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Sources and Synergies:
News Media Discussion of Public Relations and Ethics
Bonnie Parnell Riechert, Ph.D., APR
School of Advertising and Public Relations
College of Communication and Information
The University of Tennessee
476 Communications Building
Knoxville, TN USA 37996-0343
[log in to unmask]
For presentation at the annual convention of
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
San Antonio, Texas, August 2005
Sources and Synergies:
News Media Discussion of Public Relations and Ethics
Abstract: News media discussion of public relations and ethics is
investigated in a computer-assisted content analysis of articles
mentioning both "public relations" and "ethics" in The New York Times
from 1988-2004. Themes in coverage are identified. The Public
Relations Society of America and its code of ethics are represented
in the coverage, indicating some success in frame sponsorship. The
phrase "public relations" is used in a variety of ways; implications
for practitioners and educators are discussed.
Sources and Synergies:
News Media Discussion of Public Relations and Ethics
Public relations practitioners and educators who seek to advance the
professional status of public relations are concerned with ethical
standards. After all, the criteria of any profession include
specialized education, a body of knowledge, provision of a
valued service to society, emphasis on public service and social
responsibility, and adherence to some "code of ethics and standards
of performance though self-governing associations of colleagues"
(Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000, p. 51).
Though public relations does not enjoy general acceptance as a
profession, many individuals practicing public relations "qualify as
professionals, on the basis of their commitment to meeting
professional standards" (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2000, p. 52). Public
relations practitioners and educators may advance professionalism
individually and collectively through professional associations.
Professional associations provide mechanisms for continued education
as well as establishment and promotion of ethical standards of practice.
This exploratory study proceeds from a media agenda-building
perspective to examine how the news media have discussed publications
and ethics, with particular attention to how the media have covered
the leading public relations association and its long-standing code
of ethics. Computer-assisted quantitative content analysis and
qualitative analyses will examine the content of news media on these
topics, addressing such issues as what themes are present, who frames
this discussion, and how news values and other influences on content
appear to operate.
News content may be viewed as the product of meaning negotiation by
journalists, editors, and sources that they interview and quote in
the new articles. In this way, influential news content is synergistic.
Literature Review and Background
Agenda-Setting and Framing
If advancement of ethical standards is important to public relations
professionals, then news media discussion of public relations and
ethics is equally relevant. This is due to the power of the mass
media to influence popular thinking. As Cohen noted in his now
"famous dictum about media effects" (McCombs & Ghanem, 2001, p. 69)
the mass media are "stunningly successful" in telling us "what to
think about" (1963, p. 13). The media agenda shapes, or helps shape,
the public agenda. McCombs and Shaw referred to this as the
"agenda-setting function of mass media" (1972). Since their
widely-cited study, mass media scholars have given much attention to
this function in media effects research.
A number of scholars are shifting focus from media effects to media
content, realizing that if the mass media can tell us what to think
abut, it is important to understand what influences the content of
the news media. "A number of researchers who previously studied media
effects—including ourselves—now find themselves asking why such
effect-producing content exists to begin with" (Shoemaker and Reese,
1996, p. 5).
Gans (1979) and Gitlin (1980) suggested content research can be
organized into a handful of categories including influence by media
workers' socialization and attitudes, media routines, other social
institution and forces, and ideology of those in power. For five
decades communication scholars have examined influences on media
content by media workers, their employers, organizational structure,
and society itself. Yet "there has been little attention paid to the
theoretical links between them" (Shoemaker & Reese,1996, p. 5).
Shoemaker and Reese (1991, 1996) call for development of a
comprehensive theory of media content. They offer a hierarchical
model of influences on media content representing five levels: (1)
the individual (journalist) level, (2) the media routines level, (3),
the organization level, (4) the extramedia level, and (5) the
The model is depicted by a series of five concentric circles
representing the individual (journalist) level in the smallest,
center circle and the ideological level in the largest circle. This
is a useful way of categorizing and investigating influences on media
content. News values--such as timeliness, prominence, and conflict
represent--content influences at the media routines level. Content
influences at the extramedia level include sources of information,
other social institutions (business and government, for example), the
economic environment, and technology. Media-targeted efforts by
public relations practitioners and specific interest groups would be
examples of content influences at the extramedia level.
Shoemaker and Reese call for more study of "the message itself as a
dependent variable. We argue that the message, or media content, is
influenced by a wide variety of factors both inside and outside media
organizations" (1996, p. 11).
