We are pleased to introduce this special issue, which includes the article “Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Report” by Dr. Marcia DiStaso, Past Co-chair, Educators, Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE).
Dr. DiStaso’s article highlights the omnibus survey results of public relations practitioner and educator perceptions of how we can best prepare undergraduates to enter the field of public relations. The survey’s findings were a basis for the CPRE 2017 Report on Undergraduate Education, Fast Forward: Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners.
The latest of several major reports released by the Commission since its founding in 1973, Fast Forward includes several recommendations on undergraduate curricula that have been adopted by the PRSA Educational Affairs Committee as criteria for Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR). The report offers chapters by content experts on ethics, theory, research, technology, academic structure and governance, educator credentials, online public relations education, program certification and accreditation, internships, professional and pre-professional organizations, diversity, and global perspectives on public relations. It is available at www.commissionpred.org.
Recognized internationally as the “authoritative voice” for the advancement of public relations education, the Commission brings together public relations educators and practitioners on its 65-member board in this important cause. Board members represent over 20 public relations professional and academic organizations. Commission work groups are currently developing recommendations for new writing, ethics and online courses based on its latest findings. In addition, the Commission sponsors regional educator/practitioner summits to help develop ways to better serve employers and the students who will be tomorrow’s leaders in our field. Overall, CPRE is committed to ensure that undergraduate public relations meets the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s public relations profession.
Judith T. Phair, APR, Fellow, PRSA Practitioner Co-chair President PhairAdvantage Communications, LLC
Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D., APR, Fellow, PRSA Educator Co-chair University of Maryland, College Park
As history books document, the field
of public relations dates back to the early 20th century. Since then, society
and public relations have evolved. This evolution has led to multiple
definitions of public relations over the years, and, in fact, the term still
continues to evolve today. Currently, the Public Relations Society of America
(PRSA) defines public relations as, “A strategic communication process that
builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their
publics” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). In October 2019, the International Public
Relations Association (IPRA) announced its new definition of public relations
as, “A decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships
and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of
information through trusted and ethical communication methods” (IPRA, 2019,
As the public relations profession
has evolved, so has education. Edward Bernays is credited with writing the first
public relations textbook and teaching the first class in 1923 (Broom &
Sha, 2013). Fifty years later, in 1973, the Commission on Public Relations
Education (CPRE) was founded. Since then, this group has combined insight from
academics and practitioners to provide recommendations on public relations
education around the globe. These recommendations have impacted both graduate
and undergraduate education as many academic programs have aligned their course
offerings as a result of CPRE recommendations. Plus, CPRE recommendations serve
as the foundation for the criteria for the Public Relations Student Society of
America’s chapter standards (PRSSA, 2019) and the Certification in Education
for Public Relations (CPRE, 2006).
Following the recommendations from
the 1999 CPRE report, “A Port of Entry,”
academic public relations programs commonly included courses in the following
Introduction to public
research, measurement and evaluation
Public relations writing
experience in public relations (internship)
In 2006, the CPRE recommended that public relations programs should include these four core courses plus the following addition: a public relations course in law and ethics, planning and management, case studies, or campaigns.
The purpose of this article is to present the combined findings from the CPRE omnibus survey that is spread across the 17 chapters in the report Fast Forward: Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners. Many of the chapters include the results from educators and practitioners from outside of the United States for a global perspective. This article, however, is delimited to the results for U.S. respondents to highlight the current state of undergraduate public relations education in the United States.
This research built onto past CPRE
reports on undergraduate education, mainly A
Port of Entry: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century (1999) and The Professional Bond (2006).Similar to those reports, an extensive
omnibus survey was also conducted. Where appropriate, the questionnaire
remained the same; however, given the vast changes in the public relations
field over the last decade, few specifics were retained.
