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Ethics And Public Relations

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Autor:  anton  09 December 2010
Tags:  Ethics,  Public,  Relations
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PR 350: International Public Relations

Academic Essay

Table of Contents

 Question 3

1. Introduction 4

2. Definition of Ethics 5

3. Should ethical behaviour differ from country to country? 8

4. How can public relations practitioners an international

company’s ethical behaviour? 11

5. Conclusion 13

6. References 14


Ethics and public relations – some might say it is an oxymoron. What is your definition of ethics? Should ethical behaviour differ from country to country? How can public relations practitioners influence an international company’s ethical behaviour? Discuss using international examples.

1. Introduction

In today’s fast moving business world; where mergers, friendly and hostile takeovers, bankruptcy, and corporate scandals reign supreme; a company’s image and reputation are perhaps two of the most important assets a firm may possess. Creating “just the right image” in the public’s eye is essential for the survival of any organization and why many organisations today either hire a public relations agency or have their own public relations department.

Unfortunately, for many public relations practitioners, this means using whatever means possible; including foregoing all ethical virtues, in order to create that “right image” for their client and for their organisation. It is because of the dubious practices by these practitioners that led journalists to call public relations practitioners “PR flakkers”, a derisive term given by journalists to PR people for putting forth slanted, self-serving information, which does not tell the whole story most of the time (Vivian, 1999, p.309).

Therefore, this academic essay aims to discuss whether ethics and PR can work hand-in-hand even though it may be considered an oxymoron relationship, whether ethical behaviour should be different from country to country and how public relations practitioners can use ethics to help influence international companies.

2. Definition of Ethics

Ethics or ethic originates from the Latin word ethice, which means “the science of morals” (Soanes, 2002, p.374). So, ethics is basically a study of moral principles but it still covers a broad range of definitions and many scholars had debated till the cows come home on how to define ethics and what ethics really entails. Robinson & Garratt (2000) could not have put it better when they stated “everyone is interested in ethics…” because “… people no longer behave as they should” (p.3). This is true if we see the recent spate of unethical behaviour that has ruined organisations and people in the world. One classic example is none other than the spectacular collapse of Enron because of mismanagement of funds in 2001. If public relations practitioners hold steadfast to their ethical principles, cases such as Enron could have been avoided.

But how is ethics defined in the first place? How can we differentiate between the right and wrong? Well, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics, ethics can be defined as “standards of conduct that indicate how one should behave based on moral duties and virtues” (Holt, 2002, 1). This basically means that we rely on our own individual judgments on what we think is morally right and what is morally wrong. Over the centuries, there have been various thinkers and philosophers creating various ethical principles and thoughts that dictate how we should act but it still depends on the individual to make that ethical decision. For example, if a public relations practitioner feel that it is ethical to tell little white lies to help his company because he thinks that it would not hurt anyone, then, that would be his ethical principle. However, the fact remains that a lie is a lie and it is wrong no matter how white or small the lie is. Codes of ethics will not stop the individual from wrong practices but it only serves as a guideline for the individual and only suggests how the individual should act ethically.

Nevertheless, Holt continues to say that the definition of ethics is actually somewhat consistent from scholar to scholar (Holt, 2002, 1). I agree with her. Mark McElreath defined ethics as a “set of criteria by which decisions are made about what is right and what is wrong” (Baskin, Aronoff & Lattimore, 1997, p.90). Baskin, Aronoff & Lattimore themselves also agree that “ethics is what is morally right or wrong in social conduct, usually as determined by standards of professions, organisations and individuals” (p.90). Therefore, ethics can be understood as morally right or wrong conduct that is determined by a set of rules.

As for my definition of ethics, I believe it is a behavioural instinct by which a person uses to make right or wrong decisions. It can be a person’s conscience, that small, still voice that speaks to a person’s heart when faced with a moral or ethical dilemma. What made us Homo sapiens unique is this gift of conscience, that we may make good, ethical decisions to sustain our well-being. Ethics is not merely a set of rules of conduct or empty words but it exists in all of us and it all depends on the individual himself/herself whether to want to use it for good or bad.

