National Capital Chapter

PR Ethics: Context & Content

By Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA

Before any discussion of ethics in the public relations industry, we need to define what the term means.

Ethics, according to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, are “well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”

Obvious obligations for everyone are not to commit rape, robbery, murder, assault, slander, or fraud. As public relations practitioners, we have additional obligations related to how we act on our own or on behalf of those who pay for our services.

Personal ethics are defined by character, integrity, and values. Professional ethics are defined by such written codes as the PRSA Code of Ethics; PR Council’s Code of Ethics and Principles; Arthur Page Society’s Seven Principles; IABC’s Code of Ethics.

As the PRSA Code explains: “Each of us sets an example for each other – as well as other professionals – by our pursuit of excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism and ethical conduct.”

Examples of improper conduct under these codes include:

  • Lying by omission such as knowingly failing to release certain financial information, which gives a misleading impression of the organization’s performance.
  • Not correcting inaccurate information discovered in a website, blog, annual report, press release, or media kit.
  • Deceiving the public by employing people to pose as volunteer speakers at public hearings or participate in “grass roots” campaigns.
  • Setting up front groups and engaging in “grass roots” or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.
  • Stealing from your employer or client by stealing money, time, supplies, proprietary information, and trade secrets.
  • Discriminating on the basis of age, disability, equal pay, pregnancy, race and color, religion, and sex.

Guidelines for ensuring ethical conduct include:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of employers or clients.
  • Reveal the sponsors for promoted causes and interests.
  • Obey company rules and bylaws.
  • Disclose personal financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client organization.
  • Don’t tease, bully, sexually harass, or verbally or physically abuse a coworker or non-employee.

There are scores of ways to help make certain that public relations practitioners and their employers and clients act as ethically as possible.

A few have been summarized here, but they only scratch the surface, especially when it comes to the larger ethical behavior of for-profit, government, and nonprofit organizations as well as individual practitioners.

What do you think? Submit your suggestions and recommendations by emailing Feel free to share ideas, programs, anecdotes, case studies, book excerpts, PR news stories, and anything else you think will be helpful to other practitioners and their employers and clients.


About the Author

Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a PR executive, writer, and consultant and long-time member of PRSA NCC and PRSA-NY. He teaches PR writing and management courses at New York University, and is the founding director of the Master’s degree program in strategic public relations at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and is currently teaching a course at NYU on Communication Ethics, Law, and Regulation (CELR). Don also conducts writing workshops and works in PR agency management and M&A for Gould+Partners. He is at and @batesdon1