New PR Code Stresses Setting Examples

May 22, 2002
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ALLENDALE — A Grand Valley State University professor says setting an example to follow and avoiding sticky ethical situations are the primary goals of a new code of ethics which a public relations trade group recently enacted.

She is Betty Pritchard, an associate professor of communications at GVSU.

As with its predecessor, she explained that the updated code, adopted in October by the Public Relations Society of America, sets down ethical principles under which PR professionals should operate. The difference is that the new policy places a high emphasis on education and seeks to use case studies to encourage ethical conduct and enable PR professionals to maintain their credibility with their employers or clients, as well as with the public.

“So many times the difficult part of conducting yourself in an ethical manner is recognizing when you are in situations that have the potential for ethical consequences,” Pritchard said.

“Once you lose your reputation as a professional, it’s gone. You might as well hang it up,” she added. “The people you work with, they need to know this person gives accurate information and complete information.”

The Public Relations Society of America has about 20,000 members nationwide, including about 100 locally.

Pritchard, as a member of the PRSA’s West Michigan chapter, has taken on the role of educating public relations professionals in this region about the new code. Association members must sign a pledge promising to honor the code.

Another new focus of the policy is a statement of professional values that reiterate a PR professional’s role as somebody who should serve the public interest, provide a voice for ideas, facts and opinions, and work to promote informed debate.

Pritchard said a common public misunderstanding about PR professionals is that their role is to simply garner publicity for their clients.

Public relations professionals instead should work to provide objective advice to their employer or client, and promote mutual understanding with and build a bridge to the public, she said.

A PR person’s role has evolved over the last 30 years as the public and consumer advocates set higher expectations of corporations, Pritchard said.

PR professionals in the last decade have taken on more of the role of “corporate conscience,” helping their clients or corporate executives to understand how their decisions affect the community, she said.

“The power that public opinion has, has forced corporations to be more cognizant and to think about the court of public opinion,” Pritchard said. “The top executives need to understand the public, and the public needs to understand the corporation.”

The society’s new code is available at www.prsa.org.

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