Skip to Content

College of Information and Communications

PR Prose: A revolution of ethics in public relations

Posted November 29, 2016
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, professor in the public relations sequence
Reprinted with permission from Institute for Public Relations

Sometimes the origin of an innate good is created from an unlikely source, one that is considered evil, corrupt, or even deleterious. Consider one of the most poisonous substances on earth produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum: Botulinum toxin is a neurotoxin that blocks acetylcholine transmission resulting in death by paralysis. But compare the Phoenix that rose from those ashes: According to the National Institutes of Health, this toxin is now used to manage a wide range of chronic diseases and spastic movement disorders. So it is with public relations ethics; its sordid beginnings transformed over time into a positive — an ethics revolution.

Many say that the origins of the field began with P.T. Barnum’s three-ring circus; others emphasize war, propaganda, and persuasion. The ‘dark arts’ of spin and manipulation have long been associated with public relations and are perpetuated by the main stream news media and entertainment channels. But, there are several ways that the field has evolved into something more – something better. Public relations ethics has changed dramatically throughout six decades of the IPR’s existence, and in the past 20 years that I have conducted research on the topic. The 60th anniversary of the Institute for Public Relations is an appropriate time to examine seven important changes in the state of the field. These changes are evidence of more than just the evolution of ethics in public relations, but a revolution.

First, ethics has become more prevalent in public relations, both in practice and in research. In fact, it is demanded by active stakeholders and/or by law (SOX act). Second, ethics has become relational, as the character of management becomes a critical element of building trust among publics. Third, public relations professionals are called upon by their CEOs and management to provide counsel about ethics and to resolve problematic issues.  Because the stakeholders that they communicate with must represent their values and priorities in management in order to keep management responsive to their needs. Fourth, educational requirements and professional standards are incorporating the study of ethics in public relations certification programs. Fifth, ethics now drives CSR, strategic partnership initiatives, and contributes to the strategic mission, vision, and values of organizations. Sixth, incorporating public relations ethics into strategic management has created more responsible organizations, averted crises via astute and ethical issues management, and resolved conflicts with ethical rectitude. And seventh, ethical public relations has led to heightened autonomy and responsibility in the field and the development of ethically-integrated functional areas, such as public diplomacy, CSR, and disaster communication. In other words, spin, propaganda, and manipulation were discarded long ago by consummate public relations professionals. Today we focus on effectiveness, ethical values as the core of a responsible organization, and the role of “the New CCO” (Arthur W. Page Society, in press) that is, the Chief Communication Officer as the representative ethical communicator, conscience, and counsel.

Ethics, character, responsibility, credibility, trust, transparency, and social responsibility are currently the most important topics in research and practice, since the early-1990s. It is possible that the industry-shaking false Congressional testimony authored by Hill & Knowlton for the astroturf group Citizens for a Free Kuwait offered a tipping point for valuing ethics and honesty in public relations practice. This period also saw the publication of the landmark excellence study (Grunig, 1992) and resulting recommendation to make ethics and integrity stand-alone measures of excellence in public relations (Verčič, Grunig, & Grunig, 1996), with follow-up studies that expanded ethics as a component of excellent public relations management (Bowen, 2004; 2005).

Relationship management literature built upon the numerous sources of these seminal publications, by focusing on the characteristics of relationship and what contributes to them. These traits are known as organization-public relationship variables – most of which are ethical constructs. Trust, satisfaction, commitment, control mutuality, global public relations and culture, as well other constructs have roots in ethics. Recent research has explored the idea that constructing ethical character and responsible organizational behavior is the duty of public relations before we can earn the trust of stakeholders and publics.

The ethical standards of public relations practitioners have been measured in numerous studies and have been found to be principle based (deontological), and increase with years of experience. However, many public relations professionals are not formally trained in public relations ethics, and do not have access to the CEO, as a recommended principle of excellence. Unfortunately, research has also found that ethics is under-represented in public relations texts. However, public relations ethics courses are more commonly offered as requirements (or sometimes electives) throughout the U.S. Ethics is taught in a more professional way in the U.S. versus Europe, where scholars take a more critical, deontological approach to public relations ethics.

Ethics in public relations results in consistency. It allows for organizations to be known, to meet expectations, to engage in dialogue with stakeholders, to resolve problems, and to build long-term relationships. That is a normative ethical role for public relations, similar to the use of the poison botulinum toxin for the production of good in the treatment of chronic illness.

The future predicts a more expansive role for ethics in public relations. Although there will always be insular-minded practitioners who practice persuasion, manipulation, or spin, things have changed for the better. Ethical public relations is the voice of credible organizations, and of truth by helping institutions be more responsible and responsive thereby, creating a revolution in the industry toward the intrinsic and innate good.