Public Relations Ethics Research Paper

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Public relations ethics has much in common with the wedding tradition in which the bride wears “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” Although the “something blue” is problematic, the “something old” is ethics, the study of which dates to the dawn of philosophy. The “something new” is public relations itself. Unlike older, related professions such as advertising and journalism, public relations wasn’t recognized as a distinct discipline until the 20th century. The “something borrowed” has been the ethics codes of other professions: As public relations practitioners have struggled to find the ethical foundations of their young profession, they have looked to disciplines such as journalism and the legal profession for guidance. And—for better or worse—the union of something old, something new, and something borrowed has created a sometimes stormy marriage between public relations and ethics.

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Part of the dawn of philosophy that introduced the concept of ethics occurred in classical Athens—the Athens of Plato and Aristotle. Both of those philosophers began their intellectual explorations by defining key terms. In a discussion of public relations ethics, for example, each might ask us, “What do you mean by public relations? And what do you mean by ethics?” By public relations (defined elsewhere in this book), we generally mean the management of relationships between an entity (an organization or individual) and the publics essential to its success. By ethics, we mean the concept of identifying and acting on our core values. In fact, Aristotle defined ethics as an activity: He believed that ethics was the process of defining our most important values and ensuring that our actions reflected those values.

Public relations ethics, then, involves identifying the profession’s core values and, subsequently, acting on those values. The ordeal of how to develop and where to find those values, however, has led to continuing debate and uncertainty about the concept of public relations ethics. Traditionally, values exist at five sometimes-overlapping levels:

  1. International: For example, the Caux Round Table, an organization of international business leaders, has drafted a set of international business standards that rests on two values: human dignity and kyosei, a Japanese word that means cooperating for the good of all.
  2. Societal: For example, the Pledge of Allegiance, which many readers of this book would have recited every day in grade school, specifies values that ideally motivate U.S. citizens: liberty and justice for all.
  3. Professional: For example, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) specifies six values for the profession of public relations: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness.
  4. Organizational: For example, Levi Strauss and Company, the maker of Levi’s jeans, asks its employees to act on four values: empathy, originality, integrity, and courage.
  5. Personal: These are the particular values that motivate individuals. In fact, the English word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which means moral character.

The Search for Values: Journalism and the Law

In its search for values during the 20th century, the young profession of public relations turned to two related professions: journalism and the law. Many of the earliest practitioners of public relations had begun as journalists who, of course, communicated ideas to separate groups, so the logic of adapting journalistic values to public relations seemed obvious. Likewise, many of the earliest practitioners of public relations saw themselves as advocates, so the logic of embracing the values of the legal profession also seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, the objectivity of journalism and the advocacy of the legal profession had all the compatibility of fire and water, and those conflicting values struggled to control public relations ethics in the early decades of the profession.

Journalistic values informed Ivy Lee’s 1906 “Declaration of Principles,” in which that journalist-turned-publicrelations-practitioner (1877–1934) declared,

We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency. . . . Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact. Upon inquiry, full information will be given to any editor concerning those on whose behalf an article is sent out. In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about. (Guth & Marsh, 2009, p. 67)

The advantage of journalistic values is credibility: If public relations could have the reputation of delivering the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the profession and its communications functions might gain almost unrivaled respectability among targeted publics. However, the disadvantage of journalistic values is practicality: Few, if any, organizations or individuals can afford to tell the whole truth. For example, should organizations reveal legitimate trade secrets? Should individuals disclose embarrassing information that no one has a right to know? And does all the communicated information have to be balanced, like the best stories in journalism? Are public relations practitioners responsible for telling all the relevant sides of a story, even those that oppose their employer’s viewpoint? Furthermore, are public relations practitioners storytellers—or are their duties more diverse? On close examination, journalistic values don’t seem wholly appropriate for public relations ethics.

