A codes of ethics, the final and what seems to be the most important of the criteria, is the puzzle piece that would complete the picture of professionalization for the industry. L’Etang says in Public Relations; Concepts, Practice and Critique “Ethics are a part of organizational identity and of course a vital part of the organization’s reputational stance. These are usually found in the Code of Ethics or Code of Practice.” In our case, these codes are known as the codes of conduct.
In Exploring Public Relations, Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans identify these codes as being a safeguard for professions and their values and contribute to professionalisation and enhancing the reputation of public relations. In order to demonstrate this, we will look at selections from two different codes of conduct from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).
The PRSA Code of Professional Ethics drives the idea of ethical practices that serve the good of the people and the practice:
‘The value of member reputation depends upon the ethical conduct of everyone affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America. Each of us sets an example for each other – as well as other professionals – by our pursuit of excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct.’ (PRSA)
The Code of Professional Ethics also highlights the professional values of the organization, including honesty, expertise and fairness along with a Code of Provisions Conduct that is a guideline for “accurate and truthful information”.
For the CIPR, the Code of Conduct is a little more descriptive in the expectations of PR practitioners that become members of their organization. Maintaining the highest professional standards, fair business practices, upholding the reputation of PR and the CIPR, respect of the code, and professional training and development form the foundation for the code. There is also advice on how to put those principles into practice and how to handle a situation that breaches those principles.
In both of the codes, there is a strong emphasis on professionalism and reputation. Under the “Enhancing the Profession” section, the PRSA seeks increase respect and credibility with the public in order to foster a more professional view of PR. The CIPR says that reputation is important to corporate well being and so is the professionalism of those within the industry.
Recently, the PRSA even changed much of the corporate language in the codes to make it more relational, emphasizing two- way communication and mutually beneficial relationships. In doing this they not only make the code about the people the practitioners are serving, but an outsider who would read this feels more like a person rather than a project. However, these codes also contain pieces of information that make their goals impossible; emphasis on enforcement being eliminated and the fact that only members are subject to the codes of these professional bodies.
Because public relations is underdeveloped in terms of its professionalisation, there are few barriers to entry. “Employment in PR is not only expanding rapidly, but neither long apprenticeships nor specific qualifications are required,” said Morris and Goldsworthy in PR- A Persuasive Industry?: Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media. While formal training is available through higher education, many practitioners find their path to public relations though other professions such as journalism or marketing.
There are also many practitioners within the PR profession who do not refer to themselves as PR practitioners. They may opt for other titles that clearly represent the type of work that they perform. These factors may lead to a lack of membership to professional bodies due to the fact that these practitioners do not need the body to be successful or they do not feel the need to be constrained by the standards of public relations if they do not identify with the industry in their professions. Lack of enforcement to seek higher professional development and to identify practitioners at least within the industry itself, as deemed important within the codes of conduct, keep professionalisation at bay and make the codes of conduct null and void.
Joining a professional organization such as the PRSA and CIPR isn’t compulsory for PR practitioners, meaning they aren’t held to any of the standards outlined in the code. “A small percentage of practitioners belong to the major professional associations and an even smaller number are ‘accredited’ or ‘certified’… and been judged to be competent practitioners by a panel of their professional peers.” (Effective Public Relations) It is then the job of the professional organizations to work to get practitioners to become members with incentives such as membership levels that reflect qualifications, member directories for networking, career leads, professional development materials and training.
However, may people hiring practitioners aren’t looking for certifications or even memberships to professional bodies, therefore making these incentives futile. The non-members become a liability to the profession. There is no way to monitor their ethical or professional practices, and more importantly, there is no way for the code of conduct to be a unified foundation for PR practitioners as a whole. With this, it can only be concluded that, while current codes of conduct make a valiant effort at making sure the industry regulated and unified, without enforcement the codes of conduct requirement cannot be fulfilled.
While it is evident that the public relations has taken many strides to improve the industry as it reaches its centennial, it is also evident that they are missing key components to accomplishing the professional worldview they desire. Clearly they have fulfilled the requirements in the steps to professionalism through creating higher education in the field of public relations, established themselves in the public, be it through a professional avenues or popular culture, as well as established a system of self-governance.
The industry has even created several versions of codes of ethics and professional standards, but their downfall comes in the fact that they are not enforced and do not unify the profession as a whole. As of now, the codes of conduct have only established the mindset of what the industry should be. In order to push PR to the next level, professional bodies are going to have to think about creating stark changes such as certification examinations and more stringent membership requirements that reflect the needs of the industry.