Potter Box

The Potter Box was created by Harvard University professor and theologian Ralph B. Potter
Ralph Potter Jr.
Jr., initially as a way to define a Christian position on the proliferation of nuclear arms (Potter, 1965). It later evolved through consideration of other ethical decision making frameworks.

The Potter Box is often used by communications professionals for managing ethical dilemmas. The Potter Box is a tool which guides the user toward a decision through the careful consideration of a number elements and steps.

Applying the Model

The Potter Box assumes four interrelated steps1 for making an ethical decision:
  1. Empirical Definition: defining the situation objectively.
  2. Identifying values: comparing and contrasting differing values.
  3. Selecting principles: defining the principles that link back to the values; consider and compare other values.
  4. Choosing loyalties to stakeholders: loyalties to whom? is anyone missing? what steps can be taken to ensure the majority of values and principles are respected? were the correct actions taken (evaluation)?

These four primary dimensions: definition, values, principles and loyalties, can serve as a useful guide for communicators as they highlight the areas where ethical dilemmas most often occur2. It is also important to note that although some researchers have defined the Potter Box as having steps, a more accurate representation might be a circle, where each action or consideration links in a backward and forward direction.

The first step in terms of defining the situation responds to the basic who, what, why, where and when questions public relations practitioners pose for any given situation. It is the objective consideration of the situation.

The second step asks the practitioner to compare and contrast differing values including those held on a personal level and/or corporate level; and those held by stakeholders and audiences. These may include honesty, right vs. wrong, prima facie duties.

The third step of the model is the consideration of fundamental ethical principles such as:

And, finally, step four asks for due diligence around the loyalties held by the organization or the individual to key stakeholders, audiences, etc. This step may also include a re-examination of the previous steps and the addition or subtraction of a value or ethical principle.

The Association of Business Communication has considered the application of the Potter Box to the fields of communications and public relations through the work of Professors Nick Backus and Claire Ferraris from the Western Oregon University (among others). At their 2004 conference, delegates were asked to consider the applicability of the Potter Box for their work in the communications fields. Additionally, other scholars have utilized the Potter Box as a means for considering complex ethical decisions within the field (see references below).

Criticisms and Limitations

Shannon Bowen considered the limitations and complexities of utilizing the Potter Box in a 2004 paper 3 . Bowen states there are three main weaknesses in the model: the box ignores the concept of intention or morally good will; the Potter Box does not advance the idea of universal moral norms (i.e. prima facie duties) because the decision-maker defines the values and principles to be considered; lastly, allowing the decision-maker to select the key stakeholders to which the organization has loyalty assumes they will choose correctly. If not, there is the risk of exclusion.


Bowen, Shannon A. (2004). Expansion of Ethics as the Tenth Generic Principle of Public Relations Excellence: A Kantian Theory and Model for Managing Ethical Issues. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16 (1), 65-92. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from http://www.informaworld.com/10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3

Marsh, Charles W. (2001). Public Relations Ethics: Contrasting Models from the Rhetorics of Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16 (2), 78-98. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from

Pauly, John J. & Hutchison, Liese L. (2005). Moral Fables of Public Relations Practice: The Tylenol and Exxon Valdez Cases. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 20 (4), 231-249. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from http://www.informaworld.com/10.1207/s15327728jmme2004_2

Potter, R. B. (1965). The structure of certain American Christian responses to the nuclear dilemma, 1958-1963. Doctoral thesis, Harvard University.