Competing with journalistic values for a key role in forming public relations ethics were the values of the legal profession, primarily advocacy. If we cast public relations practitioners as advocates for their employer/client’s viewpoint, the relevance of legal values seems logical. And just as we presented Ivy Lee as the symbol of a journalistic ethos within public relations, we do no great harm to accuracy by presenting Edward L. Bernays (1891–1995) as the symbol of a legal/advocacy ethos within the young profession. As the author of the books Propaganda and The Engineering of Consent and part of the husband-wife team that coined the term public relations, Bernays (1947) offered this definition of “the engineering of consent”:

This phrase quite simply means the use of an engineering approach—that is, action based only on thorough knowledge of the situation and on the application of scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs. Any person or organization depends ultimately on public approval and is therefore faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal. (p. 114)

In fairness to Bernays, he also advocated reverse engineering— the process of helping an employer/client to change in order to help win consent from a recalcitrant public.

Just as lawyers are advocates for their clients, striving to engineer consent within the courtroom, public relations practitioners—in the legal/advocacy view of the profession— engineer consent within the broader court of public opinion. In fact, if public relations practitioners are advocates for their employers/clients, several passages from the Model Rules of Professional Conduct of the American Bar Association (2008) might be adopted as governing values and principles for public relations ethics:

  • [A] lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation and . . . shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued. . . . (Rule 1.2)
  • A lawyer shall not knowingly: (1) make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer. (Rule 3.3)

In the mid-1990s, a thought-provoking and controversial article in Public Relations Review contended that public relations had indeed adopted the values of the legal profession and thus had little obligation to help society discover large truths on particular issues. Instead, the article argued, public relations practitioners had acknowledged that they were simply one of many adversaries in the struggle for control of public opinion. Although they could not ethically lie, they could ethically present selective facts, withholding (within the limits of the law) any facts that might weaken their arguments. The responsibility for creating a fully accurate, comprehensive assessment of a situation rested with the public, which should gather information from many adversarial sources. After all, the article argued, lawyers are in an adversarial profession, and they don’t attack their own cases. The article concluded that, for public relations, advocacy was a greater value than truth.

Among public relations practitioners and scholars, however, reaction to that article showed that public relations was not entirely comfortable with the values and adversarial nature of the legal profession. Four arguments in particular seemed to challenge the importation of values from the legal profession:

  1. In many organizations, public relations practitioners serve as counselors on ethics and social responsibility. If, however, they have the reputation of withholding damaging facts, their credibility as counselors is at risk.
  2. Not all publics are external. Within the subset of public relations known as employee relations, why would employees trust the claims of a colleague who was known to ignore or downplay damaging information?
  3. For more than 2,000 years, teachers of persuasion theory have taught Aristotle’s belief that the persuasive value of a speaker’s good character (ethos) is more powerful than appeals to logic or emotion. If public relations practitioners damage their perceived characters by focusing only on employer/client interests and perspectives, they may sacrifice their most potent means of persuasion: their ethos.
  4. Finally, the importation of legal values seems to rely on the notion that the purpose of public relations is to advocate an employer/client’s viewpoint and to engineer consent. However, if we return to the definition of public relations presented at the beginning of this research paper, advocacy seems a secondary concern. Many practitioners believe that, properly understood, public relations is the profession of building relationships with particular publics that possess the needed resources. In that view of public relations, advocacy is not the goal and end of the profession; rather, advocacy is a means—one of many— that may be involved in building productive relationships.

At the end of the 20th century, then, this much could be said for public relations ethics: It was a work in progress, certainly not comfortable with the values of journalism and not entirely comfortable with the values of the legal profession. The evolving nature of public relations ethics was (and is) evident in the evolving ethics code of one of the world’s largest public relations organizations: PRSA.

The Advocacy Debate

PRSA was created in 1948 through the merger of the National Association of Public Relations Counsel and the American Council on Public Relations. The new organization adopted its first ethics code in 1950 and then—indicative of the profession’s struggle to find its ethical foundations— revised the code in 1954, 1959, 1963, 1977, 1983, 1988, and 2000. The current version of the PRSA ethics code, as noted above, specifies six core values for the profession:

  1. Advocacy
  2. Honesty
  3. Expertise
  4. Independence
  5. Loyalty
  6. Fairness

Similar values are inherent in the ethics code of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication

Management. Formed in 2000 through the joint efforts of PRSA, the International Public Relations Association, and other organizations, the alliance created a global protocol for the practice of public relations that rests on five values: advocacy, honesty, integrity, expertise, and loyalty. Clearly, the concept of advocacy continues to play a significant role in the evolution of public relations ethics. The title of one of the few books devoted solely to public relations ethics is Ethics in Public Relations: Responsible Advocacy (Fitzpatrick & Bronstein, 2006).