As Kennamer (1992, 1994) noted, "The news media are as much the
target of agenda-setting as they are the source" (p. 9). Berkowitz
(1992,1994) gives a compelling argument that media agenda-building is
the preferred terminology for the concept of how the media agenda is
formed. The concept "does not focus on agenda transferal as much as
it does on agenda creation . . ." (p. 87).
As Dearing and Rogers have noted, "the position on the media agenda
importantly determines that issue's salience on the public agenda"
(1996, p. 92). Of 112 empirical studies of the agenda-setting process
reviewed by them, 60 percent supported a media agenda-public agenda
Who frames the coverage of public relations and ethics in the news
media? And how do the news media report on this topic?
Communication scholars have studied framing in news media coverage
since Goffman (1974) and Bateson (1972) suggested the importance of
how we organize experience and Tuchman (1978) applied a framing
perspective to analysis of news production. Framing is considered the
selective representation of something, concerned with what is
included, excluded, and emphasized (Hallahan, 1999). The framing
metaphor may be "understood as a window or portrait frame drawn
around information that delimits the subject matter and, thus,
focuses on key elements within" (Hallahan, 1999, p. 207).
Entman argued that framing "essentially involves selection and
salience. To frame is to select some aspects of perceived reality and
make them more salient in the communicating text, in such a way as to
promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral
evaluation and/or treatment recommendation" (Entman, 1993, p. 55).
The selective nature of framing makes it a "critical activity in the
construction of social reality because it helps shape the
perspectives through which people see the world" (Hallahan, 1999, p.
207). Hallahan (1999) noted the importance of framing in public relations:
Implicitly, framing plays an integral role in public relations. If
public relations is defined as the process of establishing and
maintaining mutually beneficial relations between an organization and
publics on whom it depends (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1995), the
establishment of common frames of reference about topics or issues of
mutual concern is a necessary condition for effective relations to be
established" (p. 207).
News framing studies over more than two decades have examined media
coverage of a variety of issues, "although the role of public
relations as sources in news framing has been largely overlooked"
(Hallahan, 1999, p. 221).
One aspect of studying framing of news involves frame sponsorship
(Gamson & Modigliani, 1989, Hallahan, 1999) or what Scheufele (1999)
called frame building. This involves the success of competing
stakeholders to define issues and ultimately influence public
opinion, the media agenda, and the policy agenda. The concept of
frame sponsorship suggests the question, who frames the news? Or, to
whose views do the media give voice?
Entman argued that frames within text are manifest by the presence or
absence of key words (Entman, 1993). Framing scholars have noted the
need for more precise methods for studying frames in text, and
computer-assisted content analysis methods have provided one means
for doing this.
Public Relations Society of America
With a membership of 20,000 (or 28,000 if members of the student
society also are counted) the Public Relations Society of America
(PRSA) is "the world's largest organization for public relations
professionals" (www.prsa.org). The society is headquartered in New
York City. It is considered the leading association in the public
relations industry (Fitzpatrick, 1996).
The evolution of the society's code of ethics is more than five
decades in duration and impressive in its scope. PRSA was established
in 1947 with the merger of the West Coast American Council on Public
Relations and the East Coast National Association of Public Relations
Counsel (www.prsa.org). Some textbooks list the founding date as 1948.
Discussion on developing a guiding code must have begun immediately,
for the organization adopted its first "Professional Standards for
the Practice of Public Relations" on Dec. 4, 1950, not long after its
establishment. The first code included five principles. Since then,
the society revised its code seven times "to keep pace with industry
practices and increased expectations for ethical performances"
(Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 89). The current code was adopted in 2000 to
"heighten awareness of ethical issues and address concerns regarding
code enforcement" (Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 89).
Fitzpatrick (2002a) traces the evolution of the PRSA code of ethics,
discussing the text of each generation and the revisions that
occurred in 1954, 1959, 1963, 1977, 1983, 1988, and finally 2000.
These historical changes are summarized in Table 1.
In the first revision on Oct. 15-16, 1954, PRSA approved a shorter
revised code that included six principles and "read more like a
pledge than its predecessor" (Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 91). At the time,
society membership totaled 1,139.
