Fall 2009, Vol. 21, No. 1

    Fall 2016, Vol. 28, No. 1

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The Fight for the Soul of Public Relations

n667biz0Allison HughesBY SHANNON A. BOWEN

Is public relations a vociferous advocate or an independent counsel?

Media ethicists might be unaware of the ideological war over ethics being waged in public relations, both in the academic discipline and in the industry. We can call it "advocacy versus counseling."

Public relations is an important provider of news content, a liaison providing access to information, as well as a definer of the "truth" of that information. As such, it has ethical obligations when dealing with the media. And that is where agreement within the discipline currently stops. The debate in the field, centering on ethics, asks the question: Is public relations a vociferous advocate or an independent counsel?

Public relations practitioners are often press agents, spokespersons, lobbyists, and those who were hired to communicate on behalf of the position of an organization or client. This role is primarily focused on media relations and building relationships that further the interests of the sponsoring organization or client. The arguably lesser-known, but more important, role in terms of holding greater responsibility in public relations ethics belongs to the function of issues management. Issues management is the policy-level management activity of defining issues, researching, deciding what facts are pertinent or extraneous to a decision or a communication, creating strategic options, making ethical decisions, and implementing those decisions in policy-that in turn will be communicated publicly. Issues management is where the discipline splits over the role of ethics in public relations. It is a schism that should concern media ethicists a great deal because of the close enabling and functional relationships that exist between public relations practitioners and media personnel.

There are numerous scholars on both sides of this debate. A brief look at each side of the "advocacy v. counseling" schism emphasizes their differing approaches to ethics. Advocates view public relations as the voice of an organization in the marketplace of ideas (Fitzpatrick & Bronstein, 2006; Heath, 2001, 2006; Seib & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Public relations practitioners who operate as advocates range in their levels of ethical responsibility from the Hill & Knowlton executive who infamously reminded staff: "We'd represent Satan if he paid" (http://backissues.cjrarchives.org/year/92/5/pr.asp) to the "responsible advocacy" argued for by Kathy Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Bronstein in the book by that name. These scholars stated that their view is based on the "marketplace" concept that John Milton asserted in 1644, as well as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They noted that the "US Supreme Court has extended marketplace principles to the commercial arena. Recognizing an informational value in commercial speech." (p. 7).

This informational value of commercial speech is the value to the marketplace that is provided by the public relations practice of offering information to publics. This information is, of course, disclosure, such as that which is legally mandated, but is commonly in the form of persuasive speech. Numerous scholars (far too many to list here) have agreed with this perspective and have argued for the value of persuasive speech in providing information upon which the listener can ultimately make a determination of truth and value. In this perspective, the role of public relations is viewed as similar to that of an attorney-he or she asserts the best and most persuasive case possible on behalf of a client. Practitioners who engage in the extremely common advocacy model of public relations are usually left to their own devices to determine how to communicate in a persuasive yet responsible manner. Ethics, in this perspective, is defined as a set of professional standards, such as the PRSA Code of Ethics, or left to the individual determination of the public relations practitioner. For example, the International Public Relations Association espouses a code of ethics that values "the right of each individual to judge for himself/herself" (http://www.ipra.org/ detail.asp?articleid=22).

A different perspective on public relations ethics views its function as a counselor of senior management and CEOs. Scholars who write in this tradition of thought (Botan, 1997; Bowen, 2004, 2008; Grunig, 2006; Huang, 2004; Parkinson, 2001; Pearson, 1989; Ryan & Martinson, 1983, 1985; Wright, 1993) often focus more on the defining of issues and values in organizations than on the communication resulting from those decisions. Public relations in general and issues management specifically are viewed as the best place in an organization to locate ethical decision-making because these practitioners maintain relationships with publics (both inside and outside the organization) and work to understand the values of those publics. They can then represent, discuss, or incorporate the values of various publics into the policy-level decisions of organizations. Scholars in this tradition asserted that these practitioners must maintain a degree of independence and autonomy from both management and publics so that they can distance themselves from decisions and provide comprehensive ethical analyses. By attempting to value the diverse perspectives of publics on the same level as that of the organization, the organization's (or client's) desires are not privileged, and more ethically responsible decisions should result. In ethical terms, the public relations practitioner has a high degree of moral autonomy and is not beholden to espouse the view that privileges an organization or client, but is bound by rational autonomy to carefully consider each viewpoint. After deliberation, the public relations practitioner acts as an independent voice and counsels management (including the CEO) on the most ethically responsible course of action.

Both of these two perspectives have merit. Advocacy in the public marketplace of ideas gives a voice to organizations that publics may not understand and allows publics to choose from among many persuasive messages that they find best represent their own ideals. Counsel provides an ethical check on CEOs and managements. However, each perspective is not without problems.

