Global Public Relations Association Ethics Code Research Reveals Best-Practice Gaps + Opportunities

Measurable Gaps Exist for PR Code Enforcement, “Speak-Up” Reporting, Whistleblower Protection, Anti-Retaliation, Regular Updates, and Much More

With September set as the public relations (PR) industry’s annual Ethics Month (#PRethics), PR associations worldwide are encouraged to revisit their own published ethics codes, as a newly released independent analysis reveals major opportunities to close documented gaps toward best practice.

The goal: To raise global PR industry standards, starting from a quantified basis of common ground.

Available for free download, “The State of Ethics Codes in the Public Relations Industry: A Global Analysis” features data collection by the London-based Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), including analyses of published ethics codes from 24 PR member associations based in a diverse range of nations worldwide. The study was fully funded by a grant from PR industry veteran Mary Beth West, APR, FPRCA (@marybethwest).

The IBE incorporated nearly 50 individual criteria points and categorized its PR industry code analysis under a variety of headings, such as structural elements, user-friendliness, content, leadership role / governance structure, and enforcement.

The IBE’s independent analysis found that while all 24 PR member associations included in the study offer published codes of ethics – which is a good starting point for any association – a vast majority (83%) could opt to take new, specific measures toward demonstrating “strong elements of good practice,” reflective of the IBE’s criteria.

According to the IBE’s findings, “the results of the (IBE) bespoke scoring system applied suggest that 17% of the codes possess strong elements of good practice, 29% possess elements of good practice but lack in other areas, whilst 54% of the codes show significant room for improvement.”

“It is likely that many codes are ripe for review,” stated the IBE’s report, also noting that – as a starting point – “Most codes are deficient in being un-dated.”

Of those 11 codes (of the 24 total analyzed) that included timestamps of a most-recent update, nearly half were marked as having been updated prior to 2019. (IBE-recommended best practice is for ethics codes to be “revised every three years – and dated accordingly.”)

The issue of PR industry association codes likely being vastly outdated to the demands and rigors of professional communicators working in increasingly complex technological and social environments underscores a potential “resting on laurels” challenge, according to Mary Beth West.

Wrote West in the report’s preface:

“The PR industry arguably is failing to keep up with this maelstrom of present-day issues on the ethics front… reflected in part by outdated and insufficient PR member-association ethics codes.

“Many such codes were primarily developed years – even decades – ago, with few or no substantive revisions or addenda to help address and manage more modern ethics issues for today’s professional communicators. 

“Consequently, there may be some deserved criticism of ‘resting on laurels’ by some PR associations’ over-reliance on the efficacy, relevance, and currency of their long-standing ethics codes, as originally developed in the distant past. 

“Such codes, while outdated, are not altogether irrelevant, by any means. However, they deserve ethics-review councils and bodies within the associations to take a fresh look, engage external perspectives, and objectively identify what’s missing and/or outdated, with this IBE-generated report providing a helpful starting point.”

Among the IBE’s other key findings
  • 80% of PR associations analyzed (20 of the 24) claim that adherence to the ethics code is required for membership, but there remains a widespread lack of clarity or consistency on matters of actual enforcement.
    • While stating adherence is required, only 13 of these 20 associations that claim an adherence mandate declare their codes are enforced; one such association of the 20 declares its code as unenforced; and six other associations of the 20 are ambiguous on this point by making no reference either way, which the IBE interpreted as a non-enforcement stance.
  • Of those associations that do enforce their codes, enforcement processes leave much to be desired in the way of best practice. According to the IBE report, “54% of associations state that they enforce their code of ethics. Of these, 46% make the complaint process easy and 31% make decisions and positions by ethics committees easily available.” Translated: majorities of PR associations make processes difficult for registering complaints and receiving guidance or other decisions.

Referencing additional research by the U.S.-based Ethics and Compliance Initiative, West says of widespread lack of whistleblower-protection in PR associations:

“These glaring omissions are critically relevant in the #PRethics conversation – particularly given documented spikes worldwide in employee retaliation against those who report observed misconduct. 

“Sadly, exacting retaliation against people who report misconduct is a common knee-jerk reaction by some misguided leaders.

“In member-association settings, retaliation is often subtle – although its impacts can be an inverse-correlation to subtlety in its degree of overt damage inflicted… including to colleagues’ hard-earned professional reputations, mental health and emotional wellness.