Enforcement was emphasized in the 1959 code revision that included
four principles and 16 articles. The 1959 code included four "shalls"
and nine "shall nots." Under the code, members who had evidence of
other members' conduct of "unethical, illegal, or unfair practices"
were to report this to the society. PRSA bylaws were amended to
establish a national judicial council to consider such cases. A
nine-member grievance board was established in 1962. The board was
renamed in 1983 to the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards
(Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 96).
A 1963 code revision strengthened "the prohibition on conflicts of
interest" and addressed "growing concerns about the use of front
groups" (Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 96).
Several changes were included in the 1977 code revision when PRSA
membership stood at 8,337. Among the revisions was the removal of
sexist language. Paragraphs that were criticized by the FTC as
restraining competition and price fixing were removed. A new
provision barred members from guaranteeing achievement of results
beyond their immediate control. And references to "the importance of
constitutional and human rights" were added (Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 98).
Revisions in 1983 clarified language and format. In 1988 revisions
included several noteworthy additions such as obligations of members
to both the client or employer and the democratic process. The first
of 17 articles stated, "A member shall conduct his or her
professional life in accord with the public interest." Official
interpretations were written to explain the intent of articles such
as, "A member shall not engage in any practice which has the purpose
of corrupting the integrity of channels of communication or the
processes of government."
Over time, the PRSA enforcement system was criticized for being
ineffective. The PRSA Grievance Board had no jurisdiction over
nonmembers of the society, for one thing. Members were critical of
code enforcement yet reluctant to get involved.
A strategic plan for PRSA introduced in 1993 called for PRSA to
become "the standard bearer or ethical business practice" by 2000
(Warner, 1993, 2-3). An Ethic Summit was held in 1999 with the PRSA
Board of Directors meeting with members of the Ethics Board. The
board approved development of a new code. After much thoughtful
development, PRSA adopted the new 2000 Member Code of Ethics on Oct.
21, 2000, at its annual meeting. Notably, the new code "was designed
to be aspirational and educational, such that provisions were
replaced with positive, affirmation obligations." The code
"emphasized the need for 'responsible advocacy,' stressing loyalty to
clients and employers" and also emphasizing "the importance of
professional competence" (Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 109).
The new code includes six values (advocacy, honesty, expertise,
independence, loyalty, and fairness) and six code provisions dealing
with free flow of information, competition, disclosure of
information, safeguarding confidences, conflicts of interest, and
enhancing the profession (www.prsa.org). As the new code was approved
and adopted, the association urged the selection of an ethics officer
(a liaison/resource person) in each local chapter. A six-step
decision-making guide was widely published.
Based on the media agenda-building and framing perspectives outlined
above, and given that professional public relations practitioners and
educators are interested in ethics, the following research questions are posed:
RQ 1: What can we learn about news media discussion of public
relations and ethics – with particular attention to discussion
related to the leading association in public relations, the Public
Relations Society of America, and its code of ethics?
RQ 2: What can this tell us about influences on news media content?
An alternative way to ask Research Question 1 would be, how do the
news media frame discussion about public relations and ethics? In
addressing this question, trends in media coverage can be explored to
determine whether coverage increased, decreased, or stayed relatively
the same over time. Coverage can be examined for identification of
most prominent themes, as well as for explicit (unattributed to
sources) messages about public relations and for evidence of
effective frame sponsorship by PRSA.
Methods and Results
This study employed computer-assisted quantitative content analysis
of a sizable set of news media articles, as well as qualitative, case
study content analysis of a small subset of the articles, to address
the Research Questions posed above. The New York Times was selected
for the analysis because it is a widely-read newspaper and is
considered a leader in setting the media agenda for national issues.
The paper has circulation of more than 1.1 million on weekdays and
1.7 million on Sundays, the highest circulation of any seven-day
newspaper. According to Dearing and Rogers, "When the Times considers
an issue newsworthy, other U.S. media are influenced to follow suit"
(1996, p. 20). The New York Times "is generally regarded as the most
respected U.S. news medium" (Dearing and Rogers, 1996, p. 32).
The methods and results of the analysis are discussed here.
Full-text articles about public relations and ethics in The New York
Times were obtained from the Dialog database. The search strategy
specified articles that mentioned "public relations" (or "pr") and
"ethics." (The command asked for "public," within one word of
"relations," or "pr," and "ethic?", which would include "ethic,"
"ethics," "ethical," and "ethically.") The time period 1988-2004 was
selected in order to examine content and changes in coverage over a
17-year period that includes two revisions of the PRSA Code of Ethics.
