Everyday professional ethics for PR – trusting discomfort

In Chapter 10 of #FuturePRoof we tackle the issue of ethics, with Johanna Fawkes asking ‘is being professional the same as being ethical?’.

Follow us on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed for updates as we release chapters 11 to 33.


You’ll learn:

        How to embed ethics in everyday practice
         The role of Codes of Conduct
       How to analyse the ethical dimensions of public relations activity

What makes a professional communicator, well, professional? What’s ethics got to do with it?

Being ethical in PR needn’t be about who you work for or how you handle major conflicts, but can be how you go about your everyday work. This section looks at ethics in practice.

Is being a professional the same as being ethical?

Public relations is seen as an emerging profession, lacking some of the features of law and medicine, for example, but similar to journalism or marketing. There are degrees in the subject, it has a body of knowledge to pass on, and professional associations to maintain standards – but only for their members. Anyone can practice but the hallmark of a professional is the commitment to social value and high ethical standards (Cooper, 2004).

As many professions fight issues of public trust in the wake of recent scandals, there is an increased emphasis on ethics (Sama and Shoaf, 2008). Professions also resist government regulation, in general, so demonstrating professional ethics is an important aspect of independence. Which means showing that your work has value to society, generally.

The social value of public relations is often presented as enhancing democratic processes through skilled communication. However, there are many critics who see only propaganda and distortion in our work, particularly in the political fields.

Discussions and protocols from the Global Alliance of Public Relations [1] and Communication Management illustrate the work being done to improve the ethical reputation of public relations in recent years. But of course we are judged on deeds not words.

Are codes any use?

Public relations’ professional bodies throughout the world have created Codes of Ethics, many of them very similar and influenced by US approaches to public relations.

They tend to stress ideal behaviours and often encourage practitioners to act as ‘ethical guardians’ for the organisation (Baker, 2008; Bowen, 2008). Critics have pointed out that most PR people lack the ethical training to play such a role (L’Etang, 2003). What’s more, many practitioners prefer to see themselves as advocates for a client rather than custodians of social values.

So, while the codes may be helpful in setting out best practice, they are often ignored or rejected as irrelevant to everyday challenges. Particularly if the work involves persuasion, as much PR practice naturally does, because the thinking behind the codes finds persuasion very tricky to address. There is some good work in the ethics of persuasion, but the codes don’t always reflect this (Porter, 2010).

Codes help in issues of professional conflicts, for example, or confidentiality, but evidence suggests that members of professional associations are very rarely disciplined for breaches – highlighting the dual obligations of such bodies to their members and to society generally.

There is a difference between the ethics set out in Codes and the kinds of minor - but significant – dilemmas which occur every day. How ‘green’ is company x, really? How transparent is group y? How many uncomfortable truths are avoided in this presentation or that CEO blog? How much is it even the job of PR to ask, let alone answer, such questions?

How can we keep an ethical awareness in busy working lives?

One problem is that ethical reflection tends to require time, and most practitioners don’t have any. We rush from deadline to deadline, and the odd sense of unease can be dismissed in the bustle of the next big thing.

Or persuade ourselves that if the code doesn’t explicitly prevent something, it must be ethical.  IF we’ve read the code. And anyway, people around don’t seem that bothered.

Experience talking to undergraduates returning from placements suggests that they are more influenced by the behaviour of those in the agency or department than by any ethics codes they were taught in class.

Some research also shows that when practitioners feel they can’t express doubts about ethical practices at work, they tend to leave or become ill. This was particularly evident when ethical dilemmas could not be discussed in the workplace (Kang, 2010).

Where can we look for answers?

In writing my thesis and book (Fawkes, 2015a) on public relations ethics, I came to the conclusion that instead of looking to codes, practitioners could develop stronger communication with their own inner responses to situations. These might lie just below consciousness, even resist examination, but it is here that valuable insights can be found. 

Of course, there may not be time in a crisis, but I suggest we all have a reflexive internal auditing system which lets us know when decisions could have been more thoughtful, consequences anticipated more clearly. A sleepless night after an event may require more attention, not less.

This calls for an ethics of being rather than doing, one which engages the body as well as the mind.

Public relations has always been a combination of science and art, research-based strategies and experience-based insights. Good practitioners have good instincts. 


In a recent paper (Fawkes, 2015), I suggested the following questions for practitioners evaluating the ethical dimensions of their work:

        Am I comfortable with this decision? If not, why not? Is it because my pride/self-image/security is threatened or do I fear harm will come from it?

        Am I prepared to raise this discomfort? If not, why not? Am I in a position of power or powerlessness? Am I abusing that position/abdicating responsibility?

         Who do I blame for ethical failures? What does this say about me?

        Is there a "safe" forum for expressing doubts? If not why not?

And if that is too hard, then somewhere in the hurly burly of everyday practice, to draw breath, check their own inner responses and have the courage to pause and ask:  Are we sure about this?


Dr Johanna Fawkes is Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia, where she runs the Doctor of Communication, among other things.  After fifteen years as a public sector communicator, from 1990-2004 Johanna devised and delivered some of the first PR degree and professional courses in the UK. She has also been Chief Examiner for CIPR Diploma, undertaken consultancy and research projects, and written extensively for text books, international journals and conferences.  Her new book, Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence, was published in 2015 by Routledge.

Twitter: @jofawkes3


[1] http://www.globalalliancepr.org/
Baker, S. (2008). The Model of The Principled Advocate and The Pathological Partisan: A Virtue Ethics Construct of Opposing Archetypes of Public Relations and Advertising Practitioners. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 23(3), 235-253. Bowen, S. A. (2008). A State of Neglect: Public Relations as ‘Corporate Conscience’ or Ethics Counsel. Journal of Public Relations Research, 20(3), 271-296. doi: 10.1080/10627260801962749 Cooper, D. E. (2004). Ethics for professionals in a multicultural world. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. Fawkes, J. (2015a) Public relations ethics and professionalism: the shadow of Excellence, New Directions in Public Relations Research series (ed. K. Moloney), London, New York: Routledge http://www.taylorandfrancis.com/books/details/9780415630382/ Fawkes, J. (2015b) A Jungian Conscience: self-awareness for PR practice, Public Relations Review: doi:10.1016/j. pubrev.2015.06.005 (online) GlobalAlliance. (n.d.). Code of Ethics.   Retrieved August 29, 2010, from www.globalalliancepr.org/uploads/docs/09_ newsletter/Code%20of%20Ethics_25092009.pdf L’Etang, J. (2003). The myth of the ‘ethical guardian’: an examination of its origins, potency and illusions. Journal of Communication Management, 8(1), 53-67. Kang, J.-A. (2010). Ethical conflict and job satisfaction of public relations practitioners. Public Relations Review, 36, 152156. Porter, L. (2010). Communicating for the good of the state: A post-symmetrical polemic on persuasion in ethical public relations. Public Relations Review, 36, 127-133. Sama, L. M., & Shoaf, V. (2008). Ethical Leadership for the Professions: Fostering a Moral Community. Journal of Business Ethics, 78, 39-46.