I’ve served as Ethics Officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) San Diego Chapter for the past five years. During that time, I’ve received numerous phone calls, e-mails and heard countless complaints from colleagues “ratting” out other colleagues about unethical behavior. They want the bad apple kicked out of PRSA or barred from practicing public relations altogether. Frankly, after hearing some of their stories, I don’t blame them. I want that too!
The problem is that the re-written PRSA Code of Ethics is not intended to be enforced.
You read that right. It’s no longer intended to be enforced.
So what’s the point of having a Code of Ethics if it can’t be enforced?
The point is that acting morally and ethically is the responsibility of all practitioners no matter what industry they serve. It’s really the responsibility of all humans on this planet. But I won’t go there.
I would hope that as public relations practitioners who disseminate information to the public and our clients, we would hold ourselves to the highest standards and operate with the utmost honesty and integrity always adhering to the principles set forth in the PRSA Code of Ethics. The Code is intended to serve as a guideline for ethical conduct among PRSA members.
When the Code of Ethics was originally written decades ago, it was intended to be enforceable. However, no matter how much the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards tried to enforce it, there was always something preventing them from being able to boot a fellow member out of the society. I believe only once was a member ousted from PRSA and that’s because he was convicted of a felony and he actually resigned on his own before the PRSA board asked him to leave.
The code was re-written 10 years ago and now states that “emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code.”
Whew. Glad that’s still in force. But that’s the only way a member can be kicked out of PRSA.
That’s too bad, because I would surely like to see the guy get punished who deliberately called another local agency’s employees at their place of employment and spread malicious rumors about their boss and tried to hire them away on the spot, jeopardizing his growing business. Or the time one agency submitted work and passed it off as their own when clearly it belonged to someone else and that someone else reported it to me and proved that it was their work. Stolen. Copyright infringement. The nerve! Another that blew me away was an employee who silently collected data while employed by her agency, then did everything she could to sabotage that agency. She was discovered and fired, threatened with a lawsuit and more. The agency principal reported the ethical violation and asked me to serve as an independent expert witness if the suit went to trial. It settled out of court. The employee then had the audacity to apply for PRSA membership (which requires agreeing to abide by the Code of Ethics). Thankfully by that time we were alerted to her shenanigans. I don’t recall whether she actually made it into the chapter or not, but I do know we kept a very close eye on her. The stories go on.
Trust me, you pull stunts like that, and word spreads fast. We might not be able to enforce the Code of Ethics, but there is a reason we talk about reputation management. Start by managing your own reputation!
Brush up on the Code of Ethics on a regular basis so that it stays top of mind. You’ll have plenty of instances when a friend or colleague will call you with a scenario and you’ll be caught in a situation that will leave you scratching your head wondering whether you should go one way or another.
Should you get involved in that client deal? It could increase your billings but something in your gut tells you it seems off. Hmm. Or what about sending that reporter your company product so that she can write a review? Everybody does it, right? The product is pricey and the reporter would love to have it. Would she write a favorable review if you didn’t send her the product? Think about it. Eliminate doubt. KNOW what you should do and operate with a clear conscious. It makes you look better, feel better and it’s best for our entire profession.
Check out the Code of Ethics. Then take a quick online quiz to see how well you know your ethics. It’s confidential and if you miss a question, the program explains the correct answer, further reinforcing what you should know.
After all, isn’t that what we all want, to elevate our profession to higher standards?
Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA is ethics officer of the San Diego chapter of PRSA. She is president of CIM Incorporated, a San Diego-based public relations firm with offices in San Diego and Los Angeles and affiliates throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico. She works with clients ranging from world-renowned brands to start ups. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-708-7990.