The search procedure yielded an initial set of 626 articles
mentioning "public relations" or "pr" and "ethics." The set of
articles included news articles, a few letters to the editor, a
handful of obituaries, and several weddings (held at a local ethical
society and involving people with "public relations" in their job
title). Wedding articles were removed. Letters to the editor included
at least one from a national leader in the Public Relations Society
of America; these were retained in the data set. The handful of
obituary articles also were retained and included a death notice
about Rex Harlow who died at age 100 in 1993 and who helped establish
the Public Relations Society of America in the late 1940s. The
remaining 618 articles formed the data set used in the subsequent analysis.
Articles in the data set were coded by year of publication, and
frequencies were compared by year. The frequency of articles by year
ranged from 25 in 1999 to 47 in 1994. Table 2 shows the frequency
distribution of the 618 articles by year. The frequency distribution
indicates neither a dramatic increase nor decrease over the past 17 years.
Computer-assisted content analysis was employed to assess themes
represented in this text and to explore the content of the media
coverage. The computer program VBPro, developed by M. Mark Miller for
analysis of verbatim text and available at no charge on the World
Wide Web (mmmiller.com/vbpro/vbpro.html), was used for the analysis.
Text preparation for the analysis included collecting all the
articles into a single electronic file, adding a case identification
number to each article, and bracketing off (in order to exclude from
analysis) extraneous heading material and captions.
The alphabetizing and ranking procedures of the VBPro program were
used to create precise reports on all words in the data set, listed
both alphabetically and by frequency, with frequency specified in both reports.
The VBPro alphabetizing procedures yielded an 860-page document
listing all the nearly 40,000 words used in the data set, in
alphabetical order from "Aaron" (5 occurrences) to "Zywotow," a last
name (3 occurrences). This is a convenient reference when the
frequency of particular words are of interest. The program's ranking
procedures yielded another large text file listing all the words in
the data set in order of frequency of occurrence. This is a quick way
to ascertain at-a-glance which words occur most often in the large
volume of text. The first several pages of the frequency file were
studied for substantive (that is, meaningful) words of interest that
occurred most frequently (articles such as "a" and "the" occur
frequently, but are not of interest in analyses such as this). Themes
are manifest by the frequent occurrence of related terms.
Seven prominent themes identified in this way are listed in Table 3.
In order of prominence, these are referred to as Business, National
Government, Medical Research, Media, Legal, Issues, and Financial.
Each theme is represented by the frequent occurrence of related words
in the text. The individual terms and their frequencies are also
listed in the table. The "business" theme is represented by the terms
company, business, companies, industry, corporate, employees,
community, corporation, manager, workers, leaders, managers,
organizations, leadership, marketing, customers, reputation,
consumers, and consumer. These terms appear a total of 7,129 times in
The "national government" theme is represented by the terms
president, political, campaign, government, national, federal, and
administration, in a total of 5,052 occurrences.
The "medical research" theme is represented by the terms university,
school, research, health, students, medical, professor, college,
educational, treatment, scientists, and experiments, in a total of
The "media" theme is represented by the terms press, information,
report, television, advertising, media, reporters, editor, reports,
published, newspaper, reporter, journalists, reported, and
journalism, in a total of 3,412 occurrences.
The "legal" theme is represented by the terms law, lawyers, court,
attorney, justice, action, crime, moral, prosecutors, documents, and
laws, in a total of 2,920 occurrences.
The "issues" theme is represented by the terms issues, issue,
problems, investigation, charges, critics, scandal, and trouble, in a
total of 2,469 occurrences.
The "financial" theme is represented by the terms money, financial,
fund, investment, funds, investors, spending, and securities, in a
total of 2,144 occurrences.
Miller and Riechert (2001) describe multidimensional scaling
analysis and hierarchical cluster analysis methods for theme and
frame identification, but these methods were not employed due to
ambiguities determined in the text, as described in subsequent sections.
To examine what kinds of explicit messages about public relations are
contained in these news articles, tagging search files for the terms
"public relations" and "ethics" were created and submitted to the
VBPro search procedures. The resulting reports list, by case (news
article), each sentence in the data set that included the specified
terms and note the terms with arrows on either side. The report files
were opened and studied. The sentences can be easily isolated and
perused since the VBPro tagging search function can produce a
document containing only these sentences (along with the case numbers
and the search summary). This capability of computer-assisted content
analysis can been compared to finding "a few needles in very large
haystacks" (Stevenson, 2001, p. 5). Documents produced in this way
may be studied for such things as sources quoted and explicit
statements, both unattributed and attributed.
