Looking in to see out: An Introspective Approach to Teaching Ethics in PR

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2018

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 5, 2018. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Katie Place. First published online on August 17, 2018.


Regina Luttrell Headshot

Regina Luttrell, Syracuse University

Ward Headshot

Jamie Ward, Eastern Michigan University

Looking in to see out: An Introspective Approach to Teaching Ethics in PR


Instances requiring concrete decisions, whether ultimately judged as correct or not, inundate our daily lives. When discussing the topic of public relations ethics within today’s classroom, students are commonly requested to contemplate and explain their perception of what ethics are and their importance within the industry. Inevitably, responses to explaining ethics follow a similar theme: “Ethics differentiates between good and bad” or “Ethics are gray – neither right or wrong.”

By leveraging numerous ethical theories, including Immanuel Kant’s ethics (Kant & Paton, 1964; Sullivan, 1989), John Locke’s natural-rights libertarianism (Locke & Gough, 1966; Simon, 1951), Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (Bentham, 1823; Heydt, 2014), and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Kohlberg, 1976; Thoma, 2014) as the foundation of ethical principles, this assignment has been developed as an introduction to the process of making ethical decisions.  

Recognizing that assessing “right” and “wrong” can be difficult and is often influenced by individual contexts, a firm understanding of ethical theory, and a framework for ethical decision-making that allows for the development of a set of behavioral standards that can help guide the appropriate actions for a range of situations (Luttrell & Ward, 2018). Upon completing this assignment adapted from our textbook, A Practical Guide to Ethics in PR, students will better understand the code of ethics guiding the field of PR and also identify, recognize, and write their own personal code of ethics by distinguishing what influences their decisions as students and future PR professionals.


To truly understand how ethical codes affect us as individuals, it is important to think about the components that have shaped our ethical principles. The majority of us subscribe to some level of basic ethical theories. Whether rooted in early lessons from childhood, our faith or religious beliefs, or simply from life experiences, we make judgments about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of certain actions based on our own moral values (Luttrell & Ward, 2018). According to Parsons (2016), ethics provide a set of guiding principles for behavior that helps individuals decide the appropriate way to respond in various situations. Ethics propagate from having to make tough choices and from the need to provide justification as to why we make particular choices.

During an in-class lecture, students are asked to examine the PRSA code of ethics (Public Relations Society of America, 2011). They read and dissect the code of ethics, ultimately concluding that ethics applies to all levels of behavior and judgment. Acting properly as individuals, creating responsible organizations and governments, and bettering our society as a whole are behaviors that accompany being a good citizen and PR professional.

The benefits to students are numerous, especially in relation to the PR industry, where ethical dilemmas are encountered almost daily. After completing this assignment, students recognize leading ethical theorists, identify the increasing importance of ethics in PR, and analyze the role ethics play within the profession. This assignment is applicable to a variety of courses within the PR discipline, including writing, social media, ethics, and case studies. The activity appeals to a wide range of students because it captures their attention from the start. Students are surprised to see the various ways in which ethics ground the profession. They are excited to learn how their personal beliefs play a role in their decisions as students and future practitioners.


After initially reviewing ethical philosophies from Kant, Locke, Bentham, and Kohlberg, as well as examining the PRSA code of ethics, students are asked to search for the code of ethics subscribed to by their favorite brand. Upon locating the code, the class discusses the merit of what is being presented. Some organizations offer concrete examples of how the organization acts ethically, while others offer a generic statement regarding their ethical principles. This is an important aspect of the assignment because students begin to see the difference between “lip service” and truly abiding by principles that guide the organization’s decision-making.

Students are then asked to write their own code of ethics by the conclusion of the lesson. (See the Appendix for the assignment). Typically, they are given a week to complete the writing assignment. This code should consist of a set of simple, direct statements that describe each student’s personal ethics. To evaluate how well the code of ethics is written, it is important to ask, “Could someone read this code of ethics and predict the kind of choices I would make?”


This assignment engages and challenges students to think analytically and creatively, yet also allows the freedom to research new ideas, values, and methods that eventually support their personal code of ethics. PR practitioners are advocates for organizations, clients, and stakeholders. Therefore, it is crucial that students construct and analyze the elements of ethical decisions, in addition to understanding and articulating the ethical, legal, and social responsibilities of PR professionals.


Bentham, J. (1823). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (Vol. 1). London, UK: Oxford at Clarendon.

Heydt, C. (2014). Utilitarianism before Bentham. In B. Eggleston & D.E. Miller (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to utilitarianism (pp.16-37). Cambridge: Cambridge University. https://doi.org/10.1017/cco9781139096737.002

Kant, I., & Paton, H. J. (1964). Immanuel Kant: Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp. 31-53). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Locke, J., & Gough, J. W. (1966). The second treatise of government, and a letter concerning toleration. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Luttrell, R., & Ward, J. (2018). A practical guide to ethics in PR. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Parsons, P. (2016). Ethics in PR: A guide to best practice. London, UK: Kogan Page Limited.

Public Relations Society of America. (2011). PRSA Member code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/ethics/code-of-ethics

Simon, W. M. (1951). John Locke: Philosophy and political theory. American Political Science Review, 45(2), 386-399. https://doi.org/10.2307/1951467

Sullivan, R. J. (1989). Immanuel Kant’s moral theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

Thoma, S. J. (2014). Measuring moral thinking from a neo-Kohlbergian perspective. Theory and Research in Education, 12(3), 347-365. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878514545208


Assignment Instructions

To truly understand a personal ethical code, it is imperative to consider the components that have shaped personal ethical principles. It is rare that we interact with individuals who do not live by some beliefs represented in various common ethical theories. Personal experiences drive ethical decisions.

Think about your personal experiences and how they might shape your beliefs. The questions below will help you begin your analysis. Learning to identify a moral code allows you to better see where your beliefs fit with other ethical theorists and assist you in identifying your core values.

  • What external influencers (parents, teachers, friends, etc.) have shaped your values?
  • What values have you maintained that you were taught as a child?
  • Are there any values that you were taught as a child that have changed as you matured?
  • What qualities do you value in yourself and/or in others?
  • When considering what you have learned with regard to Kant, Locke, Bentham, and Kohlberg, what ethical theory or theories do you most closely identify with?
  • What ethical systems do you follow on a day-to-day basis?
  • What are some of your strongest beliefs about humanity? For example, do you believe that everyone deserves respect? Do you believe that all people are inherently “good”?
  • Are there any ethical practices you think are absolutes? For example, is lying always wrong?

Ethical codes should be comprised of a preamble and highlight various ethical codes to live by both inside and outside the classroom (minimum of 4, maximum of 6). When complete, include a summary of how ethics plays an integral role in the profession of PR.

*Assignment adapted from Luttrell and Ward (2018).