Keeper of the Code – Leadership Ethics for Public Relations

John Palmer headshotLeading a public relations career in today’s world is not without its challenges and opportunities demanding strong vigilance, great expertise, and, as always, ethics. As PR professionals we are constantly in situations (big and small) that demand strong ethical behavior to respond to issues such as conflicts of interest, compliance of company values, and confidentiality, just to name a few. By incorporating ethical behavior in our work and life we can become better leaders of integrity and quality.

I remember my high school freshmen English teacher’s famous class rule, “Behave as if you are being videotaped.” This was an important moment in helping establish mindfulness and self-awareness. I realized then that we are watched constantly, particularly as leaders, as the example of how to behave and conduct ourselves. Later I realized that the biggest watcher should be yourself. We need to become skilled at evaluating our own behavior to determine if we are doing the right thing. Succeeding and surviving in the public relations profession are two very different things. J.M. Smucker Co. CEO Tim Smucker said ethics is “doing the right thing even when no one is looking.” Fortunately, a professional who commits themselves to ethical practices (doing the right thing) can survive but practicing good ethics is where they can succeed. So, what is the “right thing”?

My mentor was a strong leader in ethics (his license plate read “ethics”), and he said doing the right thing is knowing and following all laws, rules, and regulations applicable to your chosen field 24/7. During one of our meetings, he emphasized to me that I need to decide where to set my personal ethics, referencing that I’ve been exposed to ethical standards throughout my life such as the Golden Rule (3rd grade), Ten Commandments, 4-H Club, PRSSA, and PRSA. These affiliations have grounded me with a barometer on how to act and behave in my personal and professional life coupled with the organization’s values and code of conduct to guide expected behavior. He stressed ethical leadership as “doing the right thing but doing so in a way that encourages others to follow suit.” Additionally, he said “communicating the importance of ethics, abiding by company standards, supporting employees in doing the right thing and holding accountable those who don’t” are core attributes of ethical leadership.

Commitment to ethics is an important value of membership with the Public Relations Society of America. The Society’s Code of Ethics provides important guidelines for members, with six core values to guide behaviors and decision-making: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. One of my favorite movie series is Pirates of the Caribbean and in the third installment, “At World’s End” we are introduced to the character Captain Teague (played by Rolling Stones member Keith Richards) who is the “keeper of the code.” In the movie we see Capt. Teague called upon to interpret the code to resolve an issue. As PRSA members we commit to the Society’s Code of Ethics, and we should be consistently understanding and following these values and code of conduct. Each of us should be “keeper of the code.”

Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you will do things differently.” Leading a rewarding career in public relations creates experiences and shapes the professional with integrity, reputation, and stamina. Committing to knowing and practicing the best ethical standards and values through affiliation and constant learning will generate better outcomes and experiences. We are all in this together, and we need to share experiences and learn together to make our profession the best it can be.


John Palmer, MA, APR is immediate past chair of the PRSA East Central District Board of Directors and is co-chair of PRSA’s Professional Development Committee. He is ECD Board’s liaison to PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. John is director of media and public relations for the Ohio Hospital Association and has led public relations and marketing strategies for nonprofit, private and public organizations for 18 years.