Sunday, April 12, 2009

PRSA, SPJ and Contrasting Ethical Attitudes

Recently, myself and some of the brightest young minds in the field of public relations discussed public relations theory in terms of ethics. In doing so, we reviewed the Public Relations Society of America's Member Code of Ethics. This opened up a discussion of enforcement regarding the code.

From the code:
"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."
How are practitioners and scholars to take this code seriously if PRSA itself announces that it does not attempt any real sort of enforcement of the code and resigns itself to really only regulating its members through the law. Of course, the code itself probably is unenforceable in many ways, but PRSA might do a better job of at least trying to monitor its members' ethics and letting them know it will do so. And, the organization might frame its lack of emphasis on enforcement better.

It is certainly interesting to see that the Society of Professional Journalists has framed its own ethical code much more effectively, especially because one would expect those in public relations to be much better at framing.

From SPJ's code:
"The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of "rules" but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable."
SPJ's code sounds less like an out for a member as long as he or she does not get caught doing something illegal than does PRSA's. In addition, SPJ's code is framed as something that virtually all journalists must embrace, and there is a sort of credibility added by the inclusion of a brief explanation as to why the code is of course not legally enforceable.

Perhaps a readjustment of language in PRSA's code and a focus on renewing a commitment to ethical practice by members would be a smart PR move for the organization — a move away from spin doctoring and press agentry into the building and fostering of true relationships with stakeholders and the public.

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