Briefing: professional ethics
About the author
Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
IPRA’s new definition of public relations makes specific mention of ‘ethical communication methods.’
Public relations is a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.
The first part of this definition covers conventional ground. We’re told that public relations is a ‘management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics.’
It’s in the second half that it takes a new turn. This relationship and coalition building is achieved by ‘the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.’
We’re into the territory of truth (and post-truth); the territory of unmediated as well as mediated communication; the situation where it’s so easy to deceive and dissemble that we need to keep a clear focus on ‘ethical communication methods.’
We’re into the world of twenty-first century communication in which public relations is more prominent and more powerful than before – but where the risks and rewards are higher, so forcing us to confront ethical dilemmas almost every day.
This briefing explores concepts from professional bodies and from the academic literature to propose three steps towards a fuller understanding of ethics in public relations. Consider these an introductory, an intermediate and an advanced class.
Ethics are formalised codes of acceptable behaviour. They ‘are based partly on personal values and partly on other criteria such as societal norms and the law.’
So ethics can be viewed as a guide to ‘doing the right thing’, in the context of organisational and personal values, shifting societal norms and legal requirements.
It should be easy. But individual practitioners are faced with dilemmas about who or which cause to represent: should a non-smoker represent a tobacco company? Should a vegetarian advocate for meat production and consumption?
Then there are questions of competing interests: what if doing the right thing for society conflicted with the self-interest of the client or company? And how to arbitrate between conflicting principles: to tell the truth while protecting confidentiality?
There are questions about intentions as well as outcomes. Should we slavishly follow a preset code or should we examine our own consciences and develop our own position on ethical questions? What about our personal moral scruples or the demands of any religious beliefs we may have?
Because there are so many questions, this guide adopts a step-by-step approach: from basic, to intermediate and on to advanced. This means that abstract philosophy is avoided for the first part of this guide.
The public perception of public relations may (still) be of an ethics-free occupation (‘organised lying’). That perception makes it all the more important to have an understanding of ethical principles, though there’s a risk that by persistently talking up the ethical principles that guide our practice, we might be thought to have something to hide (‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’).
There’s one more warning. Those of working age have largely operated in a peacetime environment. We have not been asked to explore the ethical dilemmas of total war. Out of necessity, the British became masters of propaganda and deceit during the second world war in pursuit of victory. Having cracked the Enigma Codes at Bletchley Park, not all ships in the North Atlantic could be saved for fear that the code-breaking success would be revealed prematurely. Lives were knowingly lost in order that others could be saved. The D-day landings were preceded by elaborate deceits, again to maximise surprise and to save lives. Organised lying: it’s on the historical record. Nor need we be ashamed of the decisions that were taken in such an existential crisis for this nation.
So we need to be warned against adopting an over-simplified view of ethics that’s incapable of surviving contact with reality.
Morals: The principles and values by which an individual lives their lives.
Ethics: ‘The study and codification of moral principles into systematic frameworks so that decisions can me made about what is right and wrong in a reasoned and structured way.’
Profession: ‘A vocation or calling, especially one that involves some branch of advanced learning or science.’
Part One: The Basics
One defining characteristic of being a full professional is to be governed by a code of conduct. So the first question to ask is what have you done to demonstrate your commitment to your chosen profession?
- Do you have a degree or a professional qualification in public relations?
- Are you a member of the CIPR, the PRCA or another professional association with a code of conduct?
- Have you achieved professional recognition (eg through Chartered Practitioner status, a fellowship of a membership body, or even a national honour?)
Many of these lead to outward signs of professional acceptance: letters like BA, PhD, Prof Dip, MCIPR, FPRCA or MBE after your name. They provide some level of reassurance.
But it’s possible to have gained a degree and still know little of the subject. It’s possible to be a member of a professional body and never refer back to the code of conduct you’ve signed up to.
So there’s more to professionalism than a few letters after your name. You need to start applying principles to your professional practice.
A good starting point are the codes of conduct that have been developed by the professional associations.
The CIPR code of conduct leads with six principles:
‘Members of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations agree to:
a) maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct;
b) deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public;
c) respect, in their dealings with other people, the legal and regulatory frameworks and codes of all countries where they practise;
d) uphold the reputation of, and do nothing that would bring into disrepute, the public relations profession or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations;
e) respect and abide by this Code and related Notes of Guidance issued by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and ensure that others who are accountable to them (e.g. subordinates and sub-contractors) do the same;
f) encourage professional training and development among members of the profession in order to raise and maintain professional standards generally.’