With so many different interpretations on what ethics is all about, I am not surprised that Robinson & Garratt (2000) stated that “ethics is complicated because our morality is an odd mixture of received tradition and personal opinion” (p.5). This is because there are ethical principles that have been preset with a set of ethical codes and there are also ethical principles formed by the individual based on conscience or that ‘gut feeling’. Vivian believes in the latter, stating that “ethics is an individual matter that relates closely to conscience” (Vivian, 1999, p.500). He further argues that no two individuals will have the same moral framework because conscience is unique to each individual (Vivian, 1999, p.500). Once again, ethics can only be defined by the individual as it is a personal matter, a matter of the person’s heart, mind and soul.

Before I conclude this section, note that I made no reference of ethics and law together even though some people have conclusions that both are the same subject matter. However, Baskin, Aronoff & Lattimore would like to beg to differ. They said that “…the public relations professional must understand the difference…many unethical claims and promotions have been structured to stay within legal limits, even though their intent was to trick and deceive” (Baskin et al, 1997, p.98). I believe that law governs the conduct of a person but it is ethics that determines the person’s conduct.

I will conclude this section by stating that ethics, no matter how one defines it, will always be an important imperative to the practice of public relations. Each public relations practitioner has a duty to make sure that they maintain a high standard of ethical behaviour in their profession.

3. Should ethical behaviour differ from country to country?

There is no correct answer to this question. Cultural practices, traditions, beliefs and religion may differ from country to country, such as consuming alcohol may be okay in the West, but it is an unacceptable practice in most Islamic countries, particularly Middle East countries. Even if there are cultural differences, the ethical conduct of the individual will still be bound by a common standard code of ethics. By using a set code of ethics as a guideline to help public relations practitioners make ethical decisions, the practitioners will be able to perform better within the set rules and at the same time, striving hard to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct. Therefore, I believe that it would be better to have a universal standard code of ethics by which all public relations practitioners from all countries must adhere to.

Using the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) comprehensive Member’s Code of Ethics 2000 as the model example, I will make comparisons between the code with codes of ethics from three other countries – Australia, India and Malaysia. These four sets of codes can be referred to in the Appendix section of this document.

The PRSA’s code of ethics has to be one of the most detailed codes of ethics of the five countries. Under the introduction of the code, PRSA clearly states that “ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member” (p.5). However, Australia and Malaysia’s codes of ethics did not make clear mention that ethical practice is the most important obligation to its members. Even though it is understood that the codes espouses good conduct, it would be much more clearer to all if the codes stated from the beginning that ethics, ethics and ethics is important. Only in Article 12 of Public Relations Society of India’s (PRSI) code of ethics made mention of ethics, and that is “…shall refrain from taking part in any venture or undertaking which is unethical or dishonest or capable of impairing human dignity and integrity.

The PRSA also stresses on the importance of the code’s core values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness (pp.6-7). Under each principle, PRSA listed down what each member should ideally do, such as for honesty, members are instructed to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public (p.6). This is where similarities between the PRSA code and the codes from Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), PRSI and Institute of Public Relations Malaysia (IPRM). While PRIA, PRSI and IPRM’s codes are just a list of do’s and don’ts, PRSA’s code took a step further by providing a deeper understanding of the code by also providing code of provisions.

The PRSA identified six provisions and under each provision, details such as the core principles, intent, guidelines and example of improper conduct under this provision are provided to give the practitioner a clearer idea of what is expected of them. The provisions PRSA identified are free flow of information, competition, disclosure of information, safeguarding confidences, conflicts of interest and enhancing the profession. Although it is good to have all these information to help the practitioner in making ethical decisions, know that the code is not strictly enforced and this means that it depends on whether the practitioner wants to follow or not. Still, PRSA has done an exemplary job in putting together a detailed and comprehensive code of ethics, which, in my opinion, should be taken as a foundation for all other code of ethics in public relations, even if the code is open to different interpretations.

So, should ethics differ from country to country? In the cultural sense, then, yes, ethics should differ from country to country. It is not right to force or to impose cultural ethics from another country upon another different culture. However, from the public relations point of view, I would say no, ethics should not differ from country to country and it would be better if there is a proper standard code of ethics to follow.

4. How can public relations practitioners an international company’s ethical behaviour?

Before we discuss about how public relations practitioners can influence an international company, allow me to highlight the five moral obligations which a public relations practitioner must always know and remember. These five points were listed by Thomas Bivins (Baskin & et. al, 1997, p.92). First, we must know that we have a duty unto ourselves, and that is to preserve our own integrity. Without integrity, our reputation will be very much jeopardised. Secondly, we have a moral duty to our clients and we must honour whatever contracts we have with our clients. Since our clients employed our services, then, it is only right that we must use our professional expertise on our clients’ behalf. Thirdly is our moral duty to our organisation or employer. This means we must work to achieve our organisation’s corporate vision or mission and adhering to the organisation’s goals and policies. Fourth, we also have a moral duty to our profession as well as our professional colleagues. We must uphold the good name and reputation of our profession as well as those of our fellow public relations practitioners. Finally, the fifth, we have a moral duty to our society and that means we have to consider society’s needs, claims and well-being.

