Since the PR Society is so enamored of the law, constantly bombarding us and members with legal concepts, it should pay attention to an opinion by a lawyer who says that PR people have no legal grounds for calling themselves professionals and the Society’s Code of Ethics may require conduct that is “actually illegal.”

Prof. Michael Parkinson, retired PR professor at Texas Tech University and a lawyer who practiced for 13 years (admitted to U.S. Court of Appeals, Illinois Supreme Court, and Oklahoma Supreme Court), has written a 3,320-word treatise on PR’s claims to be a “profession” and the Code of Ethics of the PR Society.

The Code “can require conduct that is actually illegal…” he writes, explaining that PR people are “employees” of their clients and “even without a written contract an employee has a legally enforceable obligation to act in the interests of the employer.”

This may include the obligation to protect information about illegal acts by the employer.

But “conflicting provisions” of the PRS Code require members to promote the “free flow of information to serve the public interest” while also saying the member must protect client confidences and private information, he notes.

The words “public interest” particularly irk Parkinson who says no one can know what the public interest is. It is something hammered out in legal court or the court of public opinion.

Scholarly Work with 35 References

The Parkinson article, first published in 2001 and carried in full below with his permission, is a carefully reasoned and scholarly work by someone expert in both PR and the law and is supported by 35 references.

It is the opposite of the shoddy, inaccurate, poorly reasoned and spotty history of PRS that was posted on Wikipedia last month by a writer obviously unfamiliar with its history and many of its workings.

Even worse is that WP refuses to correct errors such as accusing this writer of suing PRS when there was no such suit.

Parkinson argues that the Code is mere window dressing (“more concerned about the perceptions of external publics than about admonishing practitioners”).

PR Not a Profession

PR lacks “the single most significant requirement” for a profession, namely licensing by a government other regulatory body, he writes.

“A profession’s members cannot define themselves as a profession,” he says, noting that lawyers are admitted to the bar, physicians are licensed and ministers are ordained.

PRS, whose website headlines, “Advancing the Profession and the Professional,” must ditch that if it wants to obey the law.

It has spent $528,423 on legal advice in the past seven available years, an indication of how important it believes the law is.

The PRSA code of professional standards and member code of ethics: Why they are neither professional nor ethical

By Michael Parkinson

Both practitioners and teachers of public relations often claim they practice or teach a "profession." Many scholars and advocates for public relations compare its practitioners to attorneys, physicians and clergymen. Also, many texts and teachers urge students to find evidence of professionalism in the public relations body of knowledge. One of the markers of professionalism often cited by those who want public relations to be perceived as a profession is the existence of a code of ethics or standard of appropriate behavior (Olasky, 1985 and Gabaldon, 1998).

In October of 2000 the PRSA Assembly approved a new PRSA Member Code of Ethics. This code replaced the older PRSA Code of Professional Conduct. According to the PRSA Board of Directors, the new Code of Ethics is intended to "...inspire ethical behavior and performance (PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 1) but both the new code and the Code of Professional Conduct it replaced may neither reflect actual public relations practices nor establish standards appropriate for a profession. It seems the codes were created primarily to give the observers of the practice a positive image of public relations (Olasky, 1985).

Prof. Donald Wright of Boston University also claimed that public relations codes of ethics are designed more to make practitioners feel and look good than to actually control or describe their professional conduct (1993, p. 16). This function of our codes of ethics seems to be the result of embarrassment by practitioners, scholars and teachers who fear public relations practitioners are perceived by many observers as unethical.

2001 Code Lacks Unique Values

The new PRSA Member Code of Ethics, ignores the obligation of every profession to hold values and recognize obligations that are unique to their particular profession. In other words, the PRSA Member Code of Ethics may be a code of personal or public ethics but it is certainly not a code of professional ethics.

The most popular and most frequently taught model of public relations practice is the four styles of approaches to public relations described by Grunig and Hunt in 1984. [See End Note 1] In 1989 Grunig argued that "only the two-way symmetrical model represents a break from the predominant world view that public relations is a way to manipulate publics for the benefit of the [client]" (p. 30). In 1992 Grunig and Grunig further argued that the two-way symmetrical approach is the normative model and represents how public relations should be practiced.