Again, the controversy regarding the ascendance of advocacy as perhaps the dominant value in public relations ethics relates to the definition of public relations itself: Are public relations practitioners primarily advocates for their employers/clients? If so, then the value of responsible advocacy would seem to be the logical primary value of public relations ethics. However, if public relations practitioners are relationship builders, striving to build and maintain the relationships that deliver essential resources to their employers/clients, then perhaps the primacy of advocacy—at least in the one-way, legal-profession sense—should be downgraded somewhat. This debate over the definition of public relations and the role of advocacy as a core value is evident in the constructive tension between two dominant, competing visions of the nature of public relations: excellence theory and contingency theory. Though the two philosophies are not entirely mutually exclusive, excellence theory is closer to the relationshipbuilding view of public relations, while contingency theory is closer to the legal/advocacy view of public relations.

Excellence Theory

Excellence theory has grown out of an ongoing research project begun in 1985 by the Research Foundation of the International Association of Business Communicators. Led initially by Professors James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig, and David M. Dozier, the project has, essentially, studied the practices of organizations known for excellent public relations and communication management— particularly as those practices relate to four different philosophies of public relations. Identified by James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt, the four philosophies, or models, of public relations are as follows:

  1. The press agentry model, which has only one mission, positive publicity for the employer/client
  2. The public information model, in which practitioners act almost as in-house journalists, distributing unbiased information about an employer/client
  3. The two-way asymmetrical model, which uses research to create messages that will engineer consent, winning essential publics over to the employer/client’s viewpoint
  4. The two-way symmetrical model, which uses research to create, maintain, and improve dialogue-based, mutually beneficial relationships with essential publics

The excellence project, as the research study came to be known, concluded that the most effective model of public relations was not the two-way asymmetrical model, with its value of one-way advocacy. Rather, the most effective model was the two-way symmetrical model, with its values of mutual understanding and two-way advocacy. In the two-way symmetrical model, practitioners not only advocate on behalf of their employer/client, they also may advocate on behalf of the public, urging their own employer/client to change in the interests of creating, preserving, or improving a relationship.

Significantly, although the excellence project determined that the two-way symmetrical model was the most effective philosophy of public relations, the project did not assert that excellent public relations and communications departments unfailingly used two-way symmetry. Instead, the project maintained that excellence often involved a “mixed-motive” model that preferred and predominantly used two-way symmetry but that occasionally also employed two-way asymmetry.

Also significant for public relations ethics is the excellence project’s conclusion that the two-way symmetrical model incorporates an idealistic social role that rests on a simple core value: the public interest and social good. Therefore, if the dominant philosophy of public relations is the two-way symmetrical model with its mixed-motive option, the fuzzy picture of public relations ethics clears up a bit: If ethics means acting on core values, then public relations ethics involves ensuring that the profession works for the public interest and social good.

As studies of two-way symmetry have continued, that particular model has accumulated a set of core values that, ideally, should motivate the actions of ethical public relations practitioners. Those values tend to fall into two overlapping categories: values that guide relationship-building activities and values that characterize good, productive relationships. In addition to mutual understanding, two-way advocacy, and public interest/social welfare, values of relationship-building activities include loyalty to the employer/client (not simply acquiescing to whatever a public wants) and openness, in the sense of being willing to listen to and seriously consider a public’s requests.

Regarding the values that characterize good relationships, the public relations scholars Linda Childers Hon and James E. Grunig have identified six core concepts:

  1. Control mutuality, meaning that each party believes it has some control over the quality and future of the relationship
  2. Trust
  3. Satisfaction
  4. Commitment
  5. Exchange, in the sense that benefits are given and received by each party
  6. Communal feeling, in the sense that each party would act for the benefit of the other without any immediate idea of reciprocation and payback

In brief, public relations ethics within the two-way symmetrical and mixed-motive models would involve acting, as much as possible, on these public-interest and relationship values.