The computer-assisted search procedures identified 862 occurrences of
"public relations" in 839 sentences and 1,143 occurrences of "ethic*"
("ethics," "ethical," "ethically," "unethical," or "unethically") in
1,888 sentences within the 50,000 sentences in the data set. The
sentences were tagged and copied into separate text files that are
convenient to read. The 91-page report isolating the sentences
mentioning "public relations" was studied.
This review suggested a very small number of examples where content influence
at the individual (journalist) level appears blatantly apparent:
It has the qualities of classic public relations and
litigation—avoidance statements, the passive voice, the action plans,
the factual quibbling and the distinctly conditional acceptance of
responsibility (from a 2002 article).
Arguments sound much better when made by groups with no financial
stake in an issue, public relations people have found. . . . While
public relations may serve some legitimate informational purposes, is
prizes deceptiveness, too (from a 1994 article).
An unexpected finding—to this naive author, at least—was the fact
that a large number of the articles mentioning "public relations" and
"ethics" were not centrally focused on public relations. Rather, many
articles in this data set mentioned "public relations"—in attributed
and unattributed statements—marginally and only once.
Finally, analysis was narrowed from sentences to mere mentions of
the phrase "public relations"—looking at how the phrase was used
within sentences. A review of the tagged search report described
above suggested the phrase was used in dramatically different ways in
this set of text. The most obvious way was in reference to public
relations itself, the phrase used as a collective noun. An example
from an article in 2004 would be, "What we see with the guilty
verdict in the Martha Stewart trial is that the worst possible public
relations a business can have is getting caught in unethical
conduct." In this text, out of more than 800 occurrences of "public
relations," more than 200 occurrences are as nouns.
The remaining 600+ occurrences are as modifiers to a number of
terms, many of which refer to public relations organizations and
their activities and personnel. Multiple references were found to
public relations firm, business, department, outfit, subsidiary, and
so on. People are referred to as public relations numerous references
to public relations consultant, adviser, specialist, vice president,
expert, representative, man, woman, people, professional, team,
official, practitioners, executive, manager, giant, guru, bigwig,
writer, folk, handler, and so on. References also are found to public
relations budgets, strategy, campaign, programs, profession, and so
on. These kinds of references would be expected.
However, many times "public relations" occurred as a modifier
preceding a variety of quite diverse terms including nightmare, wars,
setback, coup, debacle, battle, triumph, misstep, backlash,
firestorm, blitz, boondoggle, exercise, bounce, disaster, games,
offensive, counteroffensive, gimmick, problems, fiasco, reasons,
overhaul, blather, mode, dilemma, snafu, gaffe, extravaganza, black
eye, stunt, flack, big wig, giant, smoke, strike, gesture, paradise,
and honeymoon. These instances serve as convincing reminders that for
many journalists and others, the popular meaning of public relations
is something less than ones used by professional public relations
practitioners and educators.
For example, a widely-accepted definition in the body of knowledge
describes public relations as "the management function that
establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between
an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure
depends" (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2000, p. 6). Dozier, Grunig, and
Grunig refer to this as a "popular definition of public relations and
communication management" (1995, p. 71). This definition is favored
because it encompasses an organization's ethical actions (what it
does) as well as what the organization communicates (what it says).
Yet the phrase "public relations" is used throughout articles in this
data set to refer to both the relationship-related activities of
organizations and also as a phrase meaning something like public
opinion (as in the examples listed in the previous paragraph).
This situation carries methodological implications for communication
scholars who like to apply quantitative computer-assisted content
analysis methods to investigate competing themes and frames in text.
An advantage of computer-assisted content analysis is its ability to
precisely measure distinct themes in a large set of text, based on
the presence of key words. However, for such an analysis to provide
meaningful results, it must be based on terms that are unambiguous.
In the case of news media discussion of "public relations," the
phrase is used in so many ways that plans for some types of analysis
usually possible with computer-assisted content analysis were
abandoned. Researchers have reported on multidimensional scaling
techniques that were useful in identifying themes and frames in news
media coverage on topics such as wetlands, pesticides, and breast
cancer, all topics of unambiguous meaning. Such analysis was not
performed in this study, however, after it was determined that the
data set discussed "public relations" in such an astounding variety
of ways. Practical implications of these findings for practitioners
and educators are discussed in the final section of this paper.
