Ethics and PR, the endless debate


Ethics in PR has always been one of the main issues discussed among the profession. If we go back to the origins of public relations, it is clear that the profession wasn’t the most ethical one. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, was in favour of manipulating society and public opinions and he helped creating opinion-shaping methods.

As public relations grew as a profession and a real industry, authors and scholars never stopped questionning the ethical dimension of PR practices. In fact, as a PR student myself, that was the topic of our first essay this year, and 2000 words are not enough to cover the subject, but it’s a beginning.

The dominant paradigm in Public Relations today is Grunig and Hunt’s four models that are as follow :

Model Name Type of communication Characteristics
Press agent/Publicity One-way communication Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organisation desires
Public Information Model One-way communication Uses press releases and other one-way comm techniques to distribute organisational information. The PR practitioner is often reffered as the in-house journalist.
Two-way asymmetrical model Two-way communication (imbalanced) Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organisation desires. Does not use research to find out how stakeholders feel about the organisation.
Two-way symmetrical model Two-way communication Uses communication to negotiate with the public, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organisation and its stakeholders.

However, the ethical dimension of each of these models can be discussed and questionned. Is there a better way to do PR ? Can PR practices ever be ethical ? Many people think that PR, just as advertising or marketing, is just manipulation, propaganda, a way for organisations to shape the public opinion.  It is true that in-house PR teams are here to help their organisations convey the best message and project a good image of their business. But how do you that without ever hiding anything ? Heather Yaxley also asks another interesting question : “An interesting question is how communications theories and ethics apply when the public relations function of an organisation uses lobbying to prevent information being available.  The approach may well have been a persuasive one in respect of government relations – but it is a total denial of communications to the wider public.


Is there one way to do ethical PR ? One would think yes, for NGOs or charities for example. But is it any different ? It is unlikely that doing PR for a “good cause” will change anything to the way we practice PR. Working for Greenpeace may be seen as a great thing, however, does Greenpeace always conduct ethical actions ? In fact, they sometimes use PR techniques to make their points.

There may be no perfect way to do ethical PR as it is in itself a profession that has to convey a message and sometimes bends the truth to its benefit but it is clear that the debate will never be over. And who knows, with hard work and more ethical practitioners, one day, PR will stop being linked to manipulation or propaganda.

References :

Grunig and Hunt, Managing PR (1984)

Further Reading :

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