You could paraphrase this as ‘professionals behave professionally; they obey the law; they promote their profession.’
It’s hard to argue with this, but it is worth noting that only some 9,000 of the 80,000 practitioners in the UK are CIPR members – and have therefore signed up to abide by this code. Nor have many current members been excluded from membership because of proven breaches of the code.
The CIPR has produced an explanatory document setting its code of conduct into context. ‘The CIPR broadly interprets “professionalism” as signifying technical and ethical competence on the part of the individual practitioner.’ This document explores and expands on four core concepts from the code of conduct: Integrity, Competence, Transparency, Confidentiality.
The CIPR also provides a ‘decision tree’ to help ensure members are not in breach of its Code of Conduct.
The PRCA claims many more members than the CIPR (30,000), but its code historically referred to consultancy members, not individuals. This was the code against which Bell Pottinger was notoriously investigated in 2017 before being expelled from PRCA membership.
Examining the PRCA Professional Charter which governs individual members, there are a number of guiding principles.
‘A member shall:
2.1 Conduct their professional activities with proper regard to the public interest.
2.2 Have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently.
2.3 Have a duty to ensure that the actual interest of any organisation with which they may be professionally concerned is adequately declared.
2.4 When working in association with other professionals, identify and respect the codes of these professions and shall not knowingly be party to any breach of such codes.
2.5 If a member of either House of Parliament, member of a Local Authority or of any statutory organisation or body, record that material in the relevant section of the PRCA Public Affairs and Lobbying Register.
2.6 Honour confidences received or given in the course of professional activity.
2.7 Neither propose nor undertake any action which would constitute an improper influence on organs of government, or on legislation, or on the media of communication.
2.8 Neither offer nor give any inducement to persons holding public office or members of any statutory body or organisation who are not directors, executives or retained consultants, with intent to further the interests of the organisation if such action is inconsistent with the public interest.’
The key point here is the emphasis on ‘the public interest’. In textbook theory, public relations helps organisations adapt to their environments and thus meet changing societal expectations and help retain legitimacy. In the ideal world, it’s a win-win situation. But what if there was a conflict between the short-term best interest of the organisation and the long-term public interest?
Or, more practically, how to tell the senior management team that you’re operating in the public interest rather than in the organisation’s self-interest? They might question your loyalty, or go on to question how you are qualified to determine what is in the public interest or how to arbitrate between the public interest and the interests of key groups such as employees and shareholders (are they not part of the public too?).
Note also, the wording around the truth. Members ‘have a positive duty to respect the truth and not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly.’ This is important in a world of fake news and declining trust in institutions and authority. Yet the precise wording is ‘respect the truth’, not ‘tell the truth’. Lying is not permitted: it’s covered by the injunction to avoid disseminating false of misleading information, but telling the full truth in all circumstances is not possible because of the requirement to honour confidences and to obey the law governing the release of market sensitive information.
How do lawyers handle this same professional dilemma? The emphasis is on ‘(honesty and) integrity’.
The Law Society is the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales. Its code requires solicitors to:
- uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice
- act with integrity
- not allow their independence to be compromised
- act in the best interests of each client
- provide a proper standard of service to clients
- behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in them and in the provision of legal services
- comply with legal and regulatory obligations and deal with regulators and ombudsmen in an open, timely and co-operative manner
- run their business or carry out their role in the business effectively and in accordance with proper governance and sound financial and risk management principles
- run their business or carry out their role in the business in a way that encourages equality of opportunity and respect for diversity
- protect client money and assets.
Barristers are governed by the Bar Standards Board in the UK. Its code specifies ten core duties:
- You must observe your duty to the court in the administration of justice.
- You must act in the best interests of each client.
- You must act with honesty and integrity.
- You must maintain your independence.
- You must not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in you or in the profession.
- You must keep the affairs of each client confidential.
- You must provide a competent standard of work and service to each client.
- You must not discriminate unlawfully against any person.
- You must be open and co-operative with your regulators.
- You must take reasonable steps to manage your practice, or carry out your role within your practice, competently and in such a way as to achieve compliance with your legal and regulatory obligations.
