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January 03, 2012

PRSA Previews 2012 PR Industry Ethics Issues in Op-Ed

Writing in the Dec. 29, 2011, issue of, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) provided a preview of four key ethical communications issues it will be monitoring in 2012. Written by PRSA Chair and CEO Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR, the op-ed examines the state of ethics in public relations at the end of 2011 and where ethical communications practices may be heading in the New Year.

Time for Resolutions: Will You Commit to PR Ethics in 2012?
By Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA; and Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR
Published: Dec. 29, 2011

The year 2011 could be described as a somewhat difficult period for public relations ethics. There were a few high-profile ethics scandals earlier in the year, including Facebook’s attempted smear campaign against Google and a major New York firm setting up a dubious blogger campaign in which it tricked food bloggers into writing about a gourmet food sampling that used frozen food items.
And now, the year is ending with allegations of extortion, bribery and intimidation against a former client by the CEO of a leading publicity firm, as reported last week in The New York Times.
With that in mind, here are a few ethics issues that PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards will be monitoring in 2012:
  • PR firms representing dictators. An issue PRSA has taken a strong stance against, this is a slippery slope for the PR industry. Every person or organization has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.
  • Ethical use of interns. A 2011 update to PRSA’s Code of Ethics made clear our belief that it is unethical to not provide some type of compensation to students who perform work for an employer. In the coming year, PRSA will take a three-prong approach to eradicating this pernicious issue: advocacy against the use of unpaid interns; research into the effect that unpaid internships have on PR students’ future career success; and education efforts aimed at informing internship supervisors on the issue.
  • The growth of brand journalism. As media fragmentation continues relatively unabated, look for more companies in 2012 to explore brand journalism by hiring their own “reporters” to produce brand content and news. While brand journalism is enticing, companies will need to carefully weigh its ethical perils.
  • Maintaining PR’s ethical standards in the digital age. The rapid rise in the adoption of technology and use of social media has been a boon for the public relations profession. It raises concerns, though, over whether proper ethical and professional standards are always in place. We will continue to explore necessary updates to the profession’s ethical standards in order to meet evolving practices and technology.

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