While past CPRE surveys were
distributed to a stratified random sample of members in public relations
associations, that approach in 2016 was not preferred due to typically low
survey responses and difficulty obtaining membership lists. Therefore, the 2016
omnibus survey was distributed by email to CPRE members. The individual
representatives for these associations invited their members and colleagues to
participate in the survey. These members represented the following
Arthur W. Page Center
Arthur W. Page Society
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication (AEJMC) Public Relations Division
Relations Education and Research Association
Global Alliance for
Institute for Public Relations
Communication Association (ICA) Public Relations Division
National Black Public
Association (NCA) Public Relations Division
Plank Center for
Leadership in Public Relations
Public Relations Society
of America (PRSA) Educators Academy
Public Relations Society
of America (PRSA) Educational Affairs Committee
Public Relations Society
of America (PRSA)
Board/Society of New Communications Research (SNCR)
The survey was open for
participation from October 10 to December 19, 2016. Given that the survey
distribution was through CPRE member associations, using their own recruitment
process, it is not possible to calculate the number of people who actually
received the survey.
Overall, a total of 1,601
questionnaires were started. Respondents who indicated they were not in public
relations (or a related field) were removed (n = 48), along with anyone who took fewer than 10 minutes on the
survey. This survey had a high drop-out rate given that it took an average of
25 minutes to complete (n = 738). The
focus of this article is on undergraduate public relations education in the
United States, so all respondents from other countries were removed (n = 124).
The questionnaire began with a
filter question that asked respondents to identify as an educator, as a
practitioner, or as someone not in public relations (or a related field). Based
on responses to this question, participants were filtered to either an educator
or a practitioner survey. If they were not in public relations, they were
thanked for their time, and the survey concluded. The questionnaire contained
eight sections. The final sample included in this article was 690, comprised of
231 educators and 459 practitioners.
The demographic information for this
study is included in Table 1. Overall, 33% of respondents were educators (n = 231), and 67% were practitioners (n = 459). The percentage of female
practitioners in this study matched the approximate percentage in the profession
(74%, n = 291). The age distribution
was skewed slightly younger in the practitioner sample than the educator
sample; however, that is also consistent with both populations. The educator
sample was predominantly white (94%, n
= 156), and the practitioner sample was 77% white (n = 354), consistent with the lack of diversity in the field. Most
educators had a Ph.D. (72%, n = 134),
and most practitioners had a bachelor’s degree (54%, n = 209). Only 38% of educators (n = 92) and 28% of practitioners (n = 111) had their Accreditation in Public Relations, and 1% of
practitioners were Accredited Business Communicators (n = 4). The practitioners were from a variety of organizational
settings and sizes. The educator sample included 70% tenured or tenure-track
faculty (n = 121).
The practitioner sample had some academic experience, with 18% of the practitioners having taught as an adjunct (n = 71) and 58% having guest lectured in a public relations course (n = 223). On the job, 52% of practitioner respondents directly supervised entry-level practitioners (n = 203), while 61% had supervised an intern in the last five years (n = 240).
Skills and Abilities
The KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) from the 2006 survey were updated to better align with current public relations education and practice. As a result, only a few KSAs were assessed in both 2006 and 2016, resulting in minimal comparisons (see Table 2). Writing was one skill that was measured in both years. In 2016, the mean scores for desired writing skills increased for both educators (0.19 increase) and practitioners (0.41 increase). The mean scores for delivered or found writing skills also increased (0.77 increase for educators and 0.02 increase for practitioners). Research and analytics was another item measured in both surveys. Educators and practitioners had a decrease in mean scores for research and analytics as a desired skill (0.03 decrease each), while educators believed that the delivery of these skills increased (0.86 increase), and practitioners felt the amount the skill was found had decreased (0.32 decrease).
In 2016, educators indicated a high
desirability for 15 KSAs, while practitioners identified 11 as highly desirable
(mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). On the other hand, educators indicated only
three KSAs as frequently delivered, and practitioners did not believe any KSAs
were frequently found.
The top three knowledge topics
desired by educators were: ethics (M =
4.44, SD = 0.95), business acumen (M = 4.09, SD = 0.92), and cultural perspective (M = 4.02, SD = 0.89). The
top three desired knowledge topics by practitioners were: ethics (M = 4.57, SD = 0.78), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.95, SD = 1.06), and
social issues (M = 3.67, SD = 1.00).
The top three skills desired by
educators were: writing (M = 4.90, SD = 0.37), communication (M = 4.78, SD = 0.50), and social media management (M = 4.52, SD = 0.64). The
top three desired skills by practitioners were the same: writing (M = 4.88, SD = 0.41), communication (M =
4.76, SD = 0.57), and social media
management (M = 4.33, SD = 0.82).
