Ethical Approaches to a Public Relations Process

Public relations, plainly put, are relations with various publics, such as stakeholders, passive or active listeners, or any other group of individuals. Any time an organization deals with publics, there will be ethical dilemmas and judgment calls. An understanding of ethical approaches and the nature of public relations can guide the decisions and understanding before a choice must be made under fire.

Public relations can only be implemented through effective communication. Nine factors decide the effectiveness of a message: source credibility, salient information, effective verbal cues, effective nonverbal cues, two-way communication, opinion leaders, group influence, selective exposure, and audience participation. (Hendrix, 2013, p. 36). Public relations is by its very nature about mutuality and reciprocity. It exists to serve the public. While enhancing a client’s image through advocacy, public relations professionals are faced with numerous opportunities to apply their moral code. There are many notable moral theories that apply to the field, but the Judeo-Christian Theory is the one I want to apply to my career.

The Judeo-Christian Theory is based on respect and loving your neighbor as yourself, as exemplified in Matthew 7:12 (Day, n.d.). I believe public relations will hand me many opportunities to apply this theory that asks, “If I were on the other end of the dilemma, how would I want it to end?” Respect should underlie all ethical decision-making.
To relate the theory to life, Johnson & Johnson was faced with a dilemma in 1982 when their Tylenol franchise faced tampering instances (Seitel & Doorley, 2012). With a death count of eight, CEO Jim Burke recalled Tylenol in every single store even though investigators didn’t deem it necessary. Though they never found out who tampered with the medicine, it cost them a huge part of their company’s revenue. Upon making his decision to recall the drug, the CEO went straight to his principle of taking care of the customer first. In a money-hungry world, this might come as a surprise. It should be a lesson to all professionals that doing the right thing most often comes back to us. As in the case with Johnson & Johnson, within a year of the recall, they gained back their market share.

One of the nine factors in achieving effective communication is source credibility. We acquire credibility by gaining trust. Being transparent is honorable and rewarding in a two-way symmetrical relationship that is the quintessence of public relations. The credibility gap among public relations professionals and publics is unfortunate, and many people won’t put their trust in a spokesperson. The only way to mend the gap is to act with integrity and apply the moral principles we have set for the organization or ourselves. Jim Burke stuck to his guns when the company was on the line. He even said the choice was not his; their Credo, or mission statement, made the decision for him. As an emerging young professional, I recognize the importance of realizing my moral code and being ready to stick to it in times of crisis. Not all decisions will be praised like Burke’s, but each decision is one step closer to building the framework for the kind of professional I will be.

Day, L. Ethical Approaches to Public Relations.

Hendrix, J. A. (1988). Public relations cases. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub.Seitel, F. P., &

Doorley, J. (2012). Rethinking reputation: How PR trumps marketing and advertising in the new media world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.



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