12 The Recent Narrative

Ethics continue to be a primary concern of both Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the perception of public relations practice in the media has not improved (Thurlow, 2009). Over the past 14 years, the two associations have taken very different approaches to address this issue largely reflected in how they approach the issue of enforcement.

As mentioned before, in 2000, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) made an important and in many ways defining change to how it represents its professional code of standards.  It moved away from enforcement as an emphasis of the code and adopted an approach of inspiration and education. The Society presents the current code on its website with the following introduction:

When PRSA introduced its first Code of Ethics in 1950, the Society’s leaders had high hopes for cleaning up many of the bad practices that sullied the reputation of the profession. Clear guidelines, tough enforcement and public shaming were put in place as the strategy to address ethical violations. But during 50 years of trying, those good intentions were frustrated, due to a lack of cooperation; enormous legal and investigative expenses; significant investments of time, money and resources for investigating alleged violations; and a slow but steadily growing realization that the meager results of the effort in relation to the time and resources required, failed to provide a valuable return on investment for PRSA, its members or the broader profession (Public Relations Society of America, About Enforcement, 2014, para 1).

The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), by contrast, has maintained a strong enforcement mandate in the application of its code.  But the fact remains that negative depictions of public relations practice in the media have not ceased.  As recently as 2007 CPRS society president Derek Pieters wrote a letter to the Toronto Star to respond to unflattering representation of public relations in the article “Look before Leaping into the Spin Trade” (Pieters, 2007).  In his response, Pieters specifically referred to the Code of Ethics and the fact that it is enforced by the society.

The tension between journalists and public relations practitioners evident early in the 20th century in the United States and later in Canada is reflected in the continuing negative representations of public relations ethics in the media.  This ongoing struggle to stake out the higher moral ground in public communication has continued as both groups attempt to shore up their ethical position with regard to professionalization.  This conflict may have contributed to the narrative of ethical practice constructed today in both Canada and the United States. Certainly, one challenge for public relations practitioners has been that journalists were very successful in defining ethical practice as journalistic objectivity (McBride, 1989).  Throughout the previous century, the standard of ‘objective truth’ came to define ethical public communication.  As McBride points out, this “dominant yet dysfunctional perspective” was adopted by public relations practitioners as their paradigm of ethical practice.  McBride (1989) and others have called for further scholarship in this area to create a perspective of ethical practice that allows for advocacy as a function of ethical public relations.

This highlights the question of enforcement from another perspective.  If the underlying history and theory which contributed to codes of ethics based on journalistic principles does not offer an appropriate framework for public relations practice, can those standard ever by effectively enforced? In Canada, for many of the reasons outlined by the PRSA statement above, enforcement is not seen to have the teeth it could by at least some CPRS members (Tremblay, 2008).  Nevertheless, the position of CPRS is quite clear. CPRS currently enforces its code through a Judicial and Ethics committee which acts on behalf of the board.

In the CPRS code this committee is still tasked with enforcement. The National Judicial and Ethics Committee acts on behalf of the Board as custodians of, and has power to enforce, the Declaration of Principles and the Code of Professional Standards of the National Society both as promulgated and in accordance with these Regulations (Canadian Public Relations Society, 2021)

Enforcement, it is suggested in this material, could come in the form of sanctions up to and including expulsion from the society.  In further support of the move toward individual monitoring as opposed to society-level enforcement the Global Alliance – the confederation of the world’s major PR and communication management associations and institutions, representing 300,000 practitioners and academics around the world (Global Alliance, 2021), has introduced a code of ethics based on individual accountability.  This code is endorsed by both CPRS and PRSA.

Codes of ethics are cultural products, constructed within a specific context. History, or rather, histories, matter in the production of this context.  Without a more complete and nuanced understanding of our history we cannot fully understand our relationship to public relations ethics.  In the dominant American historical narrative outlined above, we see competition between two emerging professions, journalism and public relations, to claim legitimacy.  Narratives of each profession emerged as products of that struggle, reflected in texts which provided a particular view of what would constitute ethical public communication.  Those narratives, and the texts which produce, re-produce and maintain them, represent the histories which define the discipline.  The public concern around corporate trusts, the economic structuring of the industrial capitalist families within the United States at the time, and the role of propaganda during the First World War, all contributed to this powerful context.

In contrast, what we see in Canada is a different set of circumstances.  Although there are certainly some similar themes in the two histories, the specific cultural context is different.  The Canadian experience of the emerging profession of public relations is rooted in public policy and nation building.  Not to say those elements are without ethical challenges.  But the point is they are different experiences than those reflected in the dominant narrative.  This is important when investigating understandings of public relations ethics within these two experiences, as pointed out by Seib and Fitzpatrick (1995) “much of the distrust of public relations professionals derives from the lack of trust in the institutions they represent” (p.7). Certainly, from that perspective, it is important to understand the institutions which were represented in early public relations practice and implications for public perception of the emerging field.


The traces assembled in this history of public relations ethics have provided two distinct narratives of ethical practice in Canada and the United States over the past century.  These narratives provide us with insights into the constraints and ideals around the establishment and application of standards of practice within the PR field.

Central to the narratives in these two countries is the issue of enforcement of ethical codes.  Likewise, the race for professionalization between journalism and public relations clearly plays a role.  Tensions over media depictions of the public relations profession appear to be profoundly important in both national contexts.  The journalistic claim of truth and public interest has potentially driven public relations ethics in a reactionary way, discounting more complete understandings of history and context.

For more information visit Institute for Public Relations report and CPRS Accreditation Handbook



Global Alliance. (2021). About Global Alliance. Retrieved from https://www.globalalliancepr.org/who-we-are

McBride, G. (1989). Ethical thought in Public Relations History: Seeking a relevant perspective. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 4(1), 5-20.

Pieters, D. (2007, Aug 10). Spin Trade Response. Retrieved from http://www.cprs.ca/news/07Aug10_SpinTradeResponse.aspx

Public Relations Society of America. (2014). About Enforcement. Retrieved from http://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/ethics/aboutenforcement/#.VC1HfBY3D5w

Seib, P., & Fitzpatrick, K. (1995). Public Relations Ethics. Orlando, Fl.: Harcourt Brace.

Thurlow, A. (2009). I just say I’m in advertising: A Public Relations identity crisis. Canadian Journal of Communication, 34(2), 245-263.

Tremblay, S. (2008). Proposal for a new Framework for the Ethical and Professional Conduct of Public Relations Professionals. Montreal: Universite Quebec a Montreal.


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