PRSA has adopted "codes of ethics" which describe how public relations practitioners want to be perceived by the general public. Further the codes seem based on the two-way symmetrical model which focuses on scientific research, two-way communication and "non-persuasion." These codes suggest that practitioners of the profession of public relations do not recognize their professional obligations. Adherence to the codes requires a practitioner to engage in conduct that violates obligations to clients. In short the codes are neither professional nor ethical and until fundamental changes are made those who seek the status of a profession for public relations are doomed to failure.

Public Recognition Needed

The single most significant requirement for professional status is some system of public recognition or licensing. A profession's members cannot define themselves as a profession, the public, government or other regulatory body must do so as they do by admitting attorneys to the bar, licensing physicians or ordaining ministers.

In order to be licensed or recognized members of a profession must have:

1) a clear definition of what acts are prohibited to those in the profession,

2) a unique set of skills and knowledge, and

3) recognition or identification of the professional or ethical obligations a member of the profession must meet.

It should be noted that the new PRSA Member Code of Ethics completely eliminates all provisions for enforcement of professional conduct. However, this paper will focus on the third requirement and assumes others have or will address a definition of what it means to practice public relations and will identify the knowledge and skills necessary for a licensed or recognized practitioner.

Professional, Personal Ethics Need Separating

Here, I argue only that for one to be a member of the public relations profession one must have professional obligations that supercede ethical obligations imposed on persons or publics outside the profession. Therefore for public relations to be a profession there must be a shared definition of professional ethics or obligations and the ethical obligations for a public relations practitioner must be unique to the profession of public relations. To be a profession, public relations must separate its professional ethics from the PRSA personal ethics of its individual practitioners.

In other words, a code of ethics for public relations should provide a standard that is higher than, or at least different from, the ethical standards for people outside the profession. The new PRSA Member Code of Ethics fails to meet this requirement to identify unique professional ethics or obligations, as did the older PRSA code of Professional Standards.

Comparisons with Law

Before beginning a comparison between the professional codes of law and public relations, it seems appropriate to defend my decision to make that specific comparison. I choose law because it is recognized as a profession and because, of the three usually recognized professions of medicine, clergy and law, law is the profession closest to public relations. Both law and public relations focus on communication skills, the presentation of facts and argument to advance the interests of clients.

Most importantly, both attorneys and public relations practitioners are advocates. Each is hired by a client to advance the interests of that client. The attorney uses communication within a court to advance the interest of his or her client while the public relations practitioner uses communication within a court of public opinion to similarly advance the interests of his or her client. Both professions have similar goals and similar obligations that restrict the form and content of their communication and require accuracy in reporting facts.

A comparison of the PRSA Code of Professional Responsibility and Member Code of Ethics to the Canons of Professional Responsibility adopted by most state bars reveals one fundamental difference. The PRSA Codes are codes of personal ethics while the Canons of Professional Responsibility are a code of professional ethics.

PRS Code Ignores Obligation to Client

Both PRSA Codes make repeated references to obligations to the public interest (PRSA Code, 1988, 1 and PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 7, 9), objectivity or fairness (PRSA Code, 1988, 3, 4, 5 and 6 and PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 9) and particularly acknowledge a dual obligation to the client and the public or democratic process (PRSA Code, 1988, 2 and PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 11). The new PRSA Member Code of Ethics contains no enforcement provision but does include a pledge (PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 16).

This pledge is the heart of the new code. It includes declarations of commitment to truth, accuracy, "the public" and education but it contains absolutely no mention of any obligation to a client. The Canons of Professional Responsibility on the other hand focus primarily on the obligation to the professional status of the attorney and his or her relationship with the client. For example, Canon 6 details how a professional relationship must be established and when the attorney may or should reject representation (Gabaldon, 1998 p. 13). Canon 7 goes on to detail obligations to the client such as confidentiality (Gabaldon, 1998, p. 14).

Even the discussions of misrepresentation in the Canons of Professional Responsibility focus on how the attorney must avoid "making a false statement to the court" or "assisting the client in a crime of fraud" while simultaneously maintaining the professional obligation to advance the client's interests and protect his or her confidentiality (Gabaldon, 1998, p. 16). The Canons, unlike the PRSA codes, focus on the obligations that are unique to the profession.