Academic and author Patricia Parsons names telling the truth as one of the five fundamental principles guiding the public relations practitioner:
- Veracity (to tell the truth)
- Non-maleficence (to do no harm)
- Beneficence (to do good)
- Confidentiality (to respect privacy)
- Fairness (to be fair and socially responsible)
Ethics is allied to professionalism. So if you profess to act ethically, then as a very first step you should be able to demonstrate your commitment to professional standards.
Part Two: Intermediate
So far we have discussed guides to professional conduct. What we have not discussed are the underlying principles that lead us to reach an ethical position. So we need to introduce some philosophers and thinkers in this part of the guide, while keeping it as brief as possible.
We have argued that public relations enables organisations to balance their interests with those of their publics – and with wider society. Some take this further and argue for public relations to act as the conscience of the organisation. This is a contentious claim, but if you are to make it then you need some familiarity with religious and philosophical thought which has addressed questions of ethical conduct over the past several millennia.
Two established schools of thought dominate discussions of professional ethics. Consequentialism, as developed by Bentham and deontology, as developed by Kant:
- Deontological – or duty – ethics
Deontology derives from the Greek word deontos meaning duty. This school proposes that ethical actions ‘are based on obligations, principles and rights’. Decision-making is not conditional, but made according to higher principles, and judged by whether an act should be taken universally. Thus you have a duty to tell the truth – in that you would want others to tell you the truth – so you should always tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. (Imagine this approach in everyday life: ‘Does my bum look big in this?’)
The modern father of deontology is German philosopher Immanuel Kant who proposed the ‘categorical imperative’ to describe the duty to do the right thing.
- Teleology (consequentialism or utilitarianism)
By contrast, teleology (derived from the Greek word telos – end – and logos – the study of) looks to the results of decisions, rather than the principles guiding those decisions. Utilitarianism (‘the greatest good’) argues that actions should be judged on their effects. Dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese towns Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be viewed as a deeply unethical act because of the unprecedented destructive power of the weapons. Or it can be judged as acceptable – in the context of total war – because its intention was to bring an end to the war in the far east. The suffering of many was considered less important than the potential suffering of even greater numbers.
There are other approaches to understanding ethics, some of which we summarise here.
Situationist ethics ‘modifies both consequentialist and deontological approaches by starting not from abstract principles but from the specifics of the ethical dilemma.’
The Golden Rule. We can explore the lessons from various religions – often considered to amount to one ‘golden rule’ – treating others as you would want them to treat you. This is a useful guide to individual behaviour, but is it applicable when discussing organisations?
Virtue ethics. This approach derives from Aristotle. Ethical decisions are taken as a result of reasoned self-awareness and reflection. The emphasis is on character rather than codes. ‘An action is right if it is something a virtuous person would characteristically do in those circumstances.’
Discourse ethics. Based on the work of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, this draws on the idea of equal access to debate and decision making, based on his theory of dialogic communication.
Moral relativism argues that morality is largely culturally based rather than being based on absolute principles. So the biblical injunction ‘thou shalt not kill’ has often been amended in practice by exceptions for murderers or adulterers, or for what was considered a holy war. The testing of drugs on laboratory animals is required by law, and is considered ethical because of the greater good of curing life-threatening diseases. But it’s easy to imagine attitudes to animal welfare changing over time leading to revisions of our treatment of laboratory and farm animals.
Propaganda and persuasion: Arguably the largest debate in the public relations academic literature is around the ethics of propaganda and persuasion. This is based on the contention that since propaganda is considered to be bad, for public relations to be considered good it must be seen as a very different beast. The widely-cited Four Models of Public Relations made this separation explicit by distinguishing one-way press agentry/publicity (a propaganda-like model) from so-called ‘two-way symmetric’ public relations, presented as the most ethical model. This left the persuasive two-way asymmetric model as somehow less ethical.
Other authors have challenged this notion that for public relations to be ethical it needs to be unpersuasive. People hire lawyers to represent them; why would they hire public relations advisers who refused to act as advocates?
The approach other authors have taken is to rehabilitate propaganda rather than to distinguish it from public relations. Both practices can be seen as essentially amoral (ie equally capable of being used for good or for evil purposes).
Dialogue and advocacy: There is a school of thought that defends persuasion as ethical. It comes mainly from the United States and it draws on writings about rhetoric from Ancient Greece and Rome to argue that making a case in the ‘wrangle in the marketplace’ is a foundational principle of a free society. The rhetorical dance from thesis to antithesis (the to-and-fro of argument or dialogue) should lead to a synthesis – and ideal outcome of the debate.
