Ethics in Public Relations

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Ethics in Public Relations

by Patricia J. Parsons

Kogan Page © 2004, 187 pages, $35.00 (ISBN 0-7494-4276-X).

Ethical Theories for Everyday PR Issues

“Public relations ethics” does not have to be an oxymoron, according to Patricia J. Parsons, associate professor at MountSaint VincentUniversity in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She explains that she wrote Ethics in Public Relations to help public relations practitioners realize when they are faced with ethical dilemmas, and think through their actions and the consequences. In a textbook that shuns conventional academic prose in favor of more conversational language, she offers a framework for understanding the most important ethical issues involved in public relations and corporate communications. By helping readers “develop an attitude that supports the concept that ethics is key to professionalism and credibility in the field” and providing guidance to everyday ethical decision-making, Parsons builds a firm foundation on which real soul-searching can take place.

Although she points out that there will always be a question about whether ethics can be learned, Parsons presents the issues and situations that provide much food for thought about ethical behavior. By describing scenarios where honesty, truth and rights are called into play, she examines many of the underlying considerations and principles that guide ethical thinking.

Few Clear-Cut Solutions

Parsons explains that public relations ethics can be defined as “the application of knowledge, understanding and reasoning to questions of right or wrong behavior in the professional practice of public relations.” In the first part of her book, she points out that there are few clear-cut solutions to ethical dilemmas, but it is the professional PR practitioner’s responsibility to determine where the line between right and wrong should be drawn.

After describing professionalism and how it sets individuals apart from their peers, Parsons offers readers a brief test to get them to understand their own level of professionalism. Once readers know whether they truly demonstrate professionalism or need professionalism intervention, she explains that professionalism is the key to personal ethics.

Next, she unravels the tangled web of truth and how the public perceives PR professionals and the messages they convey. She writes that the five pillars of ethical decision-making in public relations are:

• Veracity (to tell the truth)

• Non-maleficence (to do no harm)

• Beneficence (to do good)

• Confidentiality (to respect privacy)

• Fairness (to be fair and socially responsible)

Parsons explains that these fundamental pillars provide PR practitioners with “a first pass at analyzing a situation to determine its ethical implications before moving on to the more difficult part of ethics: actually taking action that we can live with.”


The second part of Ethics in Public Relations focuses on how our own sense of morality has developed and how we use that morality in situations that impact us. Parsons writes that PR practitioners must look deeply into themselves and construct a code of ethics to guide their own personal decision-making. She advises, “Type it out neatly and have it laminated. Hang it on your wall in your office and look at it every time you’re faced with a dilemma.” The ethics involved in whistleblowing, moonlighting and conflicts of interest are also addressed with many descriptive and thoughtful scenarios.

The third part of Ethics in Public Relations describes some of the strategies and tactics that are used by PR practitioners today. These apply to the daily communications strategies involved in developing complex promotional plans, dealing with the media, and even putting together employee Web sites or newsletters. Parsons explains that even simple decisions and actions have a moral component. To help PR practitioners improve the ethics of their media relationships, she offers details about these pillars of ethical media relations: honesty and accuracy, judiciousness, responsiveness and respect.

She also presents steps that can be taken to help PR messages avoid the label of propaganda, including: Avoid false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted or irrelevant evidence to support your point of view.

Parsons concludes her book by offering a broader perspective of the role public relations plays in the ethics of organizations, and the future of the PR field. ~

Why We Like ThIs Book

Ethics in Public Relations presents many relevant examples and exercises for PR professionals to consider when making daily decisions in their work. By teaching the basics of the ethics involved in the day-to-day activities of public relations, Parsons helps readers identify moral impasses while guiding them through the difficult terrain of social responsibility to professional and ethical conduct. ~

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