Public Relations – An Ethical Dilemma

Public relations (PR) practitioners face a countless number of ethical dilemmas, which they must be able to deal with effectively (Wilcox et al. 2013). The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) has a code of ethics which binds all members of the PRIA and one of the principles requires members to engage fairly and honestly with their employers and clients without representing conflicting interests (PRIA 2015). In this situation, it would be an unethical practice to use the knowledge from a good friend to the advantage of the employee and their employer in order to win the bid because it is neither a fair nor honest practice. Although it may be tempting for the PR practitioner to gain an unfair advantage, the consequences of a breach of the code of ethics may be serious and result in fines, suspension of membership or expulsion (PRIA 2003).


Image 1 (Source:  Skillings 2014)

When dealing with the news media, it is easy to extinguish a PR practitioner’s credibility and usefulness to their employer by anything less than complete honestly (Wilcox et al. 2013). As such, although temptations may often present themselves, it is absolutely vital that all PR practitioners display ethical behaviour which will earn trust and respect over the longer term. Personally in this situation, I would apply my internal standard of ethics and morals and disclose the relationship with my good friend on the bid-assessment panel. This may require my withdrawal from the campaign; however it would be preferable to withdraw from the campaign with a potentially lost opportunity than to be expelled from the industry for dishonesty.


Public Relations Institute of Australia 2003, ‘Code of Ethics’, viewed 3 May 2015,

Public Relations Institute of Australia 2015, ‘Individual Code of Ethics’, viewed 3 May 2015,

Skillings, J 2014, ‘Ethical SEO: We’ve always known what’s right and wrong’, viewed 4 May 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.


Coca-Cola’s Good Old Times

In March 2015, Coca-Cola released a new ad as part of a public relations campaign celebrating Fanta’s 75th anniversary. The ad announces that the drink was created in Germany during the 1940’s when limited resources were available to produce Coke (Szathmary 2015). The ad promoted Fanta’s new drink recipe and featured its unmistakable ring-bottle (as can be seen in Image 1), referring to the 1940’s when the drink was first produced as the good old times (Soonmi 2015). This sparked a furious online backlash with offended commentators reporting that the ad had left them speechless (Campbell 2015).


Image 1 (Source: Campbell 2015)

Coca-Cola responded by pulling the video offline after the backlash (Campbell 2015) however it had already been uploaded to sites such as YouTube. A statement was issued in which Coca-Cola apologised for any offence caused by the ad and suggested that the video was intended to evoke positive memories created by over seven decades of brand history and that Coca-Cola has no affiliation with Hitler or the Nazi Party (Szathmary 2015).

In my opinion, the actions have neither helped nor hindered Coca-Cola’s reputation as although causing outrage with such a sensitive topic, Coca-Cola’s swift response showed evidence of an effective crisis management plan. Wilcox et al. (2013) suggest that how an organisation responds within the first 24 hours can determine whether the event remains a localised incident or becomes a full-scale crisis. To their benefit, Coca-Cola is a large global company with a well-established brand history often being ranked amongst the best global brands; it is possible that this incident will be isolated without long-lasting damage to their reputation. Despite this, in Germany and surrounding countries, there will most likely be a longer lasting effect and potential for permanent damage to Coca-Cola’s reputation.


Campbell 2015, ‘Coca-Cola pulls ‘Nazi’ advert after furious online backlash’, The Express, 3 March, viewed 18 April 2015,

Soonmi 2015, Fanta’s 75th Anniversary Commercial (English Subtitles), video, 27 Febrary, viewed 18 April 2015,

Szathmary 2015, ‘Coca-Cola pulls ‘Nazi’ Fanta advertisement which referred to the 1940s as ‘the good old times’’, Daily Mail Australia, 5 March, viewed 18 April 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Persuasion vs Coercion: An Ethical Question

Most public relations (PR) campaigns are seeking to change attitudes and behaviours of audiences, and can be said to be persuasive communication management (Wilcox et al. 2013). Messina (2007, p.30) states that ‘One cannot inform without the message receiver at least implicitly being persuaded that the topic is worthy of attention’. Messina (2007) further points out that the part played by persuasion strengthens where the intent is to influence attitudes or behaviour.

The definition of coerce (Oxford Dictionaries 2015) is to ‘persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats’ or to ‘obtain (something) from someone by using force or threats’.  Messina (2007) suggests that coercion would never be considered ethical in public relations.

Simply comparing these concepts highlights immediate differences, summarised in image 1. Persuasion allows an audience to make voluntary, informed conclusions through communication of a view. Whereas coercion is unethical; it involves the use of manipulation, force or threats in an attempt to accomplish a desired result.

