Ethics in PR: Why Do We Need Them?

Why Have Professional Codes.

Societies usually have set of codes by which they model their lives after. Whether the codes were simple: “Do unto others” or complex, “Survival of the fittest,” these ethical codes have always been a way of life. In a professional world, it is just the same. Doctors, lawyers and even PR practitioners have professional codes. Each code delineates what those in the profession can and cannot do. They act as a guideline of how to practice whatever profession they are representing. In order to determine what these codes should be, the PRSA looked to, “The cumulative behavior of the individual practitioners will determine the ethical standards and perceivedcommitment to ethics of the profession.” This allows the members of the society to help shape the world of PR they work in. By having the input of the different practitioners the professional codes are not set up to be unattainable, but rather to be as practical as possible for the practitioners. The professional codes for PR practitioners outline such things as, “advocacy, loyalty, honesty,” and “maintaining highest levels of standards, integrity and respect.” The purpose of these codes is to ensure ethical practices and to bring together the community of PR practitioners. Both the PRSA and the CIPR insist their members to abide by these codes and to practice PR accordingly. Another purpose for these professional codes is to guarantee accountability.


Professional codes are about the masses just as much as they are about the individual, or who ever is the practitioner. If there were only one PR practitioner in the entire world, there would not be a need for professional codes because they could practice PR in whatever way they see fit and would have no one to answer to. Since this is not the case, accountability plays a huge role in why professional codes are necessary. With these codes in place, the practitioners know exactly what they can and cannot do, and this therefore makes the actual practicing of PR mutually beneficial for all parties involved. PR practitioners

The CIPR and the PRSA are two of the most respected and looked up to communities in the PR industry. They are not only just societies of PR practitioners, but they are societies made up a people who want to further the evolution of PR and, “to ensure public trust and confidence is gained.” Gaining public trust and confidence is not an easy task and once it is lost, it can be hard to regain that trust. By setting forth professional codes that members of the CIPR and PRSA have to abide by the PR industry is establishing standards that not only help unify the practitioners but also keep them accountable to not only themselves, but also to each other and to society as a whole.


The PRSA and the CIPR have both been established institutions for a long time and their codes have been as well. Both operate by constantly updating and changing their codes in order to be in alignment with societal norms. The codes are set up to work and in theory are great on their own, but in theexecution of them, they fall short. The PRSA and CIPR are both organizations that are funded by dues that an individual has to pay in order to become a member. This, of course, will hinder the effectiveness of these codes. While it is always considered better to be a part of a prestigious group like the PRSA and the CIPR, if one chooses not to be a member, one can still practice PR. Outside of the organizations that put forth these codes, there is no watchdog system that will ensure that the codes are being upheld. Another way these codes are virtually ineffective is the way they are regulated. Anyone can contact either one of these groups to file a complaint against a member, but how they are handled are a bit different. Both societies have many loop holes to get around getting in trouble with the society. Within the both societies, if one had a complaint brought against them and did not want to face the consequences that member could drop their membership and they would no longer have any jurisdiction over that person any more.

Other examples of the codes ineffectiveness are the ways that the organizations implement them. The essence of the PRSA code is one of inspiration, rather than punishment. In order, to find what the punishments might be for violating the codes, one must search the website thoroughly and is still unclear of the punishments. The only punishment that the PRSA states that they will enforce is, “PRSA the right to expel a member found guilty of

misconduct in a court of law.” While this is a fair rule and should be enforced, it is the only example of the PRSA enforcing punishment on those who violate the code of ethics. This will only come after a member has violated a law and found guilty in a court of law. It seems as though the PRSA will only prosecute once the law has stepped in and prosecuted first.

The CIPR operates much like the PRSA in instances of people violating the code of conduct. Punishments for people who do not adhere to the code are not listed on the website for the CIPR ( The Code does, however, address how it handles complaints, “The CIPR can investigate complaints made against only its members. If a PR practitioner is not a member, then they are not accountable. All complaints remain confidential. Announcement of a complaint outcome is at the discretion of the Professional Practices Committee.” Without having a structured way of dealing with members who do not uphold the codes and standards of the society the codes are virtually ineffective.


Philip Morris and Corporate Social Responsibility

We don't just measure out performance in terms of financial success. We also track whether owe measure up to the expectations that society has of us, as a major multinational company- and as a tobacco company.- Philip Morris International Website.
When speaking of Corporate Social Responsibility, the companies that inevitably come to mind are the tobacco companies. Philip Morris International and other tobacco companies are now looked at with great scrutiny and employ the means of public relations to practice corporate social responsibility.
In 1990, Philip Morris was ranked number 2 in the USA for most respected companies in Fortune Magazine. Just a few short years later, an image that would stay in the mind's eye of the world for years to come, 7 CEO's testified to not believing that nicotine was addictive.