A difficulty in the applied ethics of the advocacy approach is that the unscrupulous public relations practitioner can take unbridled advocacy into the realm of sheer manipulation. Critical theorists (L'Etang & Pieczka, 1996) pointed out that this perspective is not necessarily one based on equity, because not all organizations can afford an advocate in the public marketplace of ideas. Critics worry that the interests of less affluent groups will simply not be represented or will be drowned out by organizations with deeper pockets for public relations. Ethicists take note of these critiques because without a roughly equitable competitive marketplace it is difficult for publics to judge the merit of varying perspectives.

Problematic to the counseling approach is that not all public relations practitioners have access to advise their senior management or CEO. Roughly 65% have access to the dominant management coalition, and of that number 30% report directly to a CEO (Bowen, et al., 2006). What does that finding imply for the 35% who do not have the access or authority to provide ethical input? We do not know what level of ethical input CEOs seek from their public relations counsel except through antidotal evidence. Encouragingly, public relations practitioners, such as Bill Nielsen, the now-retired head of public relations at Johnson & Johnson, discuss an astonishing level of ethical insight when counseling their CEO. That finding is encouraging for ethicists, but is such a high level of ethical counsel common Organizations with this type of ethics counsel are likely to be more trusted by their publics, as witnessed by Johnson & Johnson's top trustworthiness rating on annual polls. One can argue that these organizations have a better chance of contributing positively to society because they understand and integrate the values of publics into their operations. Organizations with greater ethical responsibility in society are a laudable goal, and by building relationships, responsibility, and responsiveness it seems clear that the communication function would be enacting a positive social role.

Schisms in academic pursuits of a deep and ideological nature normally result in the splintering of fields into subdisciplines or entirely divergent disciplines. After studying these issues for more than a decade, I believe that is the case for public relations. It appears that those who favor the advocacy model will retain the "public relations" label and continue to work in both P.R. and media relations, providing persuasive voices in the marketplace. Those who favor a counseling model will gravitate toward issues management and strategic management, and claim (Bowen, 2008) that they prefer other names for the discipline- such as public affairs or strategic communication.

A greater problem lies in the lack of education in ethics for professional communicators. Perhaps most wisely of all, Patricia Parsons (personal communication 8/13/09; used by permission) wrote: "PR practitioners seriously lack the ethical background to engage in any meaningful way in the arena of ethics counsel." Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas. Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics. Ethical understanding at the top of an organization can help to prevent many of the corporate and other types of scandals we have seen in the past months. Acting as an ethical counselor can help organizations become more responsible citizens in society. But who can fill this important role? And, are future public relations practitioners being prepared to enter the field? This battle plays out in universities that are well known for public relations education, as demonstrated in the bifurcation of their required courses for a public relations degree. Some public relations majors, such as the one at the University of Maryland, de-emphasize ethics in favor of teaching an advocate model; some public relations majors, such as the one at the Newhouse School, require an ethics course for public relations majors, preparing them to analyze the dilemmas they will face and counsel management.

The bifurcation of public relations is truly a battle for the soul of the field. Parsons (2004) wrote: "If there is one question that haunts the public relations industry it is the question of ethics" (p. xiii). Are public relations practitioners "hired guns" and advocacy speech for hire? Instead, are public relations practitioners independent counselors to the top management of their organizations or clients? Or, are they both? Is it not inherently contradictory to say, "We want to persuade you to see things in a way that is beneficial to our client/organization" while also saying, "We want to build a trusting relationship with you"? Can public relations, with any sense of credibility or instilling trust on the part of publics, continue to perform both of these roles?


Botan, Carl. (1997). "Ethics in strategic communication campaigns: The case for a new approach to public relations." Journal of Business Communication, 34(2), 188-202.

Bowen, Shannon A. (2004). "Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues." Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92.

Bowen, Shannon A. (2008). "A state of neglect: Public relations as 'corporate conscience' or ethics counsel." Journal of Public Relations Research, 20(3), 271-296.

Bowen, Shannon A., Heath, Robert L., Lee, Jaesub, Painter, Graham, Agraz, Francisco J., McKie, David, et al.(2006). The business of truth: A guide to ethical communication. San Francisco, CA: International Association of Business Communicators.

Fitzpatrick, Kathy & Bronstein, Carolyn (Eds.). (2006). Ethics in public relations: Responsible advocacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Heath, Robert L. (2006). "A rhetorical theory approach to issues management." In C. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public Relations Theory II(pp. 63-99). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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L'Etang, Jacquie & Pieczka, Magda (Eds.). (1996). Critical perspectives in public relations. London: International Thomson Business Press.

Parkinson, Michael. (2001). "The prsa code of professional standards and member code of ethics: Why they are neither professional or ethical." Public Relations Quarterly, 46(3), 27-31.

Parsons, Patricia J. (2004). Ethics in public relations: A guide to best practice. London: Kogan Page.

Pearson, Ronald. (1989). "Beyond ethical relativism in public relations: Coorientation, rules, and the idea of communication symmetry." In J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig (Eds.), Public relations research annual (Vol. 1, pp. 67- 86). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ryan, Michael & Martinson, David L. (1983). "The pr officer as corporate conscience." Public Relations Quarterly, 28(2), 20-23.

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Shannon A. Bowen is an associate professor in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University. Her e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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