Contingency Theory

As the dominance of excellence theory with its inherent two-way symmetry has grown, contingency theory has become an increasingly important reaction to that influence. One difficulty with excellence theory is that some critics believe that it describes and champions only a pure, undiluted form of two-way symmetry; they overlook the mixedmotive model that, according to the excellent project, characterizes excellent public relations departments. Other critics believe that two-way symmetry means acquiescence and radical accommodation, with an employer/client’s public relation practitioners essentially taking orders from targeted publics. This mistaken belief overlooks both the mixed-motive model and two-way symmetry’s core value of loyalty to the employer/client. Though contingency theory does not lapse into these errors, it does address the concerns they represent.

Contingency theory challenges the core values of twoway symmetry by offering a more situational model; contingency theory resists the idea that there is one best way to practice public relations, even if that one way has the flexibility of the mixed-motive model. The theory asks practitioners to imagine a spectrum with accommodation at one end and advocacy at the other. Unlike two-way symmetry and the mixed-motive model, contingency theory maintains that no one spot on that continuum is perpetually the best; instead, the best position on the continuum varies from situation to situation. In fact, contingency theory has identified more than 80 separate variables that can affect which point on the accommodation-advocacy continuum seems best for a particular situation.

For public relations ethics, a crucial difference between contingency theory and excellence theory is that contingency theory places a higher value on one-way, asymmetrical advocacy, especially when that approach may benefit the employer/client. And compared with excellence theory, contingency theory seems to place greater value on loyalty to the employer/client, placing lesser—though not insignificant— emphasis on the values of public interest, social responsibility, control mutuality, and exchange. Contingency theory, therefore, offers a different set of values for public relations ethics—a set that may actually be closer to the core values of PRSA, which, again, lists its first value as advocacy. Some proponents of contingency theory argue that it is more realistic than excellence theory; after all, employers/clients may not always be eager and willing to pay their public relations departments to sometimes advocate outside, competing ideas and viewpoints.

Some critics of contingency theory maintain that— perhaps like PRSA—the theory diminishes the nature of advocacy by defining it as a one-way process, with the practitioner being an advocate only for the employer/client. The PRSA ethics code, in fact, includes the phrase responsible advocates for those we represent. Absent in this notion of advocacy, responsible or not, is a practitioner’s advocating the interests of an important external public to the leaders of his or her own employer/client. That expanded view of advocacy is more consistent with two-way symmetry and the mixed-motive model.

Another criticism of contingency theory is that it sometimes seems to mischaracterize two-way symmetry as being synonymous with uncritical accommodation of the wants and needs of key publics. Advocates of two-way symmetry note that because the model tempers the value of a public’s well-being with the value of loyalty to the employer/client, the model is not synonymous with uncritical accommodation.

As frustrating as the clash between excellence theory and contingency theory may be for those who seek a clear understanding of public relations and the ethics of that profession, the debate is healthy: It focuses on finding the best definition of a young profession as well as identifying the values that must be inherent in that profession’s ethics. Again, if ethics means identifying and acting on core values, ethical public relations practitioners must begin by defining what those values are.

Challenges to Ethical Behavior in Public Relations

The concept of public relations ethics begins with the identification of values—but the concept remains incomplete until public relations practitioners act on those values. Challenges to ethical behavior in public relations tend to emerge from seven broad areas:

  1. Ignorance: Some practitioners, new or otherwise, are unaware of the values and even the laws that guide the profession of public relations; perhaps they have even failed to identify their own values and are unaware of the values of their employer/client. For example, a practitioner unaware of the core value of loyalty to one’s employer/client might easily commit actions that his or her employer would view as unethical.
  2. Overwork: Hard work is certainly a value for many public relations practitioners. However, when a workload becomes so overwhelming that it allows no time for reflection on the connection of core values and current actions, then hard work becomes a potential cause of unintended unethical conduct.
  3. Legal/Ethical Confusion: Illegal conduct often is unethical because it tends to violate social values. But the converse—all legal actions are ethical—is, of course, untrue. For example, an employee of Levi Strauss and Company who did not act on that organization’s core values of empathy, originality, integrity, and courage would probably not be guilty of illegal conduct. In the eyes of the company, however, that employee probably would be guilty of unethical behavior. Legal/ethical confusion also can extend to the troubling notion that an ethical action might be illegal. The concept of “civil disobedience” involves the intentional, peaceful breaking of laws by those acting on what they believe to be higher values.
  4. Cross-Cultural Situations: Related to ignorance, this source of possible unethical conduct occurs when members of different cultures interact—an increasingly common occurrence in public relations. Acceptable behavior in one culture might violate important values in a different culture. For example, a non-Muslim practitioner who values sensitivity to other cultures may mean no disrespect by unthinkingly wearing shoes into a mosque, but in doing so, he or she has violated an important cultural standard.
  5. Short-Term Thinking: Aristotle was among the first to identify this challenge to ethical conduct when he condemned individuals who opt for immediate pleasure or relief at the expense of long-term pain. For example, a member of PRSA might violate that organization’s value of honesty by telling a lie to resolve, seemingly, a difficult, embarrassing situation. Because that action would go against a core value, it would be unethical. Furthermore, if the lie were revealed, the practitioner would have done long-term damage to his or her reputation, as well as the reputation of his or her employer/client.
  6. Virtual Organizations: These entities are temporary groups of, usually, far-flung associates, perhaps united only by online media, who come together to complete a project. For example, to produce a corporate annual report, a freelance public relations practitioner hired to oversee the project might commission freelance writers, editors, photographers, illustrators, and printers. The group might never meet in person, and because it is temporary, it almost surely would lack a written ethics code and any sustained discussion of core values that might unite its members. At worst, the actions of some members might seriously violate other members’ core values.
  7. Dilemmas: Dilemmas are problems that lack painless, win-win solutions. In ethics, dilemmas involve clashing values; they arise from situations in which no matter what course of action an individual takes, his or her actions will be inconsistent with at least one core value. Of all the challenges to ethical behavior, dilemmas can be the most painful. For example, a public relations practitioner who embraces the concept of two-way symmetry might experience an unpleasant clash of values if he or she believed that the actions of the employer/client—actions the practitioner had tried to change—were unfairly damaging to an important public. That practitioner might be torn between the values of loyalty to the employer/client and the values, as noted above, of trust, exchange, and, in a broader sense, the public good.

Dilemmas demonstrate the need for critical-thinking tools within the broad field of ethics. When core values clash, we sometimes surrender to stress and confusion, and our thinking can become muddled. Ideally, critical-thinking systems can combat that confusion by providing structure.

Critical thinking is characterized by four qualities: It is (1) goal oriented (we seek the best solution to the dilemma), (2) objective (we try to temporarily set aside our personal biases), (3) comprehensive (we draw on many opinions and sources of information), and (4) systematic (we have a specific procedure to guide our thinking). The acronym COGS—comprehensive, objective, goal oriented, and systematic—can be used to describe critical thinking.

One well-known critical-thinking tool in ethics is the Potter Box, designed by Ralph Potter, a retired professor of social ethics. In essence, the Potter Box consists of four quadrants: (1) definition, in which we establish what we know and don’t know; (2) values, in which we identify and evaluate the values inherent in the dilemma; (3) principles, in which we seek guidance from philosophers such as Aristotle and Immanuel Kant as well as from ethics codes; and (4) loyalties, in which we evaluate the involved publics and consider which ones deserve our loyalty. Using the Potter Box, public relations practitioners can help ensure that their attempt to resolve an ethics dilemma is comprehensive, objective, goal oriented, and systematic.

In 2004, PRSA began to issue Professional Standards Advisories, describing specific ethics challenges of particular concern to its members. To date, the advisories have included these challenges to ethical behavior:

  • The overbilling of clients
  • The creation of so-called front groups, which don’t acknowledge their true creators and financial sponsors Truthfulness in war-related activities
  • Disclosure by seemingly independent commentators of any payments that might represent a conflict of interest
  • Disclosure of the true sponsorship and authorship of blogs

The inclusion of full disclosure of blog sponsorship and authorship demonstrates how technological innovations can pose new ethical challenges for public relations practitioners.