This would end up being just the beginning of problems that Philip Morris was about to face, a public relations nightmare would ensue. Lawsuits, bad press, FDA investigations, you name it and it was thrown at the Philip Morris company. One would think that after that whole ordeal the company would have slowly sunk into oblivion, never to be heard from again. That, however, is not the case. How did Philip Morris come out the other end? One simple answer: CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.

Having to be fast acting, Philip Morris, entered the world of corporate social responsibility. Acting in the 'interest' of the public, Philip Morris took steps towards 'societal alignment.' Meaning they would act with the societies needs in mind and would take steps to becoming more trust-worthy in the eyes of the public. Philip Morris would begin campaigns that featured the harmful effects of smoking, offer tips on how to quit, speaking openly about their products and most importantly operating the company in a way that is corporately responsible.

Since these early steps taken to improve the public image of Philip Morris, many other steps have been made as well. Such as: engaging in conversations with those that oppose the company and its means of business, admitting to mistakes, and confess to trying to build up trust and credibility. Taking even more steps, PM devised a 'best practices' guide as a means to speak about public health and tackle the issues of reducing the risk of addictions and youth usage.

Now the question is, did it work?

In 2003, Fortune Magazine, awarded Philip Morris, the number 4 spot on its Most Admired List for its efforts in Social Responsibility.

Questions and comments are always welcome!


Pizza v. Rice

"You like pizza and I like rice. So, let me have my rice and you can have your pizza" -Filippo Ciampini and Sarah Jingsi Wang, Westminster MA PR students 2010.

The quote above was taken from a debate discussing globalization in Public Relations. While this was a popular school of thought (Think Global, Act Local), within the last 20 years, with the rise of social media and the interconnectivity of the world, this stance on globalization might soon cease to exist.

"Think Global, Act Local," is a popular movement that reinforces thoughts of considering the well-being of the global society, but acting locally within their own communities. This could be used in many different instances and makes for an interesting case for practicing public relations on a global scale.

The rise of social media, has connected people from all over the world. And we are ever increasingly becoming a more succinct global community. This will become more predominate in PR in the sectors which deal with crisis management and brand reputation. With the speed and breadth of social media networks, these sectors need to be thinking globally as this could potentially help or hurt the business, because lack of speed or negative word of mouth throughout an online community. However, on the other side of the coin, as we saw through Hofstede's studies the cultural dimensions of different countries change vastly through out the world. We cannot assume, that because social media is on the rise and people are participating in social media in record numbers, that the cultural barriers have all but broken down.

We must be able to find a balance in practicing PR on global and local scales. While cultural barriers are breaking down and participation in a global community is more common now than ever before, we, as citizens of the world have not completely broken down all cultural differences and must be able to integrate strategies that are aware of both communities.

So why not have both rice and pizza?


Cultural Dimensions

Renown sociologist and author, Geert Hofstede studies the interactions of cultures and organizations and has been able to compare these different cultural dimensions from country to country. Hofstede argues that our so-called human instinct is not actually universal at all, but it differs from country to country and culture to culture. He argues that if we have a clear understanding of these different dimensions, as he calls them, we are able to be more effective when conducting business or interactions with people from different cultures.

Hofstede has broken down his study of these culture into five different dimensions:
  • Small vs. large power distance -This dimension measures how much the less powerful members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Small vs. Large Power Distance does not measure or attempt to measure a culture's objective, "real" power distribution, but rather the way people perceive power differences.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism - This dimension measures how much members of the culture define themselves apart from their group memberships.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity - This dimension measures the value placed on traditionally male or female values (as understood in most Western cultures. Another reading of the same dimension holds that in 'Masculine' cultures, the differences between gender roles are more dramatic and less fluid than in 'Feminine' cultures.
  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance - This dimension measures how much members of a society are anxious about the unknown, and as a consequence, attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty.
  • Long vs. short term orientation - This dimension describes a society's "time horizon," or the importance attached to the future versus the past and present.
Through these five dimensions, Hofstede was able to 'quantifiably' study different cultural dimensions and can rank them accordingly. However, this process has gained negative feedback as it could be thought to promote stereotypes and generalize millions of people into a mold that they might not fit into. Hofstede publishes on his website his findings and here they are from my home country, the United States.

