History of the PRSA Code of Ethics

In the United States, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has guided the work of professionals in the field since 1948. In 1950, the organization adopted its first code of ethics in order to provide guidance for its members about ethical behavior in the field. Although general in nature, this first code both “laid the groundwork for future codes and established the direction of its successors.”

The 1950 code did not emerge from a vacuum. While the society intended for the code to legitimize the field of public relations as a profession, those who perceived misdoings among the members of the field also advocated strongly for such a guide. Many members hoped that the existence of such a code would eradicate this behavior moving forward.

Enforcement mechanisms in the bylaws of the PRSA were added when the PRSA revised the code in 1954. The rewritten code in 1954, more straightforward than the previous one, used action-based principle statements (e.g., “We will safeguard the confidence…”) to describe and define ethically appropriate behavior by public relations professionals.

When the PRSA revised the Code of Ethics once more in 1959, enforcement language was added to the text of the code. Bylaw revisions at this time established six regional boards to adjudicate ethical violations by PRSA members. In 1962, the society established a board to actively seek out ethical violators, a responsibility that had previously been assigned to PRSA members.

The 1960s saw further revision of the code to clarify guidelines on conflict of interest and the rising problem of so-called front groups. Additional revision during this time brought the PRSA together with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to adapt code sections to the growing area of financial public relations. During this time, guidance was also provided via revisions to the code about the use of public relations for political campaigns.

The PRSA once again interacted with the federal government when an FTC (Federal Trade Commission) review of the organization’s code of ethics, undertaken as part of a larger project, raised some red flags regarding the code’s ban on contingency fees and its provisions preventing professionals from poaching each other’s clients. A 1977 revision of the Code aligned with other PRSA revisions that year, including a new Declaration of Principles that referenced the importance of human rights. 1977 also saw the deletion of a previous provision that prevented public relations professionals from making derogatory statements about other products.

In 1988, the PRSA adopted a three-part code of ethics with a declaration of principles, a pledge of professional conduct, and a 17-item list detailing appropriate behavior on the part of public relations professionals. Two years later, the organization provided specific interpretations of these guidelines, where appropriate, for certain fields such as financial public relations and politics. This 1998 code and its 1990 interpretations remained in place until the revision that produced the 2000 PRSA Code of Ethics, still in use today.

Next Page: Developing PRSA’s 2000 (current) Code of Ethics