The call for more education in PR ethics, as well as more action on the part of PR practitioners serving as ethical counsel to management in their organizations, has existed for years. I have had students in my PR Cases and Management course read Shanon Bowen's "A State of Neglect: Public Relations as 'Corporate Conscience' or Ethical Counsel" since it was first published in the Journal of Public Relations Research in 2008. Sadly, the article points out that many PR professionals do not seek or adopt the role of ethical advisor, even though public relations--as a profession that should seek mutual relationships between organizations and their varied publics--would be well-suited for this role.
However, some recent articles have shown that practitioners are more often seeking to offer ethical counsel as part of their role. Reams of other research get into that variables that explain why or why not a PR professional wears the mantel of organizational conscience.
But, coincidental to my class development of an ethics course this summer there has been movement among professionals--not just academics--to stress the inherent ethical role of PR professionals. This is not just that PR professionals should practice PR ethically, but as PR professionals they should step up and guide the ethics of the WHOLE organization they serve, whether in-house or on behalf of clients.
One major global effort is the Melbourne Mandate, an effort of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. Based on meetings held in Melbourne, Australia, this group of representatives of various public relations associations jointly assert that PR professionals can't simply "watch events occur and then convey messages to stakeholders." I heard a presentation about the development of the Global Alliance and this ethical push at a conference this summer in England and was impressed by the scale of the effort.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Council of Public Relations Firms launched a new initiative this summer called "Ethics as Culture." Similar to the Melbourne Mandate, the Council's efforts seeks to get professionals to move beyond a "reflex of compliance" to a more intentional effort to build a culture of integrity in organizations they represent. A new section of their website offers training guides and workbooks for individuals or entire PR firms to use.
I am happy to see these developments. Public relations as a profession gets painted with a broad brush for the ethical misdeeds often committed by those who are not PR professionals. Rather than taking blame--either deserved or not--for ethical misdeeds, it is high time that PR professionals take the initiative to ensure ethical behavior among all professions represented in the organizations we serve.