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Ethics - Cornerstone of Credibility

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James A. Little, President, Diversified Communications, Inc.

Ethics is the cornerstone of credibility for every successful public relations professional. Neither the young professional just entering the profession nor the seasoned professional can practice long with his or her credibility destroyed. Obviously, building credibility is more than just practicing in an ethical manner. Other words such as "competence" and "trustworthiness" come to mind quickly when one defines credibility. But, since unethical conduct can quickly and permanently undercut all other elements of credibility, ethics simply can never be compromised.

Each practicing professional develops his or her unique set of ethical practices from "what's in us" and from "what's around us." "What's in us" comes from family and religious values. It comes from playground games, from mentors and is part of growing up. "What's around us" comes from learned experiences. In school, it comes from teachers and professors. In life, it comes from those professionals who have blazed trails of ethical conduct for other professionals to follow. For the young person about to enter the profession of public relations, there is perhaps precious little which can be done about "what's in us." It is, however, an appropriate time to examine what each of us can bring to the table of professionalism and to be determined to bring the very best.

To help guide the young professional, however, such professional organizations as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have established codes of conduct. While most professional societies have developed such codes, I am particularly impressed with the PRSA code. It is the only enforceable code which has been adopted by any professional communications organization.

The PRSA Declaration of Principles and its Code of Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations was first adopted in 1950. Practitioners in this just emerging profession recognized that if public relations were ever to gain the status of a profession, its members must be held to high and consistent standards of practice. Some practitioners tried to avoid the term "public relations" in their title or in their practices, reflecting the feeling that the term "public relations" was in itself "damaged" beyond any repair. The leaders of PRSA, however, felt that the term "public relations" could be preserved and would be strengthened only when all who practiced the profession conducted their affairs in an open and ethical manner.

The PRSA Code is a living document It has been revised in 1954, in 1959, in 1963, in 1977, in 1983, and again in 1988. It will likely be revised again, soon. It is a document that no professional can take lightly.

Declaration of Principles

Members of the Public Relations Society of America base their professional principles on the fundamental value and dignity of the individual, holding that: the free exercise of human rights, especially freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, is essential to the practice of public relations. In serving the interests of clients and employers, we dedicate ourselves to the goals of better communication, understanding, and cooperation among the diverse individuals, groups and institutions of society, and of equal opportunity of employment in the public relations profession.

We pledge:
  • To conduct ourselves professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public;

  • To improve our individual competence and advance the knowledge and proficiency of the profession through continuing research and education;

  • And to adhere to the articles of the Code of Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations as adopted by the governing Assembly of the Society.
People who caution against strict adherence to the principal that each party has the right to public relations counsel frequently ask this rhetorical question:

"If Adolph Hitler had come to a U.S. public relations firm in the 1930s when he was the head of a legitimate, recognized government and sought counsel, would it have been proper to accept him as a client It would have been legal. It would have been defensible if one accepts the principal that all parties deserve representation. But, would it have been ethical?."

So, "what's around us" here is experience. The young professional is, by definition, short on actual experience. But the experience of others is available to every professional. It is a matter of keeping an open mind. Some might call it continuing education. I would call it awareness. It is reading professional journals, attending professional meetings, and by all means, interacting with professionals who have outstanding credibility. Developing and protecting personal credibility is an everyday experience, and the cornerstone of your credibility will always be your understanding and dedication to ethics.

JIM LITTLE is president of Diversified Communications, Inc., an agency which provides public relations, marketing, and related communication services to clients throughout Ohio and other parts of the country.

Mr. Little was the 1981 national president of the Public Relations Society of America and is still active in this over 16,000 member professional organization. He currently serves as chairman of the Society Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. He has been a member of PRSA since 1964, earned accreditation in 1968, and was elected to the PRSA College of Fellows in 1990. He served on the national board of directors for PRSA from 1977 to 1982.

Mr. Little was national professional advisor to the Public Relations Student Society of America in 1983-84 and 1984-85. He is a charter member of the Investor Relations Section of PRSA and a member of the Counselors Academy. He is a member of the public relations advisory committees of Kent State and Ball State Universities.

In 1955, he received his BA in journalism from the University of Toledo. He was a reporter and sportswriter for the Toledo Blade newspaper and a public information officer with the 11th Airborne Division before joining the Cooper Tire and Rubber Company in 1963 as the director of public relations. In 1970, he became president of DCI.
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