A more qualitative, case study approach was adopted to look in some
detail at a subset of the articles in this data set, those that
mentioned the Public Relations Society of America. These articles
were identified by using the VBPro search function to create a
tagging search file, using the search phrase, "Public Relations
Society of America." The procedure created a tagged search file
listing all the articles, from the 618 in the data set (1988-2004 New
York Times articles mentioning "public relations" and "ethics") that
mentioned "Public Relations Society of America."
The result was a set of six articles, mentioning the society one or
more times, dating from April 1989 to April 2003. These were examined
individually to assess what conclusions related to influences on
their content might be drawn. Descriptions of each of the articles
follow, then discussion of them as a group.
An April 13, 1989 article headlined "Washington Talk; Taking Heat
When the Boss is Under Fire" discusses several cases of challenges
and frustrations of serving as official spokesperson to controversial
public figures. Quoted as exemplars in the by-lined 18-paragraph,
881-word article are Mark R. Johnson, press secretary for Speaker Jim
Wright and former spokesperson for a "beleaguered chairman of the
Texas Air Corporation"; Patrick Korten, who represented then Attorney
General Edward Meese 3rd; Lance Morgan, who earlier had been
spokesperson for the special Senate committee investigating the
Iran-contra scandal and who was then "part of the public relations
team defending Michael R. Milken" who was charged with racketeering.
John L. Paluszek, then president of the Public Relations Society of
America, is quoted in comment on representing public officials caught
in a scandal: " It's always in your best interest to get the matter
out and behind you as quickly as possible. The way to do that is not
to stonewall but to be forthcoming without violating confidences."
A Nov. 4, 1991 page one business digest includes this brief item,
followed by the page number for the article: "Ethics is the subject
of the annual meeting of the Public Relations Society of America."
The referenced Nov. 4, 1991 article is headlined "The Media Business:
Advertising; Public Relations Conference is Devoted to Ethical
Topics." The first paragraph refers to the society as well as its
president: "Asked if it were not paradoxical for the annual meeting
of the Public Relations Society of America to be devoted to ethics,
the organization's president offered a response worthy of his profession."
The response of then PRSA president Joe S. Epley follows: "Some
people could be cynical about it; some people are cynical about the
news media and reporters, too." The 13-paragraph, 511-word article
quotes Epley once again ("individuals always have to make value
judgments"), as well as three other PRSA conference presenters and organizers.
The article mentions that the 44th national conference, with the
theme of "What's Right? Confronting the Ethical Choices that Confront
You," was in progress.
An April 25, 1993 obituary biography is headlined "Rex F. Harlow,
100, A Pioneer in Publicity." The first paragraph describes him as "a
leader in public relations who helped raise its professional
standards," and reports his death at age 100 on April 16.
The second of seven paragraphs states he "advocated social
responsibility, including a code of ethics, and promoted the use of
sociological and psychological research." The 242-word biography
describes his role in founding the Public Relations Society of
America (with the merging of two existing associations) and serving
as a director of the society. His role in editing and writing public
relations journals and books also is described.
An April 10, 1994 letter to the editor is signed Joseph A. Vecchione,
followed by the statement, "The writer is president of the Public
Relations Society of America." The three-paragraph, 193-word letter
begins, "We strongly endorse the warning to journalists to guard
again communications abuses. The credibility of our profession and
our 15,000 members rests on openness, integrity of fact and upfront
declarations of representation. Anything less is unacceptable."
In the final paragraph Vecchione writes, "We are naturally concerned
about those who are not members of our professional society and
obviously don't buy into the standards the rest of us respect."
An April 1, 2003 article is headlined, "The Media Business:
Advertising; P.R. firms alter their tone and worry about coverage as
most eyes are on Iraq." The 18-paragraph, 818-word article suggests
that as war was dominating the news, public relations professionals
were depending less on media relations and more on "employee
communications, investor relations and other tools that are not
dependent on reporters."
The by-lined article quotes six people including (in this order) an
editor at PR Week; executives for the Hallmark Channel, United
Parcel, and the Chicago office of Edelman; Reed Byrum Bolton, then
president and chief executive of PRSA; and an executive at the New
York office of Edelman. Bolton is cited in three paragraphs
describing public relations as more than media relations and
including a full spectrum "from investor relations to employee
communications to strategic planning and platforming of an organization."
