I have a confession: I love watching public relations play out on the TV screen. I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that Scandal’s Olivia Pope ignited my initial interest in public relations. Watching her cover up a multitude of White House crises was exciting, suspenseful and, frankly, pretty badass. However, as much as we all love the drama Scandal depicts, spinning lies to cover up client mistakes isn’t as glamorous as it looks.

I’ve come to learn that there’s quite a difference between real-life PR and PR that’s entertaining on TV. According to the Institute for Public Relations, PR has historically been associated with being unethical, with professionals being guilty of lying, spin-doctoring and espionage. While this is what we often see in the media, this perception of the industry is fairly outdated. Rather, the job of a PR professional is to provide trustworthy counsel to brands, building and maintaining an organization’s public image in a candid and accurate way.

Unfortunately, not all companies operate under this modern mindset. Some would prefer to keep scandals and crises hidden, even if that means twisting the truth or outright lying. As we prepare to enter the workforce and begin our careers, now is the perfect time to consider the importance of ethics in PR and where you place your own moral compass.

What is ethics in public relations?

Ethics in public relations refers to the moral principles governing and guiding the work of the industry’s professionals. These principles often include those outlined in PRSA’s Code of Ethics: independence, expertise, honesty, advocacy, fairness or loyalty. Ultimately, each PR practitioner creates their own code of ethics by determining the practices they value and the issues they refuse to compromise on.

Why is ethics in PR important?

You may be asking: if so many companies still don’t value ethics, why is it important to consider in public relations? Ethics in PR is important because maintaining honesty is the key to success in the public relations industry. The public appreciates companies that are transparent and honest; it builds trust and brand loyalty. Ethical PR practices are not only effective in the short-term, but they help protect an organization’s public image in the long-term as well. Making responsible PR decisions now saves a brand from crises and scandals later. This mindset helps preserve client and employer relationships, as a successful brand makes for a happy client.

How can I personally be ethical in PR?

With a newfound understanding of ethics in PR, it’s important to consider how we can develop our own code of ethics and implement those ideas in the workplace. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started:

  • Ask: What do I stand for? Begin by considering your personal values and affiliations. Think about what matters to you — is it preserving the environment? Freedom of speech? Equitable health care? Once you nail down a few passion areas, you’ll start to get a better idea of where your ethical boundaries lie.
  • Look: Where do I see ethics in my workplace? Take a look at your current place of work and note how they’re exercising professional ethics, comparing their practices with your own values. This may not just be within public relations; it can be how employees are treated, which clients the company partners with or how conflicts are handled.
  • Advocate: What can I do to make ethics a priority in my work? Once you have your code of ethics set, it’s important to maintain your boundaries. Start by making a habit of considering your ethical code every time you take on a project or interact with a client. After doing this, you’ll easily be able to determine what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and can use your code of ethics as a means to say no when you need to.

Learning and adopting new practices is difficult, so be sure to show yourself grace as you work through your code of ethics. As you begin to make ethical public relations a priority in your work, you’ll grow into a more educated, dependable and well-rounded PR professional.

About the Author:

Rebekah is a senior at GVSU majoring in advertising and public relations and minoring in writing. She is the VP of Public Relations for GVSU’s PRSSA chapter and serves as an Account Executive for GrandPR. She works as a Student Coordinator for Piper & Gold Public Relations. In her free time, she enjoys reading, being outdoors, or spending time with friends and family.