Does PR Need a Stronger Sense of Ethics?

Last Updated Oct 27, 2008 7:11 AM EDT

At first blush, it's a no-brainer that the PR industry could use a much stronger and enforceable Code of Ethics. The industry is rife with bad practices and shoddy, over-priced work, which is why we still find ourselves on the defensive so often. This is not to say that there aren't a lot of hard-working, ethical and talented PR people, but unfortunately, it's not a big enough percentage of the industry.

This is something that the leaders of the PR industry wrestle with on a regular basis, and this week, at least, I'm one of them. I've been serving as a delegate to the Public Relations Society of America's (PRSA) international conference in Detroit, where this was a big topic at the official business portion of the conference.

For the record, PRSA has a good, if somewhat idealistic, Code of Ethics, but it applies only to PRSA members (about 22,000 of the hundreds of thousands of people making a living in this industry) and adherence is voluntary.

It appears that PRSA is going to take another run at this, and they asked the delegates to brainstorm on the topic. This is obviously a big topic, so here are a few things we mulled over:

  • Should it be enforceable? PRSA's Code of Ethics was enforceable for 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, when the enforcement provision was dropped. Why? Because of how hard it was to determine wrongdoing, and because PRSA's enforcement mechanism didn't have the force of law. Only 10 practitioners were sanctioned during that half-century.
  • Should PR people be licensed? At first glance, this seems like an interesting idea. It would certainly raise professional standards. But there are some issues: what is PR, for licensing purposes? Licensing would raise the cost of being in the business, possibly pushing out smaller players, simply because they couldn't afford licensing. Or it could create a two-tier system, like union building contractors and non-union contractors.
  • Should we have a stronger certification program? Currently, PRSA offers an "accreditation" process, and those who receive it have the initials "APR" after their names. There seemed to be a lot of support among delegate for strengthening this program. A logical step, then, would be to stress the benefits to clients of having "accredited" PR people, but again, it might lead to a two-tier system, and it might actually send the message to potential clients that while talented, accredited PR people were probably pricier than their non-accredited competitors.
As I said above, it's a no-brainer that we should work to strengthen the industry's ethical standards. So I vote a big "YES" for having our national trade association continue to work on this for the coming years and decades. It is critical to the long-term economic success of the industry.
  • Jon Greer

    Jon Greer has been analyzing media and PR for more than 25 years. He's been a journalist and a PR executive, and has been a featured speaker for many years at the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit, and served as Bulldog's Editorial Director for their PR University series of weekly how-to audio conferences.

    Jon provides PR services including media relations and freelance writing to clients including start-ups, law firms, corporations, investment banks and venture capital firms. In addition, Jon provides spokesperson training. Learn more about Jon's training programs at The Media Bridge.