Why Honesty and Ethics Are Crucial for Public Relations

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This paper will explore an assortment of published articles, which will report on the results found, from research that’s been conducted, on why honesty is the best policy to take in the field of public relations. These articles however will differ in their definitions and uses of ethics in public relations. This paper will survey several different researched studies in order to fully be able to display the importance of honesty in public relations. This paper will show you that it is public relations cannot be practiced without honesty to solidify and strengthen relationships with the client and the publics you represent.

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The Importance of Ethical Decisions in the Field of Public Relations

Numerous studies have been conducted on various facets of public relations, focusing on ethical ideas ranging from honesty and transparency, to integrity and how each of these actions relates to the client and their publics. Mitchell Friedman (n.d) said, “Success in public relations demands strict intellectual honesty and integrity in all aspects of one’s professional demeanor.” Friedman directly identifies the core principle of public relations, honesty and integrity. Wilcox, Cameron, Ault, and Agee (2003) said that public relations professionals have the added dilemma of making decisions that satisfy the public interest, the employer, the professional organization’s code of ethics, and their personal values. Honesty and Integrity need to be an everyday practice in the field of public relations, in order to preserve and maintain the credibility and relationship to the client and publics.

Defining Ethics

In definitions according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ethics normally have components that distinguish what is right from wrong, to help determine what society should value most. In public relations, ethics includes values such as honesty, loyalty, respect, integrity when interacting with publics (Encyclopedia citation). This definition of public relations ethics goes further than spinning messages for the client and isn’t shared by everyone in the field.

Public Relations Ethics

In current research, and public relations with unethical things such as deceiving the public and spinning a message. Many groups, such as the Center for Public Integrity, openly criticize the public relations industry for a lack of ethics. Other organizations, such as Corporate Watch, says public relations practices have a negative impact on the democratic process because they allow deceit of the public. It’s easy to understand why public relations receives a bad name when corporate crises like Enron’s 2001 accounting scandal causing lack of honest and open communication with the public (Bowen & Heath, 2005). Industry publication P.R Watch says that public relations professionals are twisting reality and protecting the powerful from scrutiny. Is this what public relations is about?

History of Ethics in Public Relations

Public relations has often presented ethical concerns, starting with the press agency which often lacked truth ( J.E Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Even Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, called the early years of public relations. “The public be damned era” (Cutlip et al., 2006). This was because the majority of the press was more interested in generating publicity at any cost. It wasn’t until John Hill came along that ethical public relations had a voice (Heath and Bowen, 2002). Issues management (Chase, 1976) began incorporating the desires of publics for more of a two way communication decision making process (Grunig and Hunt, 1984). Over the years, ethics in public relations has become more and more prevalent and accepted as the norm. The profession as a whole has gone from a tainted history to a more ethical model of communications in the more recent history.

Member of Code Ethics

The field of public relations has established a code of conduct for their member and practitioners. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), recently updated its code titled Member Code of Ethics. The Member Code of Ethics clearly presents the basis for the use of the code as a guide for ethical decisionmaking. (Wilcox et al., 2003) state that the professional values identified and described in the code include advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. In addition, PRSA says the code targets inappropriate conduct and that the organization possesses the right to forbid membership to potential members or to expel members from the organization if they have been, “…sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of the code.” (Wilcox et al. 2003) The PRSA Code of Provisions of Conduct talks about the free flow of information. The core principle of protecting advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.

Literature Review

Establishing a reputation for being honest and transparent is considered essential in the field of public relations. It is when practitioners and their clients lie and deceive their publics by withholding information that creates suspension and doubt in the publics. Leeper (1996) said that ethics must be central to public relations. The role of a public relations practitioner is to advise their clients on the effects of the decisions made to determine if their actions are not only supporting the organization but are also in the best interest of everyone the decision affects. (Leeper 1996). In order to build a trusting relationship with publics, the firm must have a trusting relationship with the client. Fitzpatrick and Gauthier (2001) say that the practitioner’s first allegiance is to his or her client who trusts the practitioner to represent the client’s interests. With that, Fitzpatrick and Gauthier (2001) suggest that it’s the responsibility of the practitioner to advise his client of the implications of the client’s decision.

A prime example of a lapse in ethical decision making hurting the client is the Enron scandal. Hundreds of former Enron workers lost their jobs and retirement funds when Enron tanked. Enron, for the longest time, told the public they did nothing wrong. But when the facts emerged about the unethical decision making of Enron, charges were brought up (Bowen & Heath 2005).

Another example of the practitioner not advising their client on the implications of a decision is the Coach Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State University. Stampler (2012) said that the Penn State cover up of the Sandusky scandal was a public relations disaster. A key reason it was a disaster; was that the university was not speaking to the media when the scandal was uncovered. Osteryoung (2014) believed Penn State was considered one of the best universities in the country until it appeared that the university had covered up the wrongdoing of the Sandusky scandal. Osteryoung (2014) said that in retrospect, he thinks Penn State would do things differently if they had an opportunity to do damage control all over again. The natural inclination to proclaim innocence and hunker down doesn’t work as effective as simply stating the truth (Osteryoung 2014).

