How Important is it for Your Organization to Have a Code of Ethics?

Companies with the strongest ethical cultures outperform their peers by 40% across areas including customer satisfaction, employee loyalty, innovation, adaptability and growth.

Nearly four in 10 Gen Zs and Millennials say they have rejected work assignments due to ethical concerns, and yet, only 14% of employees say they actually work in organizations that have strong ethical cultures.

It’s essential. Ethics matter.

We are bombarded with such issues as disinformation, unprofessional conduct, conflicts of interest, maintaining data privacy, and the rapid rise of new AI tools. The need for ethical guidelines is more crucial than ever, no matter the profession.

The Foundation of PR Ethics

A bit of history: Ivy Lee, one of the founders of modern public relations, is considered to have written and published the profession’s first code of ethics in 1906. His “Declaration of Principles” explained, “Our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information…”

Since that time, many public relations and media-related organizations have followed suit, recognizing the importance of providing ethical guidance, and instituting their own codes and principles, including PRSA, The Arthur Page Society, IABC, SBJ, and many others.

Utilizing a Code of Ethics

Many of those codes share similar wording and structures, with variations in terms of focus, priorities and goals. Regardless of the differences, here are some considerations for all professional communicators:

  • Consider context. It’s helpful to understand our colleagues’ and clients’ ethical frameworks as elements of our working relationships. For example, I work with lawyers and engineers every day, and knowing how their codes of ethics apply to situations improves our problem solving capacity and our ethical decision making.
  • Define terms. Share your professional and personal code of ethics. It’s important to let clients and coworkers know where you stand before you are faced with a sticky situation. One PRSA member, Gary Bitner of the Bitner Group, recently shared with me that a reference to ethics is included in every contract submitted to prospective clients. By saying "Our work will be carried out according to the Code of Professional Standards of the Public Relations Society of America. A copy of the Code will be produced on request," the company invites an open conversation about ethics in their work.
  • Evergreen, but flexible. New issues will continue to surface and require the adaptation and implementation of ethical considerations. Rather than constantly tailor your code to fit a new technology or controversy, try flipping the equation: Create or institute a code that serves as an ethical anchor across virtually any disturbance in the Force (yes, "Star Wars" fan). There certainly may be the need for occasional tweaks, but the underlying principles and precepts remain relevant and reliable.

The throughline for all of these suggestions? As I mentioned above, ethics matter, which happens to be the theme for PRSA’s 2023 Ethics Month. Intended to inspire, educate and motivate, codes of ethics should never be difficult to decipher, but instead should serve as clarion calls for defining and doing the right thing.

Michelle Egan, APR, is the 2023 PRSA Chair and Chief Communications Officer at Alyeska Pipeline Service Company