Case Study: Starbucks Coffee Company

Ethics, as we know, involves identifying and acting on core values. In the difficult days that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Starbucks Coffee Company proved itself to be a positive example of an organization that strives to integrate its core values and its actions.

In the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, a Starbucks employee in New York City sold bottled water to a paramedic. Starbucks had intended to donate the water, but in the turmoil of that unprecedented day, a company employee made a mistake.

When word of the sale reached Orin Smith, thenpresident of Starbucks, he contacted the paramedic’s employer to apologize and return the money. Smith then contacted New York employees to reinforce the company’s decision to donate supplies to rescue workers, and Starbucks issued a news release—a key tactic of media relations—apologizing for the action and announcing its donation policy.

One beneficiary of those supplies was the Emergency Room staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital, only blocks from the rubble and smoke of the World Trade Center. Days later, Smith received a letter from a St. Vincent’s nurse that included this passage:

I wasn’t scheduled to work, but I needed to go to the ER and help. . . . Hours passed and the staff was getting tired. I told my co-worker Jay, “I would love to have a cup of Starbucks right now.” We didn’t want to leave the ER, not knowing what would come through the doors. An hour later, I noticed my co-worker Karen with a cup of Starbucks! She informed me that the Starbucks on Greenwich Avenue brought fresh coffee and water for the ER staff. Mr. Smith, I cannot tell you how much that cup of coffee meant to me. . . . I want to thank you personally for your generosity and support. (“New Yorker Shows Support,” para. 3)

“I have never been more proud of Starbucks [employees] than I am right now,” Smith responded in yet another news release, but he still had not forgotten Starbuck’s initial, unintended departure from its values. “The decision [to charge the paramedic] is not defensible and is totally inconsistent with what we stand for,” he said (“Starbucks President,” para. 1). As order gradually returned to New York and Washington, D.C., Starbucks donated $1 million to relief efforts in those cities.

Going the extra mile to ensure that it is acting on its values has become characteristic of Starbucks’s corporate behavior. When protestors rallied at Starbucks’s 2001 annual stockholders meeting, company officials offered to meet with the protestors to evaluate Starbucks’s policies on food additives, which was the issue in question. The protestors, however, were not as accommodating: They refused to meet unless Starbucks agreed in advance to their demands.

Starbucks’s values-driven behavior has helped the company earn a perennial spot on Business Ethics magazine’s annual list of “100 Best Corporate Citizens.” In the past decade, the company has won more than a dozen national and regional awards for ethical behavior. Starbucks also issues an annual corporate social responsibility report.

At the core of Starbucks’s values-driven behavior is a mission statement that includes six guiding principles. The succinct statement reads as follows:

Starbucks Mission Statement: Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.

The following six guiding principles will help us measure the appropriateness of our decisions:

  1. Provide a great work environment and treat each others with respect and dignity.

  2. Embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business.

  3. Apply the highest standards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting, and fresh delivery of our coffee.

  4. Develop enthusiastically satisfied customers all of the time.

  5. Contribute positively to our communities and our environment.

  6. Recognize that profitability is essential to our future success. (

Starbucks also has an environmental mission statement that pledges “environmental leadership in all facets of our business.”

The principles in Starbucks’s mission statement virtually ensure conflict. Emphasizing profits, quality, and corporate citizenship can simultaneously stretch a company in at least three different directions, as Starbucks learned in 2000, when protestors charged that the company paid poverty-level prices to coffee growers in developing nations. A key demand of the protestors was that Starbucks purchase Fair Trade coffee beans. Fair Trade involves paying individual farmers in developing nations a living wage for their crops. Crops grown by large corporate farms cost less and can force individual farmers into poverty.

Starbucks’s response to the situation underscored the creative tensions within its mission statement and principles. Company officials acknowledged that Starbucks had earlier sought Fair Trade beans but had not located any that met Starbucks’s standards—a direct reference to the company’s mission of supplying “the finest coffee in the world.” However, the same officials promised a more rigorous search—a direct reference to the company’s principles of excellence in purchasing and building better communities. Soon after announcing the new search, Starbucks bought almost 80,000 pounds of Fair Trade beans, and it promised to purchase more if it could locate crops that met company standards. Within a year, Fair Trade coffee became part of Starbucks’s worldwide product lines.

