PR Pros Rank High on Ethical Standards


Contrary to entertainment and media portrayals, a new academic study ranks PR practitioners seventh highest among 19 professionals tested.  Published in the Journal of Public Relations Research, the study was conducted by Renita Coleman, Ph.D., School of Journalism, University of Texas-Austin, and Lee Wilkins, Ph.D., School of Journalism, University of Missouri. 

The study compared the mean P scores of various professions after gathering baseline data on a national sample of 118 PR professionals.  The study is important since it’s the first to empirically measure the quality of ethical reasoning of PR professionals.  PR pros were ranked with results from other professions on the Defining Issues Test (DIT), a reliable measure of individual moral development.  The full study is only available to subscribers, but here are mean P scores of various professions tested:

Mean P Scores of Various Professions

Seminarians/philosophers  65.1
Medical students   50.2
Practicing physicians  49.2
Journalists   48.68
Dental students   47.6
Nurses    46.3
Public Relations   46.2
Graduate students   44.9
Undergraduate students  43.2
Accounting students   42.8
Veterinary students   42.2
Navy enlisted men   41.6
Orthopedic surgeons  41.0
Adults in general   40.0
Business professionals  38.13
Business students   37.4
High school students  31.0
Prison inmates   23.7
Junior high students   20.0

Professors Coleman and Wilkins help explain the strong PR ranking:  “Public relations professionals see their role as connecting clients to the larger world, primarily through journalists or the news media.  To accomplish this, they need to maintain the trust of both parties, but particularly the trust of journalists who are already skeptical of both their institutional role and their individual motives.”  As a result, they observe that honesty and lack of willingness to deceive those who receive information is critical in effective PR practice. 

While a single study can’t lay claim to ethical status, it certainly helps build the case.  “This should be good news to public relations practitioners who are trying to shed the image of ‘flackery’ while claiming a seat in the management boardrooms of many corporations,” the study authors conclude.  “Thinking ethically has always carried with it a level of responsibility.  Perhaps it also can be a way for the profession to the claim the authority that will support responsible conduct.”

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