Then there are some tools and frameworks that help with reaching an ethical decision.
The five pillars
The five PR Pillars were introduced earlier. These suggest a series of questions to ask before making a decision:
- Is this likely to cause harm?
- Is there a missed opportunity to do good?
- Could anyone be misled in any way?
- Will anyone’s privacy be invaded?
- Is it unfair to anyone?
- Does it feel wrong?
This decision-making model was developed by Harvard divinity professor Ralph Potter. It involves four steps:
- Problem definition: A very important first step is to understand the true nature of the problem, so we can act on the cause and not just treat the symptom.
- Analysis of values: Now we understand the situation, we need to examine the personal and professional values that might guide doing the right thing.
- Application of principles. Which frameworks or principles are we drawing on to make the right decision?
- Delineation of loyalties. How to arbitrate between our various loyalties: to our employer, to our profession, to society and to ourselves? In the case of whistleblowing, individuals place their loyalty to society (and their personal values) above those of their employers.
Part Three: Advanced
To my mind, the most sophisticated book on public relations ethics is a surprisingly good read – but it’s not intended to make easy reading for those who want simple prescriptions. As author Johanna Fawkes writes in Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The Shadow of Excellence:
‘So many texts on ethics imply that they embody some kind of procedure for making reliable ethical decisions, whether that is the utilitarian cost/benefit analysis, a Kantian set of duties or a matrix of values and choices such as the Potter Box. Every code is normative, prescriptive: follow these precepts and you can’t go wrong… My experience is just so much messier.’
Her distinctive approach is to apply Jungian psychology to the field of public relations ethics. This turns the subject from an external study of rights and duties into an internal investigation of our desires and motives.
Before exploring ethics, Fawkes argues that we need to explore and understand the sociology of the professions (at a time when professional identity is in crisis). We need to understand how the professions maintain elite status and exercise power.
‘One of my key propositions is that professions have to choose between maintaining societal status on false grounds or dropping their claims to serve society and concentrating on the core business of serving members.’
To take a step backwards, Jacquie L’Etang has documented the history of public relations professional practice in Britain. She narrated the unsteady progress and prefers to talk about a process of professionalisation rather than professionalism.
Lee Edwards is another critical scholar with a less conventional view of the public relations professional project. She uses a sociological lens to show how the professions have secured and retained their elite social status.
The struggle to achieve this elite status is known as the professional project. In public relations, a career hierarchy based on level of skill leads to ‘an important form of inequality, given that racialised, classed and gendered hierarchies within public relations mean that white men tend to dominate at managerial levels.’ In other words, the risk of achieving the status of an elite profession is to further embed these inequalities and diminish equal opportunities and social mobility.
We are discussing the professional project here because ethics is closely tied to professionalism.
To summarise (very crudely), the critics of the professional project tend to approach the subject from three directions:
- Those who use facts, the historical record and comparisons with elite professions to document that public relations has not achieved a similar standing.
- Those critical scholars who draw on sociology to identity problems of inequality embedded in elite professional status
- There is also a free market critique of the professional project. It is pithily summarised in a chapter heading by authors Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy: ‘Professional, but never a profession.’ Their argument is that public relations is subject to market forces. The better the practitioner, the higher they will rise; the better the consultancy, the bigger the clients it will win and the higher the fees it can charge. But does the market reward ethical practitioners? The experience of the late Max Clifford, who used his celebrity clients and large fees as a sign of legitimacy, suggests not.
Given that we are where we are, what does this mean for individual practitioners?
One implication is that it’s not enough to contract out all our thinking on ethical questions to others. We need to evolve our own thinking on the many ethical questions and challenges that arise from enacting the public relations and communication role. Not least, if we do see ourselves as the conscience of the organisation, then we need to be prepared to answer the questions that will surely come from senior management when we offer our advice on this basis.
There are some encouraging signs. It’s no bad thing that there is a growing body of academic work in this field (even if it is critical of the conventional narratives of professional bodies and the assumptions of many senior practitioners). If practitioners are change-makers, then academics are sense-makers.
There is also an emerging ‘community of practice’ linking academics and practitioners in discussions of issues and challenges facing the field. Clearly there should be some mutual dependency between change-makers and sense-makers.