“As but some examples of subtle or hidden retaliation:
•        suddenly excluding people from meetings, events, or committees without notice or explanation;
•        spreading false rumors;
•        gossiping;
•        gaslighting;
•        taking credit for someone else’s ideas or work;
•        misusing power or authority for purposes of intimidation;
•        purposely withholding information that a member is entitled to;
•        undermining candidates for association leadership positions with whisper campaigns and other ‘dirty tricks’; or
•        making unnecessarily harmful / hurtful / belittling remarks purposely within earshot of a retaliation target.” 

In terms of code content, the most common PR association ethics code provisions observed among the 24 associations in the IBE’s analysis included the following:

  • Accuracy” and “Honesty” provisions were present in all codes analyzed (n=24) 
  • Managing confidences and confidential information(n=22)
  • Fairness to competitorsand/or colleagues(n=21)
  • Conflict of interest (n=20)
  • Disclosure of clients and interests represented (n=19)
  • The IBE noted, however, that 29% of the codes lack one or more of these six core provisions, above.

The IBE reported that provisions featured in less than 80% of the codes included:

  • Balancing public wellbeing and third-party rights
  • Provisions related to gifts or payments to news media
  • Diversity or anti-discrimination provisions
  • Social or digital media integrity provisions
  • The requirement to correct information publicly issued that is later deemed incorrect
  • Paid media disclosure
  • Managing AI purposes and intent
  • ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) as a term was not mentioned in any of the codes (although the IBE reported that “Social and Governance aspects featured prominently in the ethos of all the codes”)
  • Timeliness and responsiveness
  • Managing and ensuring data integrity     

In writing the preface of the report, West also emphasized the need for a strong PR industry association community worldwide, committed to an “evidence-based standard of care” to meet the public’s own expectations for compliance with basic standards. 

PR is a widely unregulated industry in democratized nations and therefore in need of “accountability and self-policing,” West said.

West wrote:

“A healthy and successful PR member-association sector serves the good of the industry. However, associations cannot accomplish this aim, without strong ethics permeating how associations operate and what they require of members’ own professional practices. 

“The PR industry roundly needs the support of competent and credible association leaders lending voice effectively to advocate for the highest standards with clarity, insight, and follow-through… not only in words but also in deeds that stand rigorous tests of scrutiny.”

West encourages all PR industry associations to consider independently:

  1. Convening an expert panel to review an association’s own ethics code against the standards of best-practice criteria outlined by the IBE;
  2. Analyzing the association’s organizational culture as judged by members themselves (survey research can collect quantitative data, trackable over time to measure how ethics is valued as a function of culture, and/or how culture is a function of ethics);
  3. Collecting association members’ input about provisional gaps and priority issues – particularly those that might be most relevant within an association’s own region, nation or other geographic area;
  4. Hosting online chats during September’s #PRethics Month (and year-round), inclusive of all viewpoints, to discuss and debate ethics-code and enforcement / compliance issues in the PR industry, including those identified in the IBE’s analysis;
  5. Developing an action plan toward ethics-code updates, revisions, and a routine schedule of updates every three years going forward, in keeping with IBE-recommended best practice;
  6. Communicating progress and any new, finalized code revisions to memberships and the general public, in a spirit of transparency and advocacy for the larger industry’s standards;
  7. Committing to year-round ethics conversations, including emerging issues tied to technology, diversity, and governance.

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About the Institute of Business Ethics:

A registered charity in the United Kingdom, the Institute of Business Ethics was established in 1986 to champion the highest standards of ethical behavior in business. Since its founding, the IBE has advised organizations on how to strengthen their ethical culture by sharing knowledge and good practice, resulting in relationships with employees and stakeholders that are based on trust. According to the IBE, “Recent research by the Institute found that just one in two FTSE 100 companies had written commitments to protect staff reporting concerns about ethical behavior: with just one in two FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 businesses having publicly accessible codes of ethics.”

About Mary Beth West, APR, FPRCA:

Mary Beth West has served as a senior strategist for Fletcher Marketing PR in the United States since 2018 and has worked in the PR industry for nearly 30 years, including 15 years as an agency founder / employer. Her career focuses on advising leaders in matters of communication strategy, well-aligned policy development, pre- and post-crisis business continuity, and brand reputation. Over the past decade, her personal experiences of confronting retaliation after she reported years of observed misconduct have informed her passions for advancing a “Speak Up” culture in the PR industry and helping associations adopt stronger commitments toward transparency, disclosure, and anti-retaliation.