Professional Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics are statements of principles agreed to by professional organizations that are intended to guide members in moral decision making. The statements are designed to aid individuals as they navigate their daily professional lives, and to reassure the public and their clients that the profession as a whole adheres to high standards of conduct and has a system of accountability for those who do not conform.

As a general rule, any self-regulating profession that serves the public has a duty to adhere to a professional code of ethics. Occasionally the requirement to belong to the professional group and follow its code of conduct is laid out in legislation, as is the case with professionals guided by the rule of law, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, police officers, social workers and psychologists. However, other professions, such as journalism and public relations, develop codes of conduct voluntarily to engender public trust and goodwill toward their chosen field, and to encourage uniform ethical standards and professionalism within their ranks.

Ethical Codes in Public Relations


Origins of PR ethics and the Hill & Knowlton controversy

Public relations professionals have several roles. They disseminate information on behalf of their clients, provide advice about the public impact of their clients' decisions and help resolve conflicts between both parties. These roles require PR professionals to constantly balance the needs of their employers against the public's right to honest and fair dealing. As such, ethical dilemmas are part of their daily practice and professional codes of conduct can provide guidance and enhance public trust in the public relations profession. These codes invariably demand honesty, accuracy, loyalty and principles of fairness and non-competition among members, however each professional organization refines its own code according to the environment in which it operates.

Discussion about the need to enforce a code of ethics for public relations professionals intensified in the early 1990s, following revelations about questionable testimony during United States congressional hearings in the lead-up to the first Gulf War. A 15-year-old girl known only as "Nurse Nayirah" provided evidence to the Human Rights Caucus of the United States Congress in October 1990, suggesting that while volunteering as a refugee in the maternity ward of a hospital in Kuwait City, she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators and leaving them to die. The testimony was important to the George Bush administration of the time, which was urging military intervention in Kuwait where Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army had invaded and exiled the Kuwaiti government. The girl's story about "incubator babies" was widely reported and used at least a half a dozen times in presidential speeches intended to build domestic support for the assault on the Persian Gulf, which went ahead in 1991.

Following the war, human rights groups challenged and eventually discredited this critical testimony. The girl was revealed as Nayirah al-Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, in fact the daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the United States. Her testimony was connected to a group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, an organization that spent millions of dollars hiring Washington's biggest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton to win support for the Kuwaiti cause.

Public relations professionals acknowledged that the troubles surrounding Hill & Knowlton tarnished the reputation of the industry as a whole, prompting calls for PR firms and their employees to be held accountable for failing to adhere to the code of ethics prescribed by the Public Relations Society of America, the industry's largest membership group. The PRSA's code of ethics requires members to report ethical violations when they occur, and the PRSA board has the power to discipline or expel members for failing to live up to its code, however, membership in the PRSA is not a prerequisite for practicing as a PR counsel.

Professional Public Relations Groups

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is one of dozens of professional PR trade associations in countries around the world, including the Canadian Public Relations Society, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK, all of which have their own code of conduct for members. Most belong to the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management , an organization that seeks to share ideas and ethical best practices among its members.

Global Ethics Protocol on Public Relations

The Global Alliance provides sound guidance for member agencies on ethical behavior through its Global Ethics Protocol on Public Relations, written in 2002. Member societies have incorporated the principles of this protocol in their own codes of ethics.

The Global Ethics Protocol contains, among other things, a declaration that members work to enhance the reputation of the PR business by remaining objective and by accepting a duty to a broader society than the client he or she represents.

It also requires members to pledge:
  • To conduct ourselves professionally, with integrity, truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to our clients, our client publics, and to an informed society;
  • To improve our individual competence and advance the knowledge and proficiency of the profession through continuing education and research and where available, through the pursuit of professional accreditation;
  • To adhere to the principles of the Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations. (1)

The protocol also requires members to adhere to high standards of honesty, integrity, expertise and loyalty in their work.

Impact of Social Media

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK recently added an advisory note its code of conduct to include Social Media Guidelines, warning members about special issues pertaining to networking sites on the Internet. Social networking sites including blogs, facebook, twitter and youtube are widely used and trusted by many target market audiences, and allow information to be circulated globally in rapid fashion. The CIPR encourages members to maintain its standards of honesty and non-competition while using social media, and warns them about the danger of misusing intellectual property, violating disclosure agreements, the possibility of defamation and invasion of privacy.

Difficulties Enforcing a PR Code of Ethics

While PR groups do set out codes of ethics for their members, it is difficult to enforce them. Many PR professionals simply don't belong to trade groups, and neither do their employers. Membership of these groups is composed of individuals, not companies or organizations, which means companies that operate unethically from a public relations perspective are beyond reproach.



Footnotes

(1) Global Ethics Protocol on Public Relations Advocacy, http://www.globalpr.org/knowledge/ethics/protocol.asp


References

Deception on Capitol Hill, The New York Times, January 15, 1992.
When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators, Regan, Tom. Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002.
Nurse Nayira, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nurse_Nayirah
How PR sold the war in Iraq, excerpted from Toxic Sludge is Good For You, Centre for Media and Democracy. http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy10.html
Huang, Y. (2001) Should a public relations code of ethics be enforced? Journal of Business Ethics, 31(3), 259-270.