Public relations and other professionals

Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, APR
Member, BEPS
For public relations and other professionals, ethical dilemmas arise when responsibilities
and loyalties conflict and a decision about the appropriate – i.e., ethical – course of action
must be made. Often, a choice is required among actions that meet competing
obligations. For example, when might the obligation to serve the public interest override
loyalty to clients? When does a particular stakeholder’s interest take priority over an
employer’s interest? In other words, just exactly what is “responsible advocacy”?
These questions illustrate the challenge of practicing ethical public relations. And they
raise the related issue of how alternative actions should be weighed and competing
interests balanced. In this regard, an ethical decision-making process can be helpful.
Such a guide forces the decision maker to address significant issues that should be
considered before taking action.
A number of such processes exist – ethics educators offer a variety of approaches to
ethical decision making. The following guide, which is adapted to meet the specific
needs of public relations professionals, is offered as one approach that PRSA members
may find helpful in addressing ethical dilemmas:
1. Define the specific ethical issue/conflict.
2. Identify internal/external factors (e.g., legal, political, social, economic) that may
influence the decision.
3. Identify key values.
4. Identify the parties who will be affected by the decision and define the public
relations professional’s obligation to each.
5. Select ethical principles to guide the decision-making process.
6. Make a decision and justify it.

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