The top three abilities desired by
educators were: problem solving (M =
4.55, SD = 0.65), critical thinking (M = 4.53, SD = 0.75), and creative thinking (M = 4.52, SD = 0.71). The
top three abilities desired by practitioners were: creative thinking (M = 4.57, SD = 0.70), problem solving (M
= 4.52, SD = 0.77), and critical
thinking (M = 4.44, SD = 0.82).
Overall, there was a 40%
inconsistency in agreement between educators and practitioners about the
desirability of the KSAs (12 out of 30). Significant differences in desired
KSAs for educators and practitioners included business acumen, crisis
management, cultural perspective, ethics, internal communication, PR history,
PR laws and regulations, public speaking, social media management, website
development, problem solving, and strategic planning. In each of these, the
educators in the survey rated the KSA more desired than the practitioners,
except for ethics where the practitioners indicated a higher level of desire
than the educators.
The top three knowledge topics
educators believed their programs delivered were: ethics (M = 4.11, SD = 0.95), PR
theory (M = 3.77, SD = 1.03), and social issues (M = 3.43, SD = 1.06). The top three knowledge topics found by practitioners
were: ethics (M = 3.37, SD = 0.96), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.30, SD = 1.02), and social issues (M
= 3.20, SD = 0.96).
The top three skills educators
believed their programs delivered were: communication (M = 4.44, SD = 0.78),
writing (M = 4.32, SD = 0.83), and research and analytics (M = 3.83, SD = 1.04). The top three skills found by practitioners were:
social media management (M = 3.84, SD = 0.91), communication (M = 3.31, SD = 0.88), and writing (M =
3.08, SD = 0.94).
The top three abilities educators
believed their programs delivered were: critical thinking (M = 3.91, SD = 0.97),
strategic planning (M = 3.90, SD = 1.04), and problem solving (M = 3.85, SD = 0.96). The top three abilities found by practitioners were:
creative thinking (M = 3.38, SD = 0.94), problem solving (M = 2.75, SD = 0.89), and critical thinking (M = 2.65, SD = 0.89).
There was a 43% inconsistency in
agreement between educators and practitioners about recent graduates having
these KSAs (13 out of 30). There were significant differences in KSAs delivered
by educators and found by practitioners for business acumen, crisis management,
cultural perspective, diversity and inclusion, management, social issues,
audio/video development, graphic design, media relations, social media
management, speechwriting, website development, and strategic planning. In each
of these, educators rated the KSA delivered more frequently than the
practitioners indicated finding them.
Practitioners were given a list of “possible hiring characteristics” of recent college graduates and were asked to consider what they look for in entry-level new hires (see Table 3).
Practitioners rated the top five
desired characteristics/experiences they look for when hiring (all are desired
more than found):
Writing performance (M = 4.88, SD = 0.40); 1.98 gap in what is found
Internship or work experience (M = 4.67, SD = 0.71); 0.84 gap in what is found
Public relations coursework (M = 4.47, SD = 0.83); 0.50 gap in what is found
Strong references (M = 4.22, SD = 0.92); 0.86 gap in what is found
Up-to-date with current professional trends and issues (M = 4.10, SD = 0.92); 1.30 gap in what is found
Practitioners’ scores resulted in
this list of five least desired characteristics/experiences:
Certificate in public relations (M = 2.38, SD = 1.18)
Participation in an on-campus student PR agency (M = 2.46, SD = 0.98)
Public Relations Curriculum
This study sought to identify the implementation of the 2006 CPRE five-course recommendation and determine any needed changes to this standard. Overall, 90% of academic respondents (n = 178) and 95% of practitioner respondents (n = 395) were in favor of retaining the five-course standard. As Table 4 shows, the 2016 study found that practitioner respondents favored programs requiring all five courses.
Importantly, 99% of academic
respondents said they have an Introduction to Public Relations or principles
class (n = 198), 93% said this course
is required (n = 185), and 87% said
what they offer is a public relations specific class (n = 173). Most academics also indicated that a research methods
course is taught (97.0%, n = 196) and
required (89.9%, n = 178), but many
indicated that it is not a public relations specific course that is offered in
their program (47.0%, n = 93).