Starbucks’s repeated willingness to evaluate whether its actions incorporate its values earns respect even from potential critics. “The company is often grudgingly considered by many social activists to be a ‘socially responsible’ company,” said one analyst (Maloy, 2001, para. 26). A college journalist offered the same idea in slightly less formal language: “Even though Starbucks exemplifies corporate ickiness, the giant coffee company [has begun] selling Fair Trade Certified Coffee” (“100% Fair Trade Coffee,” 2000, para. 1).

Case Study: Front Groups

Front groups present a continuing challenge to public relations ethics. Such organizations often have noble names and seem independent; however, they receive secret support from a silent partner that hopes to benefit from the group’s advocacy efforts. In the late 1990s, the Associated Press (AP) published evidence suggesting that international pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome had quietly supported a front group in the hope of influencing federal health care policy in the United States.

Are front groups unethical? If they violate the values of involved individuals, organizations, or professions, the answer almost certainly is yes. By embracing values such as honesty, accuracy, and the public interest, public relations organizations throughout the world have strongly suggested that front groups are inconsistent with the values of the profession. The current PRSA ethics code specifically includes “front groups” among its examples of “improper conduct” for ethical practitioners.

In 1996 and 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received almost 10,000 letters asking it not to ban a particular kind of asthma inhaler known as an MDI. Because those inhalers contained ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons, environmental-defense organizations wanted them removed from the market. In many of the letters, opponents of the possible ban referred to information received from the Committee to Protect MDIs.

According to the AP, the Committee to Protect MDIs was a front group secretly sponsored by Glaxo Wellcome, which had fallen behind its competitors in developing environmentally friendly inhalers. The public relations consultant who oversaw the Committee to Protect MDIs told an AP reporter that she couldn’t recall how her involvement with the organization began, nor would she answer the reporter’s questions about the committee’s members and financing.

Ironically, in the early days of the MDI controversy, a pharmaceutical-industry newsletter reported that Glaxo Wellcome denied conducting any lobbying efforts to delay a ban on MDIs. The same story, however, noted the aggressive lobbying of the Committee to Protect MDIs, and the story ended with a quotation from the head of the committee— the same consultant who later would not discuss the committee’s financing and membership.

To its credit, Glaxo Wellcome answered the AP’s questions about its involvement, acknowledging that it did, indeed, finance the Committee to Protect MDIs. And many of the company’s later public relations tactics in the battle to preserve the inhalers seemed both legal and ethical: Its representatives spoke with reporters about problems with non-MDI inhalers, and the company openly financed a survey by an independent inhaler-users group.

Repercussions from the AP exposé were few. Glaxo Wellcome endured a handful of negative stories in the news media, but the Committee to Protect MDIs vanished from the headlines almost as quickly as its Web site went dark.

If the end always justifies the means (a dubious notion in ethics), then the Committee to Protect MDIs may have been a public relations success. The FDA delayed its ban on the inhalers, and Glaxo Wellcome won time to continue its development of environmentally friendly alternatives. The company later merged with another pharmaceutical giant and now regularly reports annual sales exceeding $40 billion.

The public relations practitioner who supervised the Committee to Protect MDIs went on to represent another multinational pharmaceutical company and has been frequently quoted in the news media.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to document the damage to the public relations profession in the minds of those who may have felt deceived or perhaps betrayed by the Committee to Protect MDIs.

Public Relations Ethics: Values in Action

As a relatively young profession, public relations continues to seek the core values that are essential to any concept of ethics for the discipline. Despite the occasional frustrations inherent in the ongoing debate, many participants— practitioners as well as scholars—have come to realize a significant advantage in viewing public relations ethics as a work in progress: Passionate, sustained discussions about values and values-driven actions in public relations help keep those topics at the forefront of the profession. And voices from many viewpoints must be welcomed to the debate—feminist perspectives, postmodern perspectives, international perspectives, and more. After all, an enduring, high-profile discussion of how public relations can honor the most important values ranging from the international level to the personal level is surely good for a profession that seeks credibility and an honorable reputation.


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