Clients Must Come First

Where there may be conflicts between an attorney's professional obligation to protect the legal system and his or her professional obligation to a client, the Canons provide rules to prioritize these obligations. Also, when these obligations are prioritized, the Canons indicate the attorney's professional ethics require him or her to first protect the client's interests and then to protect the legal system and the attorney's own interests (Gabaldon, 1998, p. 16).

Although public relations practitioners are often confronted with conflicts between their obligations to free and honest public communication and their client's interests, the PRSA Codes provides no guidance for how to deal with these conflicts. Further the PRSA Codes imply, at least, that in such conflicts the public relations practitioner may simply ignore his or her professional obligations and either honor a sense of personal ethics or defer to the "public interest." [See for example Article 1 of the PRSA Code and pages 7, 9 and 11 of the PRSA Member Code of Ethics.]

The PRSA Member Code of Ethics, on its face, is more a code of personal ethics than a code of professional ethics. It seems its creators were more concerned about the perceptions of external publics than they were concerned about admonishing practitioners to meet legitimate professional obligations to their clients. In short, the PRSA Member Code of Ethics is more about image than professionalism or ethics.

Public Choice Theory

At the heart of my criticism of the PRSA Member Code of Ethics is its attempt to admonish public relations practitioners to operate in the public interest. Any focus on the "public interest" seems ill advised for a profession of advocates. Political scientists and economists have used public choice theory to analyze the relative advantages of attempting to act in the public interest. The same logic can be applied to the practice of public relations.

Public choice theory uses economic principles to study non-market decision making, especially the application of economic analysis to public policy making (Dye, 1998, p. 32). Under this theory, there are separate versions of human motivation. The idea that people are self-interested and make decisions to maximize personal benefits is called homo economicus. The idea that people are public-spirited and seek to maximize public welfare is called homo politicus. (Dye, 1998, p. 32)

Contemporary capitalistic economics is based on the belief that if all people act in their own self interest (homo economicus) they will make collective decisions that ultimately are in the good of the public. Many political scientists apply the same principle to analysis of democratic decision making. They assert that each individual voter makes his or her decisions motivated by self-interest but that when voters collectively make such decisions the ultimate decision is in the public interest. Attorneys, in the Canons of Professional Responsibility, recognize a logic much like homo economicus. Under the principles of legal advocacy if each party to a legal action acts in his or her own self interest the "truth will out."

In other words, if each attorney in an action does everything he or she can to maximize their client's advantage then the client who prevails will be the one for whom the facts or law decided the case. Therefore, there is no need for an attorney to determine whether his client's case is just, proper or in the public interest.

Both the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and the PRSA Code of Professional Standards that it replaces operate on the principle of homo politicus. The authors of these codes seem to have little faith in the "court of public opinion." Rather than focusing on maximizing our client's interests they seek to impose an obligation to protect the public interest.

Any attempt by an advocate to simultaneously represent two interests is doomed to failure. Further, a requirement to act in the public interest or for the public good is a matter of personal ethics and not appropriately part of a code of professional ethics unless specifically balanced against a requirement to support professional interests.

There are several reasons a requirement to act in the public interest is not properly part of a code of professional ethics. First, any admonition to act in the public interest assumes there is only one public whose interest can be respected. The very existence of a profession of public relations must be predicated on the fact that there are multiple publics each with its own interests.

Public Interest Cannot Be Known

Our function as public relations practitioners is to establish relations among those publics and to exchange information between publics. Public choice theorists have recognized the impossibility of identifying a single monolithic public interest. Thaler, for example, noted that unless a society is totally heterogeneous no one can even know what all of society believes is in its best interest. Further, since we cannot predict the future or anticipate all events it is impossible to know what is in the public interest (2000, p. 136).

Without knowing what is public interest it is impossible to deliberately act in the public interest. Also, when we attempt to act in the public interest since there cannot be adequate data for any empirical identification of the public interest we tend to act emotionally rather than logically. What each of us believes to be in the public interest is colored by moral values taught by the public in which we live (Thaler, 2000, p. 139 and Roth, 1997, p. 534). For example, when asked for some universal value that all publics hold audiences in the United States invariably mention the value of human life. A very active public, the Club of Rome, believes human beings are pollutants and does not share this value (Club, 1991, p. 115). It is a personal, not a professional decision to include one value in "the public interest" while ignoring the Club of Rome as a public.

