Dr. Dan Eller
California Polytechnic State University
Modern-era field of
public relations was
developed in the early
of the 20th Century.
The profession of public relations
was not regulated in the early days, but founders like Ivy
Ledbetter Lee sought to regulate the field. In 1906, Lee
produced his “Declaration of Principles” proclaiming the
practice of public relations extends beyond client
obligations to public responsibility.
Lee’s “Declaration of Principles” stated, “In brief, our
plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns
and public institutions, to supply the press and public of
the United States prompt and accurate information concerning
subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to
know about” (as cited in Guth and Marsh, 2012, p. 64).
This early attempt to regulate the field of public relations
was driven by an unfavorable perception and distrust of the
public relations industry. According to media scholar
Stanley Baran, “public relations professionals are
frequently equated with snake oil salespeople, hucksters,
and other willful deceivers”.
Furthermore, Baran concluded, “the term ‘public relations’
carries such a negative connotation that most independent
companies and company departments now go by the name ‘public
affairs’, ‘corporate affairs’, or ‘public communications’,
(as cited in Baker, 2002, p. 15). Without regulations and
legal restrictions overseeing the practice of public
relations, caveat emptor or let the buyer beware was what
governed the flow of communications (Lisby, 2011, p. 179).
The negative public perception of public relations created
an atmosphere where public relations practitioners found it
necessary to better define the ethical practice of public
relations. The field of public relations has grappled with
an all-inclusive definition of public relations. Finding
this definition has been difficult and by 1976, public
relations scholar Rex Harlow noted there were approximately
472 definitions of public relations.
With this in mind Harlow concludes, “public relations helps
establish and maintain mutual lines of communication,
understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an
organization and its publics. (as cited in Guth and Marsh,
2012, p. 5). Today the Public Relations Society of America
defines public relations as, “Public relations is a
strategic communications process that builds mutually
beneficial relationships between organizations and their
Although none of these definitions includes the
notion of ethics, PRSA does define ethical public relations
to include advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence,
loyalty, and fairness (“Public Relations Society of
The public relations industry is based on the principle of
persuasion. Public relations practitioners communicate to
their publics with the use of persuasive messages. According
to Beniot and Beniot (2008) persuasion is defined as, “a
process in which a source (persuader) uses a message to
achieve a goal by creating, changing, or reinforcing the
attitudes of others (the audience).
Although Ki and Kim (2009) notes, “A series of unethical
public relations practices has gradually degraded the
credibility, value, and image of the field”. PRSA provides a
code of ethics for the field of public relations. Fawkes
(2012) states, “public relations codes of ethics are largely
based on the excellence approaches to the field, explicitly
Ethically, the preferred model of communications for values
based public relations is the two-way symmetrical model of
communication where organizations negotiate with publics,
resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and
respect between the organization and its publics (Guth &
Whether one practices public relations in a public or
private setting, ethics should be the primary overarching
concern of the practitioner. According to Austin & Pinkleton
(2006), “the key to persuasion is to communicate
successfully the reasons why a target public should share
the organization’s view on an issue or should want to
participate in a behavior the organization thinks is a good
The public relations practitioner should never feel or be
pressured to be dishonest in their persuasive efforts.
Ethically, dishonesty can be expanded to include the lack of
willingness or feelings of necessity to involve stakeholders
in the public relations process.
Now is the time for the
field of public relations to be totally transparent and
anxious to participate in open two-way symmetrical
communications with their public to attract and maintained
sustainable and ethical public relations
In addition, the public relations practitioner is now in a
collaborative communication position building upon simple
two-way symmetrical communication to a practitioner
utilizing multiple sources of stakeholder input to create
and maintain long-term sustainable relationships.
allow stakeholders to gain trust with the public relations
practitioner with the goal of creating a balance of public
relations self-interest and the interests of their publics.
Ultimately, this allows the public relations practitioner to
unlock the door to create sustainable relationships and
allow for two-way symmetrical communications fostering
ethical public relations with their publics.
Austin, E. W. & Pinkleton, B. E. (2006).
public relations management: Planning and managing effective
communication programs. Taylor & Francis Group.
Baker, S. & Martinson, D.L. (2002). Out of the red-light
district: Five principles for ethically proactive public
relations. Public Relations Quarterly, 47, 3.
Benoit, W. L. & Benoit, P. J. (2008). Persuasive
messages: The process of influence. Malden, MA:
Eyun-Jung Ki, & Soo-Yeon Kim. (2010). Ethics statements of
public relations firms: What do they say? Journal of
Business Ethics, 91(2), 223-236. doi:
Johanna Fawkes, Saints and sinners: Competing identities in
public relations ethics,
Public Relations Review,
Volume 38, Issue 5, December 2012, Pages 865-872, ISSN
Guth, D. W. & Marsh, C. (2012).
Public relations: A
values-driven approach (5th ed.), Boston, MA: Pearson.
Lisby, G. (2011).
Regulating the practice of public
relations, Northport, AL: Vision Press.
Public Relations Society of America. (2012). Retrieved
September 12, 2012, from
Dr. Dan Eller
holds a Doctorate in Education from
the Gevirtz Graduate
School of Education at the University of California, Santa
and is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the
Department at California Polytechnic State University.
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