  • The Power Distance Dimension- The USA has a score of 40, which is surprisingly low compared to the rest of the world. The world average is 55, this indicates that there is a greater equality between social levels, families and even within government. Also indicates interaction between all levels which in turn allows for a more stable social environment.
  • The Individualism Dimension- The USA has the highest individualism index ranking in the world. With a score of 91, the USA is one of only 7 countries that has individualism as its highest ranking factor. This reveals a society of people that rely solely on ones' self and looks out only for the individual and one's family.
  • Masculinity Dimension- The second highest ranking dimension for the USA is the Masculinity dimension. Scoring a 62, when the world average is a 50, shows that the differences between gender roles is much higher in the States than anywhere else in the world. This produces a female population that is more aggressive, assertive and competitive, which means that females are moving more towards a masculine role and away from the ever there female roles.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Dimension- The USA has a ranking of 46, with the world average reading at a 64. This points to a society that has fewer rules and does not try to limit the outcomes as much as other cultures. This allows for tolerance in belief systems, ideas and individualism, as well.
  • Long Term Orientation- With the lowest ranking for the USA at a 29, this shows the societal belief in meeting obligations and apprehension for cultural traditions.
This a very interesting way of looking at American culture because while some of the findings, might not shock, I find some to be quite curious. America is either on one end of the extreme for all the of rankings. With high individualism and masculine dimension rankings, one can see this through out society. As a child I remember the "you can be anything you want to be," rhetoric being instilled in me on a daily basis. This is also the same for being pushed as a woman to never let my sex stop me from achieving what I wanted. As a product of this society, I would say that these rankings are very accurate in my individual case and living now in London has changed my cultural perspective, as England has different cultural findings as well.

Once we know the different cultural aspects of a county, it serves as sound logic that using these different dimensions to speak to the people of these countries. This would serve all us, PRs well when planning different PR strategies, whether they be on a global or national scale.

The Social Media Challenge

The era of Social Media is upon us and we no longer have the luxury to prepare for the future. We are living in the future and social media is an integral part of everyday life, which means the practice of PR will no doubt be changing with the times as well.

The term social media refers to the paradigm shift that we are currently experiencing through the rise of media content online. It also encompasses social networking sites, search engines and online news. Social Media is considered to be a paradigm shift because it is changing the way people get information and therefore will change the way we, as PRs, will be giving information. Traditional media, as we all know, is a one way communication model that simply puts information out for the consumer to have, not taking into account what that consumer wants or is looking for. The consumer in this case is considered to be a passive observer of media. Social media flips traditional media on its head by offering the consumer the chance to be active. With the help of the internet and social networks, the consumer can now search for exactly what they want and can also engage in conversations with not only, a certain company or entity, but with others wanting the same information.

Social media has not only revolutionized how people speak with each other, but will revolutionize how PR will be practiced. PR can now go directly to the audience (providing there is already an audience in place) or can build an audience through social media. Sites like facebook, youtube, twitter and myspace are visited by more than 50% of their users at least once a day. These sights could potentially over take personal email as the #1 reason for going on the web. Having said that, social media is revolutionizing public relations because this two way model of communications is now at the center of all public relations. Public relations strategies will now included social media in order to reach a wider range of the audience and ensure that all mediums are being used (i.e. traditional media and social media.)

Using all mediums, the scope of audience being reached grows exponentionally. This allows PR practitioners to speak to more people at one time, but also allows the people that are receiving this information to exchange ideas, concepts and opinions with each other. The free flowing information will change everything for PR because it breaks down the one way communication model and now all audiences have the ability to speak directly to companies.

Politics and PR

Complete governmental control of information? Retelling of truths into fabrications? Threats of an atomic war?

No, these themes are not coming from George Orwell's classic novel, 1984. Rather these themes are taken from the war documentary, War Spin. The documentary aims to expose the untruths told by certain governing bodies (mainly the US and UK) and uncover different propaganda messages that were used during this time of war and hardship for both countries. The documentary opens by showing the rescue, of Jessica Lynch, a 20 year old soldier, who had been taken as a prisoner of war. The rescue was cleverly filmed and excerpts of the film were immediately released all over the world, in turn sparking support of the war.

What the world would not be privy to, until months later, is the uncut footage of the rescue. The BBC aired War Spin, months after the rescue and further claimed the usage of War propaganda, by both the US and UK governments in order to win over public opinion and support the war which we are still involved with today. So how did these governments (mainly the US) successfully shape public opinion? They brilliantly employed Public Relations tactics..

Basic PR tactics such as, controlling the message and providing journalists with an inside scoop. In order to be successful in these two arenas, the governments set up a communications center, simply entitled Central Command or CentCom. This center, would be open to journalist from all over the world to go and get information as it was available straight from the government. The government took this opportunity to control the message they were giving to the journalist and would therefore be in complete control of the public opinion of the war. A few journalists were even given the opportunity to get an 'inside look' at the everyday operations of soldiers. This is another way the government was able to employ public relations tactics during the war. By offering journalists exclusive opportunities and showing the public what they were being privy to the government was able to control the message and this in turn turned out to be a great public relations move, because for a short while public opinion was in favor of the war.

While the issue of ethics behind the war are not what are being discussed here, it is reasonable to say that the tactics that were used by the differing governments during the time of war were used very effectively and hopefully throuhg this blog were examined more closely.