5 Ethical Responsibilities for the PR Professional

1. Ethics

Ethics – everybody seems to know what this word means, but we struggle to define it. The word itself is not a verb, but we are challenged to take action when exercising ethical responsibility.  Before we try to understand any definitions, we have to realize that ethics are a challenge to human beings on a daily basis.  We all seek to fulfill our desires, but ethics makes us think twice before considering our personal interests.  Potter Stewart said, “[e]thics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do. (1)” This explanation can lead us along a series of many deep thoughts and discussions, but the main point to take away from this is that we should always strive to do what is right.  Webster’s Dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. (2)” This broad definition covers a broad array of situations.  Ethics is in our relationships, our jobs and our daily decisions.  Personally I believe ethics isn’t what we could do, it is what we should do.  As a student of public relations, ethics is in my present and future.  I often critique myself on my interactions with others, and attempt to learn from them so that I can be ethically accommodating in the future.  So, now that I’ve covered ethics, I would also like to discuss the importance of morals, conflicts of interest, principle and finally the golden rule. I believe that to understand ethical approaches in any PR profession, one must learn the importance of each of these.

 2. Morals

Morals are almost always associated with or included in the definition with ethics.  In order for us to make an ethical decision, we usually think about our morals before making a decision about what to say or do.  Some consider ethics to be the quality of our decisions based on our actions, and while this isn’t always a sure way of judging ethics, it seems to be the most exercised approach. As a student studying public relations, I consider this approach every time I am trying to communicate effectively.  Professionals in any field look for qualified individuals to represent a certain aspect of their organization, and sometimes all they have time to observe is the things we say and do.  We are all capable of conforming to a set of norms established by a specific society, and choosing the right thing to do is the moral approach.  Morality also deals with understanding the different intentions and decisions of many groups of people, sometimes vastly different.  Sometimes you can’t hide the fact that your morals are different from someone else’s, but this isn’t simply an opportunity to engage in debate, this could be your opportunity to showcase your respect for another’s individuality.  Giving this kind of consideration to others can be impressive to behold, especially if this conflict of interest is about an ethical issue.  This is a great lead in to the importance of understanding conflicts of interest.

3. Conflicts of Interest

Sometimes, there is no clear right or wrong decision that can be made.  Sometimes we are presented with a situation when both sides of the argument seem to hurt someone, or both sides of the argument are wrong in one way or another.

This is one of the hardest scenarios to deal with, seeing as whatever final decisions are made on the issue, the other side of the argument may be hurt or alienated by the decision.  In volume 1 of Jack Rabin’s Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy, he says, “Some consider conflict of interest to occur only when specific conflict of interest rules or laws are broken.  Many of those laws are aimed at specific issues . . . However, in the larger sense, if an individual (or group) functioning under governmental auspices, responsible for making decisions or taking actions affecting the public, places self-interest ahead of public interest in exercising authority, then a conflict of interest exists. (3)” We frequently see these scenarios in politics.  We recently re-elected our president, and prior to the election, both presidential candidates had engaged in some of the biggest debates about ethical responsibilities and morals.  It’s important to remember that all those involved in the voting process are American, but the controversy between the two parties always ends up putting countrymen at odds with each other.  The results always satisfy the greater percentage of the people, but those who voted otherwise feel ill accommodated.  A good example of ethical responsibility is the desire to unite a nation together, regardless of differences and winners and losers.  We all stand for many of the same morals, and being a part of that army is much greater than any single man, alone at a podium.


4. Principle

            Now that I’ve added a government example, I think it’s important to now discuss principle.

Aprinciple is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption. (4)” This definition is also taken from Webster’s Dictionary, and refers to “fundamental law” first.  Both legality and ethics distinguish between right and wrong, but they have vast differences, as I’ve previously referenced with Potter Stewart’s quote. There are many early PR cases where laws were abided by, but ethics were thrown out the window.  Take for instance Edward Bernay’s brilliant approach to marketing cigarettes to women.  He called them torches of freedom, and advertised their uses for controlling food cravings and losing weight.  There was nothing even remotely illegal about any of this, but convincing more people to partake in such an unhealthy or even deadly activity cannot be considered ethical. This was back in the 1920s and one could argue that our health standards were not entirely developed, but nevertheless, it still stands today as a good example for distinguishing ethics and law.


5. The Golden Rule

            The golden rule is a rule that declares that you should “always treat others as you would like to be treated. (5)” This rule is often taught to us when we are very young, but it is a fantastic principle to try to live by.  All of us can recall times when we have been treated poorly, whether by those close to us or by someone in a human resources department somewhere.  It is experiences like these that make us realize how little we like to communicate with people that lack basic respect for others.

Most organizations today have in effect, a code of ethics, which is a statement of beliefs for employees to stand by, and an excellent way for publics to gain understanding about the beliefs of an organization.

These guidelines can help employees remember to maintain a professional and courteous relationship with customers, or serve as constant reminders of the fundamental principles of human relations.  Other guidelines might warn of things not to do, such as lie, bribe, or exploit.  “The guidelines help employees identify what their firm recognizes as acceptable business practices. (5)”

It is exciting to see how an organization can please its customers based on ethics. Whether it appeals to a person’s peace of mind, personal gain, or simply the comfort of doing business with an ethical person, it is satisfying to reap the mutual benefits of ethical public relations.

Ethical responsibilities for the public relations professional include the recognition of morals, appropriate management of conflicts of interest, an understanding of principles, and learning to embrace the golden rule. Always remember where you are, and what you had to do to get there.  There are many decisions and events in all of our lives. Some we are proud of, and some we regret. By keeping your own ethical responsibilities in mind, and by accepting the challenge of each of these responsibilities, others will recognize your effort and ability, and that is how each of us can make a difference.









  1. Stewart, Potter. “Ethics Quotes.” BrainyQuote. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/ethics.html&gt;.
  2. “Ethic.” Merriam-Webster. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2012. <www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethic>.
  3. Rabin, Jack. Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy. Volume 1 ed. 2003. 223. Print.
  4. “Principle.” Merriam-Webster. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2012 <www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/principle>.
  5. Lamb, Charles W., Joseph F. Hair, and Carl McDaniel. Essentials of Marketing. 7thth ed. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning, 2012. 79-80. Print.




Posted on November 14, 2012, in The Beresford Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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