Public Relations Ethics, “Alternative Facts,” and Critical Thinking, with a Side of Tuna

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2017

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 1, 2017. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Lucinda Austin. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Jacqueline Lambiase

Jacqueline Lambiase, Texas Christian University

Public Relations Ethics, “Alternative Facts,” and Critical Thinking, with a Side of Tuna


This is a flipped classroom, high-impact, active-learning exercise that takes an entire class period for a public relations case studies course or a public relations ethics course. It starts with a reading that could be assigned before class. First, students read and reflect individually. Next, they work in small groups to analyze and then diagram on poster paper the actions of several organizations and companies related to promoting tuna consumption and its safety for children and pregnant women.

Many articles could be used for this critical thinking activity, especially those in which many voices and organizations are debating scientific or health-related findings. The sample article used for this exercise may be found at (Burros, 2007).


Students need practice in differentiating facts and truth from unethical marketing and lies. They also need practice reading with a critical lens. In many upper-level public relations classes, students are asked to dissect real-world events based on news coverage and other documents containing narratives. Before completing final projects, students need to learn how to dissect and find the gaps in narrative accounts by using close reading, reflection, discussion, clear labels, and diagramming to gain clarity on the entities involved, their actions, and possible motives for those actions. This assignment gives students a road map for how to investigate stories and events, enabling them to perform better when writing their own final case studies or ethical analyses. What is true, based on science? What is an “astroturf” organization? What sources should we trust more than others? How are public relations strategies involved in clarifying these debates? How is the profession involved in prolonging or muddying these debates?

Student Learning Goals

These learning goals are based in part on guidelines from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (2017), as well as learning goals for a case studies or ethics course in a public relations curriculum. Through this exercise, students will acquire the following abilities:

  • “Work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity;
  • Think critically, creatively and independently” (ACEJMC, 2017, p. 45);
  • Understand strategic communication processes and ethics through case studies;
  • Understand management strategies in dealing with communication cases; and
  • “Conduct research and evaluate information by methods appropriate to the communications professions” in which they will work (ACEJMC, 2017, p. 45).

Connection to Public Relations Theory or Practice

Organizations’ spokespeople are quoted in the article about the appropriateness of marketing a toxic product to pregnant women and children, and a large PR agency, Burson Marsteller, represents one of the organizations involved. For a case studies course, conflicting information about tuna is hard to sort precisely because of the intentional communication strategies and tactics used by groups to confuse consumers for financial gain. Yet this example is similar to the tasks students must tackle in order to figure out precisely what is going on in other case analyses and narratives. For an ethics course, this case shows clearly the necessity of ends-based and means-based ethical theories, an aid in the discussions of organizational values and reputation management.

Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes

For final projects in case studies or ethics, students are required to label the organizational actions contained in their own analyses, thereby showing a 30,000-foot understanding of any incident or narrative, without getting caught in the weeds or details. In classes where this exercise is deployed, students are immersed quickly into the mindset of critical reading and thinking. Later in the semester, they will be better able to demonstrate that skill and mindset in their case analyses, ethical projects, and original case studies.

The Assignment

PART I: Personal reflection

Please read the following news article about tuna consumption and health. First read it through all at once; then, perform a close second reading, during which you underline key information for your personal analysis. Make marginal notes about your observations and questions. Underline the groups, organizations, individuals, and companies that are named in the article. Spend at least 10-15 minutes for this part of the assignment before moving to Part II.

PART II: Small group discussion

Assign someone to be the timekeeper, who will keep you on task. Spend at least 10 minutes overall discussing each person’s observations; your timekeeper should allow each group member about two minutes to share observations and questions. After this sharing, please discuss the key questions and assertions that your group can agree are the most important regarding the events related in this article.

Part III: Small group work and more discussion

Assign someone to be a scribe and another group member to be your information designer/presenter.

The scribe will begin to build a list of all of the groups, organizations, individuals, and companies that are named in the article based on group members’ input. Then, your group will create a sorted collection of all of these entities, via your scribe’s work, placing entities together that go together in terms of working toward the same ends. What groups are clearly working together for the same purpose? In general, what are these entities’ purposes? How could the groups be labeled? Which group or groups do you trust most? Least? Why? Find consensus, work on the best labels and groupings, and then help your information designer/presenter depict how you would diagram the activities described in this article. Use the large poster paper and markers to diagram and explain your thinking. Allow about 15 minutes for this work and discussion.

Part IV: Group presentations

The instructor has been listening to your discussions so far and will be asking several groups to present all or part of their diagrams, labels, groupings, and trust information. Help your presenter be ready to make your case clearly to your classmates.


Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. (2017). Journalism and Mass Communications Accreditation, 2017-2018. Retrieved from

Burros, M. (2007, October 17). Industry money fans debated on fish. The New York Times, F5. Retrieved from