by Carmel Teasdale
[This is the eighth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of their graduate programs.]
A university professor during my second year of undergrad once related the harsh truth that “anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a public relations practitioner”. Or, as Edward Bernays put it more bluntly, “Any crook, nitwit, dope, charlatan or ignoramus can use the words public relations.”
As much as it is an annoyance from a job competition perspective, it also doesn’t help when there are no ethical standards for practicing public relations. Kathy Fitzpatrick, a professor of Public Relations at Quinnipac University and Candace Gauthier, a Media Ethics professor at University of South Carolina, in their article “Toward a Professional Theory of Public Relations Ethics” propose that the development of a professional responsibility theory of public relations could help develop a set of ethics that would lend credibility to public relations. Current accreditation procedures within the professional associations seem the most likely home for a set of ethical tenets that would advance the professionalism of public relations.
For full disclosure, I have not been a member of any accredited public relations or communications society in the 15 years that I have been a full-time public relations practitioner. And every time I put my toe in the water to determine if I should, here are the top five reasons why I don’t see how accreditation will turn my pumpkin of a career into a gilded ethical carriage that will whisk me off to super-star PR-dom:
1) If the Communicators can’t agree, how are we going to get to one solid code of ethics?
If you consider yourself a public relations practitioner, you will no doubt have considered joining one of the professional associations for public relations. These groups that include the International Association of Business Communicators (or IABC) and the national public relations societies (CPRS in Canada and PRSA in the US for example) provide professional accreditation, but also have two separate sets of codes of ethics. IABC’s focus is on three principles of communication: legal, ethical and in good taste. CPRS, on the other hand, focuses on honesty, disclosure and fairness. Although the wording differences can be subtle, what becomes the priority for communicators who are supposed to follow both codes?
2) Distinction doesn’t guarantee ethical behaviour.
What guarantees that public relations practitioners will do the same? As a small example, a group called Prowl, a student-run PR firm out of Temple University, states that an APR is “a graduate program” Which it clearly is not. If a group of students who advocate APR accreditation can potentially misrepresent what accreditation means, then what guarantee can there be in accredited professionals doing the same?
3) Accreditation is not the same as education.
Accreditation for both CPRS and IABC does not require any formal public relations education. However, according to a study conducted by Kendra Gale and Kristie Bunton, two US-based Communications professors there is a strong correlation between students who received ethics training and the likelihood that they will be aware of ethical issues and take responsibility for ethical issues. Accreditation does not teach ethics, rather requires applicants to demonstrate their public relations work and acknowledge they will follow the code of ethics. The accreditation examinations include material on ethics.
4) “What are they gonna do, take away your birthday?”
This was the response given to me by a friend when I ran afoul of the local chapter of the university debating society as a volunteer and alum. Just like organizations that require a voluntary involvement, accreditation has minimal consequences to public relations practitioners. To summarize, Prof. Lee Harvey applies the following criticism of accreditation in general:
“The certification function invariably overwhelms improvement because the process leads to the production of a public relations document that overstates the institution’s strengths and conceals its weaknesses.”
For any form of accreditation, there is a commitment on behalf of the members to follow the codes of ethics and no means of reporting and discipline other than removing their accreditation. Many bloggers talk about the value of accreditation for themselves, but not necessarily for employers. Shel Holz writes in his blog about about Ryan Holiday, a practitioner who admits he uses questionable PR practices, going on to state that as long as there are no laws broken, there is not much that can be done. Blogger David Mullen summarized “I’ve never had a potential employer ask whether or not I’ve obtained or plan to obtain my APR.” And Todd Defren goes so far as to claim that accreditation would stifle the expanding definition of public relations in his blog.
5) There is no one ethical theory ever, so why should there be just one for a PR code of ethics?
In a nutshell, the biggest challenge for one form of accreditation and one form of ethics is that the application of ethics is circumstantial at best. Arnold, Audi and Zwolinksik writing in Business Ethics Quarterly take issue with each overarching form of ethics for public relations, only to conclude that each of them do not fit. Irwin, in Hooker and Little’s book Moral Particularism reminds us that even Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics begins with a warning that to expect exactness from ethical inquiry will lead to disappointment.
The basis of ethics belongs to the philosophers and academics who had the freedom to question ethical theories and form new ones based on argument, not necessarily on reality. Just as most ethics are based on philosophical discussion, it may overstep expectations to think of one single ethical theory as a normative, or prescriptive way of working.
Don’t get me wrong, I would still like some guarantee that anyone who hangs a PR shingle has the same skill and ethics as I believe I do, with the overall goal of improving the reputation of the business. However, will a signed piece of paper and proof of past work fit the very diverse bill?
Carmel Teasdale is a full-time communications specialist with NB Power, a sometimes-lecturer of Communications at St. Thomas University, and an always aspiring academic with designs on studying communications until she gets all her questions answered or until the end of time, whichever comes first.
 Fitzpatrick, K., & Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(1), 65
 Arnold, D., Audi, R., & Zwolinksi, M. (2012). Recent work in ethical theory and its implications for business ethics. Business Ethics Quarterly, 10(4), 559-581.