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Public relations codes of ethics

IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators PRSA Code of Professional Standards

Because public relations has roots in journalism and many of its practitioners were once journalists, there is an unfortunate tendency to apply journalism standards to public relations. It is, however, misguided and unfair to both professions. Despite using similar skills, the two fields are fundamentally different and seek different ends. Their ethical standards are also very different. That should not be interpretted as meaning that one of them is better than or worse than the other; they're just different, and it is important to understand those differences.


PR and journalism have some similarities, but . . .

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) ethical guidelines all agree about the importance and value of such key concepts as truth, accuracy, fairness, human rights, freedom of speech, and democratic principles. But, that can be somewhat misleading.

The underlying differences between public relations and journalism are far more basic and far more critical than these similarities in what they value.

According to their own professional codes and standards, there are fundamental differences in whom they represent and whose well-being they most directly serve.

  • Journalism serves the general public, and journalists are expected to act in the public's best interests even if such actions have detrimental effects on their employers.

  • Public relations, in contrast, serves the specific organization or client who is paying the practitioner to build and manage relationships that help that organization/client achieve its goals.

  • Principled public relations practitioners and organizations such as PRSA and IABC which they have established are quick to append the caveat that even though public relations is meant to serve the needs of its clients/patrons, practitioners are simultaneously expected to refrain from any action that would have a deterimental effect on the general public.

Given this fundamental difference in orientation, it's inevitable that the specific standards which govern practitoners actions would have to be different. As stated in the lead paragraph, this doesn't mean that one set of standards is inherently better or worse than the other. Nor does it mean that one group of professionals is more or less ethical than the other. What it does mean is that practitioners should be judged by the standards of their own profession and not by those of another field.

Some actions that are very appropriate and commendably ethical for a public relations practitioner would be viewed very differently and be condemned as unethical by the SPJ if they were performed by a journalist. Conversely, some highly regarded practices in journalism would be considered inappropriate and unprofessional according to PRSA or IABC standards if they were performed by a public relations person.


Journalists primarily serve the public's right to know.

Begin your comparison of the differences in journalism and public relations ethics by reviewing the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics at the following Web site.

SPJ Code of Ethics
http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp

It outlines and explains the mainstream professional view of what are currently considered to be the acceptable norms of behavior for reporters, photographers, editors and other journalists working in the United States. But, don't jump immediately to the lists of prohibited behaviors and don't focus solely on the distinctions between what's acceptable and what's unacceptable. Start with the preamble and get a clear sense of to whom the professional journalists say they owe their primary allegiance and what they see as their over-riding purpose. Then you can go on to consider the values journalists say they espouse in more detail and in an appropriate context.

Accepting the code at face value, the needs and interests of the public always come first. They are even supposed to be placed before the needs and interests of the journalists' employers.


Public relations people primarily serve their clients' needs.

The clearest evidence of the difference between journalism and public relations' standards and values is found in the Public Relations Society of America's Code of Professional Standards which is on-line at the following link.

PRSA Code of Professional Standards
http://www.prsa.org/codeofethics.html

Wade through the introductory comments until you reach the PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values which "presents the core values of PRSA members and, more broadly, of the public relations profession," presumably in order of importance. It clearly indicates that advocacy for clients/employers is the primary purpose and value of public relations. It does, however, also noted that this advocacy should be done responsibly and in the public interest.

Other public relations related organizations' codes of ethics used to be similarly explicit, but all have undergone revision -- and, in my personal opinion, watering down -- within the past decade. They now seem less open and less willing to admit public relations' role as an advocate for its clients and to have an over-inflated -- and perhaps unrealistic -- emphasis on "the public welfare".

Consider, for instance, the following statement from the pre-1995 International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics:

    "Communicators should encourage frequent communication and messages that are honest in their content, candid, accurate and appropriate to the needs of the organization and its audiences. (emphasis added)

Now, compare that concise, direct statement to the current but much more ambiguously worded International Association of Business Communicators Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators. Although the practitioner's obligation to the client is frequently implied or alluded to in this version of the code, it isn't fully and directly admitted anywhere.

IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators
http://www.iabc.com/members/joining/code.htm


For better or worse many professional codes have been recently revised.

Why, you might ask, did so many professional organizations, including PRSA, IABC, and SPJ, change their codes of ethics during the 1990's?

In part, it was because many of the codes were old and hadn't been reviewed or revised in decades. Revisions were overdue.

In part, it was because of legal concerns that grew out of a few high-profile lawsuits that disgruntled practitioners filed against professional organizations which had publicly cited them or imposed sanctions on them for violating ethical standards. The professional organizations lost some of these cases and were held liable for damaging the individual's professional reputation. The reasons for these courtroom losses were attributed to the belief that the then-existing codes of ethics were unenforceably vague and/or lacking in due process protection for alleged violators.

And, in large part, the changes were undertaken out of concern for the profession's image and its reputation. They were, quite simply, changed for public relations purposes.



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11/21/2006