What’s ethics got to do with it?
By Brigitte W. Johnson, APR, Lecturer, Georgetown School of Continuing Studies
As members of PRSA, we are bound by a set of principles and guidelines that provide our ethical framework. The PRSA Code of Ethics sets the standard for the ethical practice of public relations. Have you ever thought what we would do as public relations practitioners if we did not have this code of ethics?
I have. I think about the derogatory words sometimes used to describe our profession – flack, spinmeisters, truth-twisters – and tell myself these terms do not apply to PRSA members. I cringe at the thought of being called a spinmeister. My job is not to spin the truth but to tell the truth. Additionally, we perform our work adhering to a code of ethics. These ethics set us apart from others who may operate under the public relations umbrella.
As an adjunct professor and now as a full-time lecturer, I tell my students that many people say they do public relations, but what separates us from this broader group is our membership in the world’s largest association dedicated to public relations practitioners and our ethics. But is the PRSA Code of Ethics the only element that sets us apart? I don’t think so. In addition to the PRSA Code of Ethics, what about your personal code of ethics?
Each of us should have our personal code of ethics. Our personal ethics are shaped by our belief system, our families and our interaction with others. For most of us in our profession, our personal ethical code closely aligns with PRSA’s Code of Ethics. Without question, I believe in honesty, loyalty, independence and fairness. I constantly seek to improve my skills and expertise. And through my clients and employers, I serve the greater good – the public interest – and provide a voice for viewpoints, facts and ideas.
If you remember the television show, “What Would You Do?” ask yourself what would you do if your personal and professional ethics clashed? As I reflect on my career in public relations, I once found myself in the situation where my personal ethics conflicted with the professional PRSA Code of Ethics. Although, the company operations were ethical and legal, my personal ethics code took issue with the overall industry and its commitment to the greater good. In this case, I found myself with limited choices. I tried in vain to find a place with less conflict but I was unsuccessful. In the end, I realized I just could not give all I had to offer professionally, and I found another position in an industry that was better aligned with my personal ethics.
If you encounter a situation where your personal and professional ethics conflict, you do not have to go it alone. PRSA has resources and counseling to help. Contact the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards or the PRSA-NCC Ethics Committee.
About the Author
Brigitte W. Johnson, APR, is a 21-year member of the PRSA-NCC and served as chapter president in 2011. She has 20+ years of experience in public relations, communications and marketing. Her focus is primarily nonprofits – forestry, education, youth development, affordable housing and public health. In 2016, she joined Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies as a lecturer in the public relations corporate communication track. She is a native Washingtonian who enjoys days at the beach, a hike in the woods, all things college sports, film studies, reading and collecting first edition books.