According to public choice theory attempts to act in the public good can actually do harm. The imposition of homo politicus on even dangerous decisions by homo economicus does harm because it deteriorates personal freedoms by denying those in our publics the right to act with full information (Brittan, 1990). One must remember that full information includes objective facts and the views, perceptions and values of all parties to any conflict.

If we advocate actions which we perceive to be in the public good, we ignore the self-correcting nature of group interest and deny publics the ability to make appropriate decisions. Applying a principle much like "enlightened self-interest" advocates of public choice theory would argue that rational homo economicus, with adequate information, understands that actions which damage society violate the individual's interests and therefore must be avoided (Doucouliagos, 1995).

Applying public choice theory, it becomes apparent that a code of professional ethics, or any approach to public relations, which places the public interest ahead of, or on an equal footing with, the obligations to the client cannot advance any profession based on advocacy. If all advocates simply act in the best interest of their own ends and provide communications designed to advance those self-interests, the very publics we want to protect are best able to protect themselves.

PRS Code Lacks Real Professional Standards

Not only do the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and Code of Professional Standards fail to provide a real "professional standard" but also strict adherence to either code could actually be illegal. In particular Article 2 of the Code of Professional Standards specifies a dual obligation to the client and the democratic process. Several provisions of the new PRSA Member Code of Ethics create similar dilemmas.

For example, one provision requires open communication to foster democratic decision making and another requires a free flow of information to serve the public interest (PRSA Member code, 2000, p. 11, 9) while another specifically requires the practitioner to protect clients' confidences and private information (p. 12). These conflicting provisions and the failure to prioritize conflicting obligations ignore the legal responsibilities to a client which arise from an employer-employee relationship.

Even without a written contract, an employee has a legally enforceable obligation to act in the interest of the employer. These obligations may include the obligation to protect information about illegal acts by the employer. The Fifth District Court of Appeals in Douglas v. DynMcDermott ruled that even the smallest violation of this ethical obligation is still a violation and justifies termination of or action against the employee (Douglas, p. 376). In Douglas the employee simply reported illegal hiring practices. If Douglas's conduct was legally actionable obviously other actions "in the public interest" could also be legally punished.

Other legal obligations that can conflict with the PRSA Code include the client's rights of privacy and the client's right to protect trade secrets. (McCarthy, sec. 5:68) Recognizing the right of privacy, courts have said "...there is a zone of privacy surrounding every individual, a zone within which the State may pro dant publicity." (Cox, p. 487) Simply summarized, the right of privacy prohibits anyone from publicly disclosing information about another that would embarrass a reasonable person.

This prohibition includes a significant restriction on the revelation of even truthful information that was given to a defendant with an expectation that the information would be held in confidence (McCarthy, sec. 5:66).

The failure of the PRSA Code of Professional Standards and Member Code of Ethics to prioritize the obligation to the client leaves a practitioner with obligations to truth, channels of communication and the public interest (PRSA Code, 1988, Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; and PRSA Member Code, 2000, p. 7, 9, 11 and 16). In order to honor these code requirements a practitioner would, in many cases, have to violate his or her legal obligations.

Obviously legal requirements and ethical obligations are not identical. However, the fact that both the PRSA Code of Professional Standards and PRSA Member Code of Ethics can require conduct that is actually illegal does seem to support the observation that it may be neither professional nor ethical.

Must Accept Advocate Role

If public relations is to become a profession we must find some way to comfortably accept our roles as advocates. To do this we must develop faith in the decisions of the publics whose opinions we seek to influence. As a first step we must accept the reality that we cannot know what is in the public interest, rather we must present information to the publics on behalf of our clients and let those publics decide for themselves what is and what is not in their interest.

Simply put, we must begin to act like a profession by accepting professional obligations that may conflict with our personal sense of propriety and we, as a profession, must adopt a code of ethics which focuses on professional ethics not personal ethics.


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Michael Parkinson is at the School of Mass Communications, Texas Tech University at Lubbock, Tex. He holds degrees from Southern Illinois Univ., Univ. of Oklahoma, and the United States Air Force Academy. He is accredited in Public Relations and licensed to practice law before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Illinois Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He has written several books and articles on public relations and the law School of Mass Communications, Texas Tech Univ., PO. Box 43082, Lubbock, Texas, 79409-3082; 806/742-6500 ext. 254, Fax 806/742-1085;michael.parkinson [at] ttu [dot] edu.

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