Unprecedented year calls for unprecedented focus on PRSA Code of EthicsĀ 

Unprecedented year calls for unprecedented focus on PRSA Code of Ethics 

By Kathy Krafka Harkema, APR, Delegate, Ethics 


Unprecedented. That word describes so much of 2020. Unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Unprecedented closures of schools and other public or private facilities and businesses. Unprecedented levels of people voting early or by mail in a contentious presidential election year. 

Unfortunately, unprecedented also describes what we have witnessed in terms of ethics. Whether you’re looking at the “throttling” or alleged censorship of social media posts, the alleged bias in media reports, or the statements coming from public figures, 2020 has been an unprecedented year. 

The fact is, we are living through unprecedented times in our lives. If only more public figures and those in social and news media ranks and the public lived by the same code of ethics we do as public relations professionals, perhaps the world would be a more respectful place. 

For example, it starts with telling the truth. Communicating clearly, honestly, and truthfully is paramount to maintaining credibility, no matter who you are, where you live or what you do. Being honest and truthful are essential fundamentals in our work as public relations professionals representing ourselves, our business or our clients. 

How many times have you seen or heard someone deny doing something, only to see or hear a different story as video or audio clips or photos tell a completely different story? Or what’s the net impression as a person says one thing, while their body language clearly conveys a conflict with what they are saying? What kind of message does that send? And what does it say about the messenger?  

Saying one thing yet doing another undermines an individual’s credibility, their message and public trust. In today’s electronic world, telling the truth consistently never goes out of style. It’s the right thing to do. It’s what we’ve agreed to do as members of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Being dishonest, deceptive or untruthful simply doesn’t cut it. 

If only others would ask themselves the questions we as public relations professionals are encouraged to consider before we act: 

  1. Am I going to violate any laws? 
  2. Am I going to violate any core ethical values such as honesty, fairness and civility? 
  3. Do I have all the facts I need? 
  4. Could I live in a world where everybody did what I am about to do? 
  5. How would I feel if what I am about to do was on the first page of tomorrow’s paper? 
  6. How would I feel if someone did to me what I am about to do to others? 
  7. What would my mother say or think? 
  8. Am I already thinking about a justification or an excuse for what I am about to do? 

While we can only influence the actions of others, we can control our own conduct and communication. So, focus on what you can do and lead by example when it comes to communicating ethically. 

PRSA encourages you to look and listen for clues that might signal a potential ethical violation. For example, if you hear phrases like these, take a different approach to avoid being pressured into taking unethical action: 

  1. “Do what it takes.” 
  2. “Everybody does it.” 
  3. “Nobody will ever know.” 
  4. It’s OK because it’s legal.” 
  5. There is no other way, you have no other choice.” 
  6. “Just follow the orders.” 

If you hear or experience phrases like these, trust your instincts and your PRSA ethical training. You do have a choice. You can speak up and voice your concerns. You don’t have to do something only because you’re told everyone else is doing it. Don’t be pressured into taking action you believe to be unethical.

And just because something may technically be legal, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Get the facts. Ask questions. Consult credible sources, preferably directly, to draw your own conclusions. Take the time you need to consider the facts and possible options before taking responsible actions. 

As public relations professionals, we provide objective counsel to those we represent, and we are accountable for our own actions. 

A quote by British novelist C.S. Lewis says, “Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody is watching.”  

That’s a lot like our approach to living out the PRSA Code of Ethics every day. Familiarize yourself with our industry’s Code of Ethics. Then commit to living it out through your own actions. Even if no one is watching. 

To learn more, see PRSA’s Ethics Handbook here.  

While officially, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) upholds the PRSA Code of Ethics, it’s up to each of us as members to live it and personify it every day. 

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