Ethics in PR

One of the biggest challenges practitioners face in the Public Relations (PR) field is ethical communication. In order for a practitioner to work effectively in the PR industry, a full understanding of culture, religion, race and social diversity is crucial. If these factors are ignored or misunderstood then ethical issues are likely to arise. As defined by Professor Rhonda Breit, ethics involves ‘a process of decision making aimed at making the right choices’ (Breit 2007, p.308). The importance of being a well-grounded public communicator whilst following the process of ethics is vital as a ‘responsibility not only to yourself as a person, but to your profession and the wider community’ (Breit 2007, p.308). Contemporary research supports a historical trend of PR relating to all things unethical. Many critics argue that PR cannot be ethical, as the practice itself is ‘akin to manipulation and propaganda’ (Bowen 2007, p.1). Today’s ‘dominant political and economic society’ (Singer 1993, p.17) is modelled around the concept of self-interest and as a result we are rarely able, ‘either collectively or as individuals’ (Singer 1993, p.17) to reflect on whether our decisions truly benefit the lives of everyone. Therefore, to remedy a past of twentieth century PR operating with minimal understanding of ethics, active decision-making, reflection and encouragement of human development must be implemented.

Ethical decision-making plays an implicit part in the functioning of companies and organisations in a professional practice. It has been argued that many business organisations operate primarily for their own benefit, often to the detriment of society. In the twentieth century, ‘one of the Public Relation industry’s first major clients was the tobacco industry’ (Stauber & Rampton 1995, p.25). Tobacco companies employed PR’s marketing skills to promote their product to all levels of society, including women and children. Indeed, the pioneering techniques developed to promote Tobacco remain as the ‘industry’s stock in trade’ (Stauber & Rampton 1995, p.25), even today. Today we know that tobacco causes harm. However, in the twentieth century this awareness may not have been so clear. If PR practitioners working for Tobacco knew what harm their product caused, then they undoubtedly broke ethical codes of professional standards. Edward Bernays, world-renowned PR practitioner, most famous for designing the ‘Torches of Liberty’ parade that promoted smoking as socially acceptable for all American women by engaging with their sense of patriotism, elegance and overall appeal. Bernays later stated that ‘No reputable public relations organisation would today accept a cigarette account, since their cancer-causing effects have been proven’ (cited in Stauber & Rampton 1995, p.32). This statement highlights issues of PR operating with a very thin understanding of ethics in the twentieth century, also raising questions of whether a subjective interpretation of what is good for the company, is also good for everyone else.

Ethical decision-making is of a high priority in PR as the potential for error is major, and ‘wrong’ decisions have the possibility of affecting many people. However, there are select ethical approaches that can be used to positively influence the communication process. Ethicist Clifford G Christians examines the interrelationship between communication, rationality and morality. Christians argues that in order for society to function with ethical certainty, language and communication practice must be fixed with a significant code of integrity. In line with the theories of Singer and operating with self-interest – Christians asserts that ‘codes of ethics’ are limited by narrow fields of vision. Christians and Traber identify a framework of three principles that should be respected to ensure ethical communication, the focus of these being ‘human dignity, truth telling and non-violence’. Christian’s theories can be applied to the restoration of ethics in PR – where success should be measured not only under economically profitable terms, but also for a greater contribution to the wider social goals of equality and citizenship.

According to Thompson and Thompson, who discuss the value of working under a critically reflective practice (CRP), ‘an unclear value base that may at times run counter to our professional aims’ is created by a ‘mindless following of procedures, simply copying what others do’ (Thompson & Thompson 2008, pp.ix-x). Highlighted earlier in the ‘Smoker’s Hacks’ Tobacco case, society has experienced ongoing incidents of influence and control by PR practitioners. In an effort to amend this, Thompson and Thompson promotes exercising behaviour that is ‘aware of moral-political factors that are ever present’ (Thompson & Thompson 2008, p.32) in the PR industry. ‘The challenge for mass media is not just political insight in the news and aesthetic power in entertainment but moral discernment (Christians & Trauber 1997, p.15) thus, implementing CRP as an approach that encourages personal and occupational ethics alongside quality, greatly benefits ethics in PR.

Breit’s theories are actively concerned with finding an ethical practice through which organisations can publically communicate. Breit argues there are three influential theories of ethics under the headings of ‘deontological, teleological and virtue’. Deontological theories discuss the responsibility an individual has in a professional setting during the decision-making process. ‘This theory of ethics focuses on our ‘duties’ and obligations to society and the notion of justice’ (Breit 2007, pp.213-313). It is key in this theory to understand and uphold rights such as freedom of speech, privacy, or remaining truthful and independent. Telelogical (or consequentialist) theories focus on the ‘outcome of an action, in other words that the ends justify the means’ (Breit 2007, p.314). Simply, that an action can be judged as good if overall it has brought the greatest happiness. What is vital in relation to this particular theory is to avoid a self-serving analysis, to remain objective and to be aware of cultural, political and social contexts. According to Breit, ‘Virtue-orientated ethics are concerned more with developing good character traits than acting in accordance with moral rules’ (Breit 2007, p316). The virtue theory relies on two vital categories – moral character and intellect. Breit debates the importance and process of knowing ‘right’ from ‘wrong’, within the ‘four cardinal virtues, courage, justice, temperance and prudence’ (Breit 2007, p.316), all approaches to ethics which positively influence the decision-making process.

The ability to practice ethical reasoning in PR is a growing demand not only in importance, but also in responsibility. However, PR ethics is worth little if PR professionals do not implement ethical analysis in their daily practice. Active contribution to inherently trustworthy and credible organisations can occur, but only under the promise of regimented ethical alliances. PR practitioners should be aware of the importance practicing high ethical values both within their own organisations and those with whom they deal. Keeping these in mind with astute analysis and commitment to resolution of ethical dilemmas, which at any level of one’s career is never too early, or too late to implement.


Breit, R 2007, Law and ethics for professional communicators, LexisNexis Butterworths, Chatswood, NSW.

Bowen, S 2007, Ethics and Public Relations, Institute for Public Relations, retrieved 6th of April 2016,

Christians, C & Traber, M (eds) 1997, Communication ethics and universal values, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

Singer, P 1993, How are we to live? Ethics in an age of self-interest, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.

Stauber, JC & Rampton S 1995, Toxic sludge is good for you: lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry, 1st ed, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME.

Thompson, S & Thompson, N 2008, ‘What is reflective practice?’, The critically reflective practitioner,Palgrave McMillan, New York.

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