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.

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.

blog 8 pic

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.