with an inherent level of danger, risk, or proneness to crises. The extent to which ethical analyses take place in public relations practice varies widely. The degree to which the public relations executive acts as an ethics counselor to management depends not only on the type of industry involved, but also upon the expertise, age, ethics background or training, credibility, and persistence of the public relations professional.
As the builders of relationships and stewards of organizational reputation, public relations professionals are also obligated to act as ethics counsel. Research in public relations has shown that the public relations executive acting as an ethics counselor to the CEOs and top decision-makers is a common role in many organizations. These senior-level public relations executives are charged with examining issues from multiple perspectives, including those of publics external to the organization, to determine ethical organizational actions and policy. Because of the extensive research conducted by public relations, as well as the relationships public relations professionals maintain with publics, the function is ideally situated to consider the views and needs of publics who would not, otherwise, have a voice in management decision-making.
Public relations professionals often ascribe to codes of ethics held by professional associations, such as the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) across many countries, the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (Euprera) with membership in Europe, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in the US, or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) with members in most countries. Each of these organizations holds a code of ethics applying to its membership, encouraging responsible, professional, credible, and well-intentioned public relations activities. The content of these codes of ethics varies not by country but by organization; for instance, the PRSA code attempts to offer practical professional guidance geared toward consultants and agency practitioners, while the IPRA code specifies certain moral duties that much be upheld, involving dignity and respect, human rights, and so on. The first code of ethics specific to modern public relations was codified by Ivy Lee in 1906, and the Arthur W. Page Society, based in the US, works to advance the ethical principles Page used in his distinguished public relations career at AT&T.
Although codes of ethics evidence good intent, they often provide conduct guidelines rather than the framework for a comprehensive moral analysis. Therefore, public relations scholars have worked to create formalized means of analyzing ethical dilemmas: Bowen (2004, 2005) created a deontological analysis; Bivins (1992) a systems-theory based analysis; Tilley (2005) a management approach; and, Pearson (1989) a dialogue-based approach. Both academically and professionally, public relations ethics is growing in demand, in responsibility, and in importance. Though no single person or function can be the entire “conscience” of an organization, public relations is ideally situated to know and counsel top management on the values of publics when resolving ethical issues. Public relations managers conduct moral analyses to guide the activities of their organizations, their clients, and their communications with publics and the media. Attention to ethical decision-making facilitates the building and maintenance of relationships, which is the overall goal of the public relations function.
- Bivins, T. H. (1992). A systems model for ethical decision making in public relations. Public Relations Review, 18(4), 365–383.
- Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65–92.
- Bowen, S. A. (2005). A practical model for ethical decision making in issues management and public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(3), 191–216.
- Bowen, S. A. (2007). The extent of ethics. In E. L. Toth (ed.), The future of excellence in public relations and communication management: Challenges for the next generation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 275–297.
- Grunig, J. E. (2001). Two-way symmetrical public relations: Past, present, and future. In R. L. Heath (ed.), Handbook of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 11–30.
- Koten, J. A. (ed.) (2004). Building trust: Leading CEOs speak out – How they create it, strengthen it, sustain it. New York: Arthur W. Page Society.
- Pearson, R. (1989). Business ethics as communication ethics: Public relations practice and the idea of dialogue. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazleton, Jr. (eds.), Public relations theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 111–131.
- Seeger, M. W. (1997). Ethics and organizational communication. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Tilley, E. (2005). The ethics pyramid: Making ethics unavoidable in the public relations process. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20(4), 305–320. van Ruler, B., & Vercic, D. (2005). Reflective communication management: Future ways for public relations research. Communication Yearbook, 29, 239–273.
- Vercic, D., Grunig, L. A., & Grunig, J. E. (1996). Global and specific principles of public relations: Evidence from Slovenia. In H. M. Culbertson & N. Chen (eds.), International public relations: A comparative analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 31–65.