In general, a code of ethics is a set of behavioural tenets designed to provide guidance on moral matters to professional groups such as doctors, nurses, lawyers and public relations practitioners. Within the field of Public Relations, there are no standardized ethical principles followed and adopted by practitioners. Professional associations, like Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), have published their own codes of ethics. The Public Relations Society of America members, some of whom wanted no code at all, developed their code in 1952 in reaction to perceptions of misbehaviour on the part of public relations practitioners. It was the hope that a code of ethics would bring more credibility to the profession. ([1] )

As codes are developed by associations rather than by industry standard, the codes vary. Within some associations, ethical importance is placed on the practitioner's actions while in others the emphasis is placed on the actions of the organization ([2] ). CPRS and IABC both have published Codes of Ethics that emphasize practitioners’ actions and regulate practice through membership-enforced regulations. This has limited effectiveness, as membership is elective. While members can lose membership to a particular association, they still retain their ability to practice public relations as the code is difficult to enforce.


One of the reasons Public Relations has no standardized code of ethics can be attributed to the lack of standardization of the definition of public relations itself ([3] ). This leaves public relations professional organizations to not only define the structures of ethics, but the structures of the profession as well.

Two opposing positions from which Codes of Ethics can be viewed are universalism and cultural relativism ([4] ). Universalists asserts that even though we have cultural differences, we all fundamentally hold the same baseline ethical values. Cultural relativists state that as everything is culturally based including ethics, universal ethics do not exist ([5] ). Ethical standards constructed by associations appear to be attempts to guide ethical behaviour universally. However, this makes the assumption that all practitioners hold the same moral values and opinions ([6] ). In fact, the codes of ethics are being enacted in a world that interprets behaviour contextually. The universal statements in the codes of ethics are open to interpretation by members of the profession.

A good example of this can be found in the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Public Relations Society. The first four items in the CPRS Code of Ethics state ([7] ) :
  • A member shall practice public relations according to the highest professional standards. 

  • A member shall deal fairly and honestly with the communications media and the public.
  • A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information. 

  • A member shall deal fairly with past or present employers / clients, fellow practitioners and members of other professions. 
 

These items use the terms “highest professional standards”, “deal fairly and honestly”, “practice the highest standard of honesty, accuracy, integrity, and truth” and “deal fairly with”. They are presented as universal statements but each is open to interpretation. What represents highest professional standards is relative to the individual practitioner and can vary due to education, experience, etc. What is viewed as ‘fair and honest’ in one culture may be viewed as neither fair or honest in another culture. In other words, the interpretation is relative to the culture, or moral relativist ethics.

Commonalities in Codes of Ethics

In academia, plagiarism is one of the worst violations one can commit. In law, however, there is value in finding a precedent and reusing that information. For some companies, a code of ethics is a legal document. If is a legal document, company is correct in copying another’s code partially or in its entirety. It can also be a best practice to do so. ([8] )

If the company’s code of ethics less of a legal document and more of a description their corporate values and establishment of a code of behaviour for its employees, ironically, it would be unethical to copy another company’s code of ethics. A 2009 study in commonalities on codes of ethics found that more than half our sample of publicly traded companies has codes of ethics correlations, i.e. the companies’ codes of ethics had similarities or they were the same.

There may be several reasons as to why such mimicry occurs, including the need to conform to the external environment (i.e., regulation) and the role that competitive advantage plays in the process. Another reason is that small companies have fewer resources and less commercial success or political power. They would be most likely to mimic the words of larger, more successful companies. ([9] )

It is better to have a code of conduct that goes beyond the minimal legal requirement or the broad “boilerplate” codes. If the code is too broad, it risks being too generic in nature and will not speak to a specific company.

Whether there are circumstances under which companies may copy codes of ethics is up for debate. More than likely, a company is attempting to be ethical and is copying a code in order be so. Is that ethical? Perhaps, the bigger ethical issue is less related to the ethics of plagiarism and more so to the genuine efforts to increase ethical behavior.

Public Affairs Influence on Codes of Ethics

Fitzpatrick surveyed 300 corporate public affairs officers. Over half of the public affairs officers responded that they were only moderately involved in developing corporate ethics programs. A large minority said they were not at all involved in initiating, developing and updating codes of conduct. The study also found that corporate officers initiated ethics codes, rather than from public affairs executives. ([10] )

In the same survey, there was a common view that public relations professionals do not have a broad understanding of the social, political, or business problems or issues about which they counsel. This is seen as one of the reasons why they do not occupy the executive level positions at the boardroom table. Another survey of CEOs indicated that while public relations is increasingly being used as a strategic management tool, “the profession has not yet made its way into a majority of boardrooms on a par with specialties such as accounting, finance or law.” ([11] )
  1. ^
    Fitzpatrick, K. (June 01, 2002). Evolving Standards in Public Relations: A Historical Examination of PRSA's Codes of Ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 17, 2, 89-110.
  2. ^
    Bowen. S.A. (2007). Ethics in Public Relations. Retrieved October 20, 2012 http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/ethics-and-public-relations/
  3. ^
    Gaither, K., and Curtin, P. (2007), International Public Relations: Negotiating Culture, Identity, and Power. Sage Publications, California.
  4. ^
    Hyo-Sook, K. (2005). Universalism Versus Relativism in Public Relations. Journal Of Mass Media Ethics, 20(4), 333-344. doi:10.1207/s15327728jmme2004
  5. ^ Tilley, J. J. (2000). Cultural Relativism. Human Rights Quarterly, 22(2), 501-547.
  6. ^ Bowen. S.A. (2007). Ethics in Public Relations. Retrieved October 20, 2012 from http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/ethics-and-public-relations/
  7. ^
    Canadian Public Relations Society. Code of Ethics. Retrieved October 20, 2012 from http://www.cprs.ca/aboutus/code_ethic.aspx
  8. ^
    Forster, M., Loughran, T., & Mcdonald, B. (2009). Commonality in codes of ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 129-139.
  9. ^
    Forster, M., Loughran, T., & Mcdonald, B. (2009). Commonality in codes of ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 129-139.
  10. ^
    Fitzpatrick, K. R. (December 07, 1996). The Role of Public Relations in the Institutionalization of Ethics. Public Relations Review, 22, 3, 249-58.
  11. ^
    Fitzpatrick, K. R. (December 07, 1996). The Role of Public Relations in the Institutionalization of Ethics. Public Relations Review, 22, 3, 249-58.