Ethics in Public Relations

Ethics deal with a choice and a decision that any individual will encounter frequently.

Ethics are a philosophy dealing with personal or societal values relating to human conduct, with respect to the acceptance or non-acceptance of certain actions.  Ethics also deal with the perception of right and wrong when it comes to a person’s motives for their actions.

The toughest part of studying ethics is to determine if the balance between conducting yourself in an ethical manner and being successful or efficient in accomplishing your short term goal. Public relations firms, as well as most businesses have to make these tough decisions on a daily basis.

The perception of ethics in the public relations industry, have garnered a poor reputation, primarily because of the prominent use of Spin used on every fact or story.  It’s difficult to imagine how the questionable perception of the PR industry will ever change because frequently, PR companies are hired to turn a negative public image into an acceptable or a positive public image. Each time a Public Relations campaign is launched, the circumstances or facts of the story will be spun in the favor of the client, even if the facts are in conflict with the public’s perception.

One ethically questionable tactic used is “Pay for Play TV”.  This is where the PR firm will pay to get their clients airtime on TV shows and news broadcasts. The firm is successful in getting the message to the public; however, the story itself may not be significant enough to get airtime on news broadcasts.  Media outlets also practice the balance of ethics with “Pay for Play”.   Many TV and Radio stations will take money to broadcast a message in a timeslot where they clearly begin and end the broadcast disclosing that the message is a paid announcement.  The disclosure allows the viewer/listener to make an informed decision on the message.  This prevents the TV/radio station from any appearance of taking money to make something a news story.

The importance of ethics has been questioned often; Shannon A. Bowen, Associate Professor of Journalism, University of South Carolina said; “as recently as 2008 a Dean at the University of Maryland (where she received her PhD) said that there was no need for an ethics course because no one cares about learning ethics”.

Recently ethics may have started gaining back some attention in the PR field.  Bowen indicated the renewed interest toward ethics in the PR field is a double-edged sword.  Stating that as a professor and advocate of ethics “it’s excellent to see the interest returning, however, the other side of the sword is why ethics were not important enough to have them included in the educational curriculum for Journalism and Public Relations.


Bowen, S. (2013, September 13). Explaining PR’s ‘newfound’ interest in ethics. PRWeek US. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from

Fawkes, J. (2012). Saints and sinners: Competing identities in public relations ethics. Public Relations Review, 38(5), 865-872. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from the Science Direct database.

Kennedy, M. (2010, August 9). Public Relations & Ethics: Why the Bad Reputation?. PR Fuel  Public Relations News  PR Tips. Retrieved February 2, 2014, from


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