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Image 1(Source: Dietrich 2012)

The line for PR professionals should be drawn at the point where ethical persuasion is used in communications in an effort to influence others, and no questionable, unethical or potentially illegal tactics are used in an attempt to achieve organisational goals. An audience should feel empowered to make educated decisions and form opinions about the subject, without intimidation or threats being used.

An example of the ethical use of persuasion in PR is that specific facts relating to the subject matter may be intentionally omitted, however any information that is communicated must be based on truth and/or facts and must not be deliberately misleading, untrue, or forceful or threatening in nature.


Dietrich, G 2012, Employer Ensures Employees Aren’t Happy by Leading with Fear, viewed 26 April 2015,

Messina, A 2007, ‘Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: an ethical approach’, Journal of Communication Management, vol.11, no.1, pp. 29-52, (online Discover It @ CQUniversity Library).

Oxford Dictionaries 2015, Coerce, viewed 4 May 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Precisely Measuring PR Campaigns

Measurement is the step of the public relations (PR) process involving ‘the evaluation of results against agreed-upon objectives that are established during planning’ (Wilcox et al. 2013, p.127). Without measurement, management won’t know whether the organisational objectives were accomplished and whether results justify the efforts of the campaign. According to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), it is important for PR professionals to provide ‘evidence-based, credible results and demonstrate return on investment’ (PRIA 2014) by completing research, objectives and measurement techniques and ongoing evaluation. Including these steps as part of standard practice are central to the PR industry gaining, developing and increasing maturity and credibility (PRIA 2014).

Image 1 shows the Australian PR Evaluation Model (PRIA 2014) which outlines how measurement and evaluative techniques can be used to help achieve organisational objectives and make improvements based on outcomes of the PR campaign.

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Image 1 (Source: PRIA 2014)

A campaign’s expenditure and timelines can be planned and evaluated by the use of a Gantt chart and spreadsheets to compare the planned expenditure and timeline to the actual outcomes. These results can be evaluated to define areas of improvement. Wilcox et al (2013) suggest that results and effectiveness can be evaluated by measurement of:

  • Message distribution and media placements
  • Audience awareness, comprehension and retention
  • Changes in attitudes, opinions and behaviours

Measuring and evaluating progress throughout a campaign is critical to its success as it may offer vital feedback to suggest that tactics or organisational attitudes should change, allowing management to make appropriate adjustments (Wilcox et al. 2013). Thorough measurement, evaluation and research is conducted after the PR campaign to analyse inputs, outputs, outtakes and outcomes to report on the overall success of the campaign and improve the value of future PR activities (PRIA 2014).


Public Relations Institute of Australia 2014, ‘Statement of Principles on Best Practice in PR Measurement and Evaluation’, viewed 26 April 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.


Public Relations Campaigns – the Importance of Reliable, Credible, Substantiated and Accurate Research

Public relations messages should be persuasive to the public (Wilcox et al. 2013); how could a message backed by unreliable, untrustworthy, unsubstantiated and inaccurate research possibly be persuasive? With information from a wide range of sources readily available in today’s increasingly digital world, it is of great importance that public relations (PR) campaigns are based on reliable, credible, substantiated and accurate information.

With the PR industry being an important actor in society and in the democratic process (Larsson 2007), it is important for PR professionals to be trusted by their audience – the general public and in particular, their target market. With the PR industry so heavily associated with creating trust, building relationships and communicating clear messages to the audience, it is vital that information being communicated comes from reliable, credible, substantiated and accurate sources.

As illustrated below, information found online is not necessarily factual. In fact, the internet is a public forum where almost anyone, anywhere with a computer connected to the internet, can post their thoughts, opinions and ideas for potential global consumption (James 2007).

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Image 1 (Source: TechieTeacher5280 2011)

According to the Harvard College Writing Program (2015), these are some issues to consider when deciding what information is safe to use:

  • Author of the website – Including their qualifications, credentials, scope and purpose for publishing the information.
  • Accuracy and objectivity of the website – Whether the factual information can be verified elsewhere, whether any bias may exist.
  • Timely sources – Is there a creation date listed? Are the resources current or outdated?

As a general rule of thumb, sites to avoid for research purposes requiring factual information include blog posts, personal websites and Wiki sites, as these types of sources can be added by almost anyone!


Harvard College Writing Program 2015, ‘Evaluating Web Sources’, viewed 15 April 2015,

James 2007, ‘A review of the impact of new media on public relations: Challenges for terrain, practice and eduction’, Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, viewed 12 April 2015,

Larsson, L 2007, ‘Public Trust in the PR industry and its actors’, Journal of Communication Management, vol. 11, no. 2, viewed 11 April 2015,

TechieTeacher5280 2011, Evaluating Websites, viewed 11 April 2015,

Wilcox, DL, Cameron, GT, Reber, BH & Shin, JH 2013, Think: Public Relations, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.