However, Baskins, Aronoff and Lattimore went on to say that:

“When obligations to some of Bivin’s five major stakeholders collide over an ethical issue, the practitioner must decide whose claim is most important or entails the least harm to the fewest people. Thus, when the employer’s policies are different from those of the profession or the dictates of individual conscience, which should take precedence” (Baskin, Aronoff & Lattimore, 1997, p.92)

Thus, the reason ethical dilemmas exist is because the practitioner does not know what to do or whose instructions to follow. Ultimately, the practitioner would have no choice but to go with the one that cause the least damage or harm, even if it is the wrong decision.

Baskin, Aronoff and Lattimore also provided some practical tips to help public relations practitioners in the ethical decision making process (p.93). They advised us not to accept a client or job with an organisation or person whose character or conduct does not live up to our personal ethical standards. We must also strive to be honest at all times, especially when we deal with the media. Baskin, Aronoff and Lattimore also advised us against handling competing clients and we should not make unfair comments or judgments against our competitors. We are also reminded to keep public interest in mind as well as our responsibility to represent the various stakeholder groups to the management. All confidences must also be respected by the practitioner. We must also make sure that all our financial activities are “above board” or else risk another Enron-like crisis. Finally, Baskin, Aronoff and Lattimore reminds us to always refer back to organisational codes such as PRSA’s code of ethics to help in our ethical decisions but told us to build our own standards on top of the codes.

With the PRSA code of ethics and the above helpful tips, we shall proceed to three different case studies and examine how a public relations practitioner can influence a company’s ethical behaviour. The three case studies are the salmonella outbreak in Australia in 1999, the Body Shop case study in 1994 and the Belgian dioxin crisis in 1999.

The salmonella outbreak in Australia occurred in March 1999 when

5. Conclusion

Overall, it is not entirely impossible for ethics and public relations to co-exist together in harmony. It all boils down to the public relations practitioner’s individual ethics and beliefs. Even if there were a basic foundation to the code of ethics, the code would be useless if the practitioner has foregone his or her own individual ethical beliefs. The case studies that we explored above testify to how important ethics can be in determining the success or ruin of a company. The future for public relations and for many companies would be much brighter if there were more public relations practitioners who maintain a high standard of ethical behaviour in the process of creating the “right image” for their clients and companies. Therefore, in closing, the notion that ethics and public relations is an oxymoron – that it contradicts one another – is baseless.

6. References

Baskin, O., Aronoff, C. & Lattimore, D. (1997). Public relations: the profession and the practice. (4th ed.). Chicago: Brown & Benchmark.

Guth, D. & Marsh, C. (2000). Case study 6.1: Inside the Body shop. In D. Guth & C. Marsh, Public relations: a value driven approach. (pp.184-186). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Harrison, K. (2001). Crisis communication response to salmonella outbreak. In K. Harrison, Strategic public relations – a practical guide to success. (pp.428-430). Western Australia: Vineyard Publishing Pty. Ltd.

Holt, A. (2002). Public relations ethics. Retrieved, October 28, 2003, from

Lok, C. & Powell, D. (2000). The Belgian dioxin crisis of the summer of 1999: a case study in crisis communications and management. [Online]. Retrieved, March 8, 2001 from

Public Relations Institute of Australia. PRIA code of ethics. [Online]. (n.d.) Retrieved, October 28 from

Public Relations Society of America. Member code of ethics 2000. [Online]. (2000). Retrieved, October 28, 2003 from

Public Relations Society of India. Code of ethics. [Online]. (n.d.) Retrieved, October 28, 2003 from

Robinson, D. & Garratt, C. (2000). Introducing: ethics. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.

Soanes, C. (Ed.). (2002). Compact Oxford English dictionary. UK: Oxford University Press.

Vivian, J. (1999). The media of mass communication. (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Institute of Public Relations Malaysia. Code of conduct. [Online]. (n.d.) Retrieved, October 28, 2003 from

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