Google Search Site search Web search  
Jobs in PR
Career Guides
Toolkit: How to PR
Desk References
Media Relations
Crisis Management
Basics of PR
International PR
Professional Orgs
Wired PR
Steven R. Van Hook

Twitter @aboutpr

Facebook: AboutPR

Unlocking Ethical Public Relations
Two-way symmetrical communications for better relationships.
 Related Resources
Basics of PR
Media Relations
Jobs in PR
PR Toolkit
Lots More PR Articles

 by Dr. Dan Eller
California Polytechnic State University

Dan EllerThe Modern-era field of
public relations was
developed in the early part
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 publics”.

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 America,” 2012). 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 or implicitly”. 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 & Marsh, 2012).

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 idea”.

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.

This will 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). Strategic 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. Retrieved from
Benoit, W. L. & Benoit, P. J. (2008). Persuasive messages: The process of influence. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
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 0363-8111, 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.07.004.
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 Barbara,
and is an Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the Journalism
Department at California Polytechnic State University.

More Articles  |  Submit Your Article  |  PR Subjects

About Public Relations Homepage

Contact Us