‘What was the occupation of the biggest mass murderer in British criminal history?’
I used to ask this question in an undergraduate lecture on ethics and professionalism. Occasionally, someone would volunteer the correct answer: ‘doctor’. Dr Harold Shipman was not some remote Victorian scoundrel, but a Greater Manchester GP convicted in the year 2000.
Clearly, the medical profession operates as a public good (most unambiguously where there is a publicly-funded health system). Clearly, there are well established medical ethics (going back to the Hippocratic oath – ‘first, do no harm’). Clearly, it’s a regulated profession that can sanction practitioners (who are said to be ‘struck off the medical register’).
Yet, despite all of the professionalism, all of the qualifications, all of the regulation – the Shipman case shows that individual agency is important in any profession. So the rest of this section explores the self. We need to look inwards to our own consciences as well as signing up to external codes of conduct. In the academic literature, this is known as a ‘reflexive’ approach.
As Fawkes writes about professional ethics: ‘There is a pre-occupation with solving problems, ethics as doing rather than being, a question of act not agent.’
She also contrasts the Anglo-American emphasis on reasoning and evaluation with Asian approaches which involve greater internal reflexivity. ‘Asian, Islamic and Jungian ethics offer more complex, ambiguous and nuanced responses than the old right/wrong edicts.’
And so to Jung. We may not think his work relevant to our professional field, but his work inspired talk of introverts and extraverts and of the categorisation of personality types in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Fawkes argues that Jung’s insights into the shadow side of the psyche can be applied to professions. ‘It means accepting that as well as bad apples, there may be bad barrels, that the hidden abuses of power may be systemic rather than attributable to deviant individuals.’ Fawkes argues that the shadow side of public relations is propaganda and persuasion. ‘The danger in persuasion it seems to me,’ she writes later on ‘is not in persuading others but in persuading oneself to the point where other perspectives are marginalized, creating a sense of self that is predicated on the rightness of a particular position.’
Yet ‘a Jungian approach cannot yield a code of conduct, prescribing correct and incorrect actions… The Jungian ethical journey is inwards to realization rather than outwards for instruction.’
I’m reminded of the shift in approach between the categorical imperatives of the Old Testament (‘Thou shalt not kill’; ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’) and the more introspective challenge presented by Jesus in the New Testament (‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her’).
Fawkes tries imagining PR as a client on the psychoanalyst’s couch. She tries to lead the patient away from a fixation on one dominant idea (‘Excellence’) and encourages the patient to consider the role of Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (a ‘boundary spanner’).
‘Hermes was not a simple deliverer of messages, but was an interpreter of the messages he delivered. His character interacted with the literal aspects of the messages to create meaning. He was the original Hermaneutic catalyst, bringing about a meaningful connection between the what, the how, and the why.’
Fawkes ends with this ethical question for those in public relations.
‘Our role in the development of free market capitalism has served the profession well, leading to massive expansion in practitioners over the past half-century, so it seems reasonable to ask what responsibility we bear, collectively, for the current state of escalating global inequality and the despoliation of the planet’s resources. This goes beyond the issue of working for oil companies, but asks for ‘planetary ethics’ to counter the impact of consumerism on culture.’
So, in addition to our responsibility to society, we also have a responsibility to protect future generations. ‘Will we be good ancestors?’
[This briefing was first published in December 2019 and was updated with some new resources in April 2022.]
Sources and further reading
Edwards, L (2018) Understanding Public Relations: Theory, Culture and Society, Sage
Fawkes, J (2015) Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The Shadow of Excellence, Routledge
Gregory, A (2009) Ethics and professionalism in public relations in Tench and Yeomans Exploring Public Relations (2nd edition), Pearson
Gregory, A and Willis, P (2013) Strategic Public Relations Leadership, Routledge
L’Etang, J (2004) Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the 20th Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Morris, T and Goldsworthy, S (2021) Public Relations Ethics: The Real-World Guide, Routledge
Morris, T and Goldsworthy, S (2008) PR – A Persuasive Industry? Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media, Palgrave Macmillan
Parsons, P (2004) Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice, Kogan Page
Yaxley, H (2022) Ethical practical playbooks: 1. Fact-checking; 2. Ethical decision-making; 3. Regulation; 4: Reflective ethical practice, Chartered Institute of Public Relations (members’ area)