He is given indirect attribution in urging avoidance of exploitation
of conflict, and he is again quoted directly, "At the public
relations society, we really stress ethical communications. This is a
really good time for ethical communications."
As these descriptions show, the ethical standards of the society are
referenced numerous times in these articles, primarily by leaders in
the society. None of these articles describe revisions in the PRSA
Code of Ethics, though the time period in this study, 1988-2004,
includes the two most recent code revisions in 1988 and 2000.
National leaders of the society have managed to get the ethical code
discussed occasionally in the national media, sometimes by writing
letters to the editor that are published, and sometimes by talking
about the code when they are interviewed by journalists.
Limitations of Research
Dearing and Rogers suggest that studies relating to "how an issue is
framed, by whom, and with what regularity?" (1996, p. 95) are needed
in further studies of the agenda-setting process, which includes the
media agenda, the public agenda, and the policy agenda. This study
looks only at the media agenda—specifically how public relations and
ethics are discussed in the national media.
This study looks at discussion of these topics only in The New York
Times. Further analysis on coverage in other leading newspapers would
The influence, at the media routines level, of news values on the
content of this set of stories is notable. The role of the news value
of timeliness is apparent in the articles on PRSA's annual
conference, the death of a public relations pioneer, and the effect
of the war on Iraq on available news space ("news hole"). Even more
apparent is the striking role of the news value of prominence in most
of these articles in which the president of PRSA is given voice in
the media and makes statements in representation of the society and
also the profession.
Organizations such as PRSA may be more or less successful in getting
a position on an issue heard in the media. Hallahan (1999) and others
have referred to this as frame sponsorship. In the smaller set of
articles reviewed above, PRSA achieved frame sponsorship in getting
its position published in the media. It is not clear from the
analysis conducted here whether some of these instances resulted from
some initiation by a PRSA leader or whether the society officer was
contacted by a journalist. Either way, in many of these articles the
president of PRSA is quoted directly and indirectly in comment on
important ethical issues and professional standards.
The variety of meanings implied when "public relations" is mentioned
suggests that popular language usage includes numerous definitions of
public relations. Professional public relations practitioners who
adhere to the PRSA code of ethics understand "public relations" as a
strategic process involving research, research-based planning,
implementation, and evaluation and as involving an organization's
actions as well as its communications. Yet the phrase "public
relations" is popularly used as a convenient modifier for almost
anything involving public opinion. News media coverage includes
routine usage of the phrase in both ways.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this observation is that
professional public relations practitioners who so carefully adhere
to the PRSA code of ethics may not be communicating much when they
talk with others about simply "public relations." It might be more
effective, for example, to speak about "strategic public relations,"
"effective public relations," or "ethically defensible public relations."
The importance of ethical conduct by businesses and the need for
emphasis of ethics in public relations education are described by
Bovet (1993), Thompson (1996), Solomon and Hanson (1989), Fitzpatrick
(1996), Kruckeberg (2000), Seib & Fitzpatrick, 1995), and Toth, 1999).
Professional public relations practitioners may take advantage of
each opportunity to talk with journalists as a chance to discuss the
leading association's code of ethics. Every interview by a journalist
is a chance to engage in frame sponsorship.
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Table 1. Milestones in adoption and revisions of the Public
Relations Society of America
Code of Ethics.
1950 PRSA adopts first "Professional Standards for the Practice of
1954 Revised code is approved
1959 Revised code includes four principles and 16 articles
1963 Revised code emphasizes prohibition of conflicts of interest and
use of front groups
1977 Revised code removes sexist language, bars members from
guaranteeing results beyond their control
1983 Revised code clarifies language and format
1988 Revised 17-article code adds obligation of members to both the
client/employer and the democratic process.
2000 Revised Member Code of Ethics includes six core values and six
Abstracted from information in Fitzpatrick, 2002a, 89-100.
Table 2. Frequency of distribution by year of 618 New York Times
mentioning "public relations" and "ethics"
Table 3. Prominent themes identified in 618 New York Times articles
(1988-2004) mentioning "public relations" and "ethics"
Theme Terms Frequency Total by theme
"National Government" 5,052
"Medical Research" 4,015
Table 3, continued
Theme Terms Frequency Total by Theme