Value in Ethical Standards

What is ethics?

According to Dorothy A. Bowles and Diane L. Biden, authors of the book ‘Creative Editing’, ethics is a

“Set of principles of conduct governing an individual or group.”

Ethics is also not only about our conduct and the conduct of others but it is also about what that conduct should be. In the public relations world, PR practitioners face day-to-day situations that challenge the corporate and individual ethical standards we have set for ourselves. Our core values and beliefs create these standards to which we hold ourselves.

PRSA Code of Ethics

Because our ethical standards are continuously tested as PR practitioners, we can all benefit from having a set of ethical principles to which we can refer as questions around individual situations occur. The Public Relations Society of America created and maintains what is known as the PRSA Code of Ethics. These codes were created on a set of core values and advise PR professionals to:

  • Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
  • Foster informed decision making through open communication.
  • Protect confidential and private information.
  • Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

These principles help maintain the core values and standards, to which we as PR professionals hold ourselves to. The Code of Ethics also helps govern our relationships  with our clients, the community, society and other PR professionals.

Potter Box

Another helpful tool, described in detail in Bowles and Biden’s ‘Creative Editing’ book, is called the Potter Box. The Potter Box was designed by Ralph Potter and helps dissect the ethical responses to situations. This box introduces four steps which include:

  1. Step 1: Defining the situation
  2. Step 2: Identify the values underlying the choices
  3. Step 3: Appeal to a moral principle to help justify your decision
  4. Step 4: Choose your loyalties

Bowles and Biden state that:

“To make a decision, we move through each dimension- from defining the situation to considering values to appealing an ethical principle to choosing loyalties – eventually reasoning our way toward a solution or judgment.”

University of Maryland: Jayson Blair

The one case that comes to mind for me when thinking about ethical standards among students is a former University of Maryland journalism student, Jayson Blair. Blair was a Diamondback Editor-in-Chief in the 1990s. His story has become famous among students when learning what not to do to get ahead in your career.

As a student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, Blair was highly praised among his peers, professors and staff alike as an excellent journalist with a promising future ahead of him. These beliefs were only confirmed when Blair scored a summer internship with The New York Times. He showed promise to the staff at The Times as well because a few weeks into the fall semester, Blair was offered a full time reporting position at the newspaper.

Blair let the paper know that he had only a few more credits to complete so the paper deferred their offer until he graduate. In January, 1999, Blair started working at the New York Times as an intermediate reporter. After only a few short months at the paper, Blair was found to have completed multiple acts of journalistic fraud while covering stories for The Times. He made up quotes, took material from other newspapers and online publications and concocted outlandish stories to get his work published.

The Times eventually learned of Blair’s deception as a writer and reporter and quickly fired him. They worked on their own investigation to find out how Blair was able to mislead them for so long and exactly what stories were deceptive and false. In their report, they stated that,

“The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

What happened with Blair shows us just how far someone can and will go to deceive you and stray so far from a set of ethical standards. After hearing about Blair’s story, we are able to appreciate the PRSA Code of Ethics as an individual, a student and a professional in the public relations field.


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