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Guest Post: The Importance of Ethics to the PR Industry

September is PR Ethics Month at the PRSA (and in Colorado) and the organization has a number of events planned, including a tweet chat on the topic happening now. (A Slideshare of that chat is available here.)

In today’s guest post, Dr. Deborah Silverman, chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and an associate professor and associate chair of the Buffalo State College communication department, says that while there have been notable ethical lapses in PR, it’s an area of recognized and growing importance to the industry.

Click through to read more. And take to the comments to share your thoughts on the importance of PR ethics and how the industry can prevent and/or correct ethical missteps.

Time to Set Record Straight on PR’s Ethical Backbone by Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR

For PR professionals, 2011 has been an up-and-down year in terms of ethics.

A quick glimpse at recent headlines would give the casual reader the impression that all is wrong in the world of PR ethics: The News of the World phone-hacking scandal; American PR firms providing image counsel to dictators; and PR firms writing fake online product reviews on behalf of clients.

While it may seem that each week brings a new tale of an epic ethics flap in PR, reality is not as gloomy as perception. The fact remains, however, that public relations practitioners have long battled an image problem: that we, collectively, are unethical — no better than snake-oil salespeople.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout my career, dating back to the mid-70s, I have had the pleasure of working alongside colleagues who adhered to the highest ethical standards. I’m sure that my experiences are shared by many others.

Thankfully, there is a growing body of research on PR ethics issues by communication scholars that underscores the importance of ethical conduct to public relations practitioners. In reviewing a number of these studies, both in my role with the PRSA and as a PR professor of ethics, I’ve seen a growing stack of articles and scholarly wisdom show that, yes, PR professionals are becoming more ethical and are more concerned with ethics-related issues than ever before.

The profession is filled with journals and initiatives focused on ethics issues. We have the PRSA’s Public Relations Journal and the Institute for Public Relations’ “Ethics and PR” studies, not to mention the Edelman Trust Barometer, which offers one of the best indicators of business’ and governments’ reputation and credibility among the public.

Despite all this focus, PR continues to face perception issues about its ethical credentials. But the research simply doesn’t support the public and media’s hypothesis.

A recent study by Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman, of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the University of Texas-Austin School of Journalism, respectively, in the Journal of Public Relations Research found public relations professionals to be among the most ethical groups of business professionals ever subjected to a standardized test of moral development. Using the renowned “Defining Issues Test” (DIT) test, which has been administered to more than 30,000 professionals in various walks of life, Wilkins and Coleman found that PR professionals ranked seventh-highest in ethical and moral development among relevant professionals, behind only medical students, physicians, journalists, dental students, and nurses.

The study’s authors believe that several factors could account for the high scores, including education, experience, and the fact that maintaining trust and honesty with key publics is vitally important in public relations. Surveys of public relations professionals also underscore the importance of ethical standards in their lives. For example, PRSA members continue to rank the Society’s Code of Ethics, which have provided guidance on professional values and standards for more than 60 years, as the No. 1 value of their membership.

In my own experience, I’ve noticed that seasoned professionals, whose ethical standards are tested every day on the job, respond enthusiastically to role-playing and discussions. Even more revealing, I’ve observed how eagerly young professionals embrace ethics topics, especially small-group discussions of real-life ethics scenarios. Their reactions give me great optimism and hope for the future of public relations ethics.

As public relations professionals, let’s take on one more PR campaign: an educational campaign to dispel the inaccurate notion that we, collectively, are unethical. It’s time to set the record straight.

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