The chain store Target faced a monumental challenge with a breach of credit card information near the holidays in 2013. A public relations nightmare was created when Target began down playing the most vital question of if the breach was fixed or not. According to (Kosner 2013) it was surprising that Target didn’t prioritize this message higher in their communication with its customers. It’s this type of misinformation that Target took a big hit from and still continues to suffer from today (Kosner 2013).

Another example can be found with Toyota withholding information to the public, but, instead of credit card data lost, lives were lost. According to Center, Jackson, Smith and Stansberry (2013), Toyota had delays in safety defect reporting which led to the deaths of four people. Woodyard (2014) said that Toyota’s crisis first came to public attention when an off-duty officer was in a crash that killed him and three passengers. A month after the incident, Toyota launched its first recall of the vehicles initially blaming the cause of the wreck on the floor mats sticking to the gas pedal (Woodyard 2014). But that didn’t end up being the cause of the accelerator problems, as Toyota found out later. Months later, Toyota found the true problem. Toyota said it found a defect that could cause accelerator pedals to stick, which caused the police officer to die (Woodyard 2014).

Smith (2013) says in Strategic Planning for Public Relations, honesty means that the source is willing to provide full and accurate information, and is operating without bias and thus is worthy of truth. General Motors is faring far better with their recent recall of ignition switches because of their quick decisive action (Woodyard 2014). After an initial recall, General Motors more than doubled the number of vehicles to 1.37 million with a new recall. General Motors also apologized, which according to the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, hasn’t happened for decades (Woodyard 2014). Healey (2014) states that the CEO and President of General Motors were aiming to do things the right way with the recalls. The President and CEO held themselves accountable and wanted to improve their processes so their customers do not experience this again (Healey 2014). Robinson-Leon (2014) says by the President and CEO coming out about the recall the seriousness of the issue was conveyed. Robinson-Leon (2014) saidthey are staking their reputation on handling this properly. By the CEO and President coming out and telling the truth and owning up to their mistake, their story is more believable and their brand is less likely to be damaged as if they would have covered something up (Robinson-Leon 2014). This is a contrast from Toyota who instead of owning up to the problem, tried to advert it and it negatively affected their organization.


One of the biggest limitations in the research reviewed is the amount of negative portrayal public relations gets in the media itself. The media often capitalizes on bad portrayals of public relations and very seldom do they illustrate when the practitioner is honest and forthcoming with information. This limitation can be called a reporter’s limitation of the facts, because what is more newsworthy, a company covering up a scandal or a company forthcoming about a scandal? All the negative references in public relations made it hard to find good solid public relations cases that presented ethical decisions. According to Henderson (1998), the articles that journalists are writing about public relations practitioners are promoting misunderstanding and animosity. Based on 100 random articles, the use of the word public relations was incorrect about 95% of the time (Henderson, 1998).

Another limitation to the studies is the fact that the PRSA code of ethics is voluntary, as is most other public relations codes. According to Wright (1993), “Voluntary ethics codes are largely ineffective because there is no enforcement mechanism and the codes are only as good as the people who subscribe to them.” Wright says that public relations will never be any more ethical than the level of basic ethical morality of the people who are in the field of public relations.

Another limitation is that public relations has a duty to uphold loyalty to the client, as well as, the publics it serves. The limitation is that public relations practitioners are often left with choosing between the client and their vision or the publics. This is where the term spin doctors or paid liars comes into play. The public relation practitioner can either be ethical and up and leave his job, his career, and hope that he can find another job before the bills pile up, or the public relations practitioner can go with the loyalty to the client and withhold a truth here and there to keep a job and their livelihood. It puts a limitation on good quality research when considering specifics of why one might act unethically. If clients couldn’t fire a public relation practitioner for upholding good ethics, it would portray the field in a better light and make a lot more practitioners abide by ethical standards in their practice.

Analyzing Research

An analysis of existing research reveals a couple recommendations to be made for public relations practitioners and employers. Public relations practitioners should not practice ethical decision making in their day-to-day lives. It is the job of the public relations practitioner to continue changing the image of public relations. It’s the duty of the practitioner to notify upper management about any and all ethical concerns that may come up. The practitioner should know and understand the values of both publics, not just the client. It is clear from studying these ethical cases that public relations practitioners must pay attention to ethics before a crisis starts. If you try to tackle an ethical issue after the crisis is over, you are already too late. It would behoove the public relations practitioners to research and understand ethical decisions they may need to address in the future, so they improve their decision making abilities accordingly. Match your values to those of your employers share so that you do not put yourself in a predicament you do not want to be a part of (Ladkin, 2006). Research has found that identifying ethical problems is one of the most challenging aspects of issues management (Bowen, 2002).


Mitchell Friedman (n.d) said, “Success in public relations demands strict intellectual honesty and integrity in all aspects of one’s professional demeanor.” Public relations’ demand for ethical thinking and decision-making is a growing trend among many practitioners and employers. The research I provided today, presents that more research, education and practice is needed for better ethical awareness and advantages. Public relation practitioners understand what it takes to build and develop a relationship with its publics. Maintaining ethical values and standards is the key to establishing trust and good relationships with employees, employers, clients, media contacts, and others (Baskin and Aronoff, 1992). It seems clear that the public may be at least partly justified in their negative perception of public relations. We can only change that image when every public relations practitioner accepts personal and professional responsibility for his or her own actions, and values integrity above all (Parsons, 2007).

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