Writing was also a course that most respondents said is included (97.0%, n = 195), required (93.4%, n = 184), and public relations specific
(82.7%, n = 163). Campaigns and case
studies courses are also taught (92.5%, n
= 186), required (80.1%, n =
157), and public relations specific (82.2%, n
= 162). A course for internships was also offered at universities for 91%
of respondents (n = 183), but only
45% said it was a required course (n =
89); 58% said the internship course is public relations specific (n = 113).
In addition to the five-course standard, many public relations programs offer courses on additional topics and/or include topics within existing courses. Over the years, the list of possible curriculum topics has changed, resulting in two new topics in the 2006 study and 32 new topics in the 2016 study (see Table 5). Unfortunately, comparisons between the years is made complex due to a change from the 7-point scale used in 1998 and 2006 to the 5-point response metric used in this study; therefore, only the 2016 findings for the individual outcomes are discussed. For the 2016 mean responses, the curriculum topics rated as a 4.00 or higher are highlighted, indicating an essential topic. Educators indicated a high importance for 15 curriculum topics while practitioners identified 13 (mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). Eleven highly essential curriculum topics were the same for educators and practitioners.
When it came to the most important
curriculum topics, educators most often selected: (1) measurement
and evaluation (M = 4.60, SD = 0.75); (2) social media (M = 4.58, SD = 0.80); (3) campaign
management (M = 4.54, SD = 0.76); (4) strategic communications (M = 4.52, SD = 0.80);
and (5) audience segmentation (M = 4.26, SD = 0.97).
Practitioners believed the top five curriculum topics to be: (1) content creation (M =
4.52, SD = 0.69); (2) strategic communications (M = 4.48, SD = 0.78); (3)
social media (M = 4.47, SD = 0.77); (4)
measurement and evaluation (M = 4.41, SD = 0.79); and (5) publicity/media
relations (M = 4.40, SD = 0.79).
Most of the items in Table 5 did not
have significant differences between the educator and practitioner rankings for
the essentialness of each topic. However, educators believed audience
segmentation, campaign management, CSR, crisis management, fundraising, issues
management, measurement and evaluation, and political communication were all
more essential than practitioners did. The practitioners felt that
business-to-consumer PR and content creation were more essential than educators
Overall, 53% of educators who participated in this survey indicated that their program offers online public relations courses (n = 102). Six percent of the educators said their program had a completely online undergraduate degree (n = 11). Both educators and practitioners indicated they felt an online degree was not equal to a face-to-face degree (M = 2.27 and M = 2.35) (see Table 6). Furthermore, both educators and practitioners believed job applicants should disclose if all or part of a degree was taken online.
Of the educators who participated in this study and knew how their program handled internships, 42% said they required an internship (n = 80), 51% had programs that allowed elective credits for an internship (n = 97), and 6% just encouraged internships (n = 12) (see Table 7). Most programs had an internship coordinator (82.1%, n = 156) and 69% of respondents said that coordinator was a faculty member (n = 121).
Only 35% of educators said their
program had a training program to prepare students for internships (n = 66), and the most common assessment
of internships was a performance review by the supervisor (63.6%, n = 147). Plus, 45% said that to
complete an internship for credit, their program required a prerequisite course
(n = 103), 46% have minimum credit
hours required (n = 107), and 36%
have a minimum GPA (n = 83). Many
required all three. Overall, 32% of practitioners said their interns were not
paid (n = 124). The average pay
reported for those who were paid was $13.54 an hour.
The Department of Labor’s Federal
Guidelines on Internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides
important guidance on internships; however, 36% of educators (n = 66) and 29% of practitioners (n = 111) were not familiar with the
guidelines. Overall, of those who were familiar with the guidelines and knew
how internships were handled in their area, only 67% of educators (n = 62) and 93% of practitioners (n = 2 44) said these guidelines are
There were significant differences between educator and practitioner views about interns having a valuable experience (see Table 8). Educators felt more positive about the experience; however, practitioners indicated higher agreement that interns were given meaningful work and that they receive clear and routine instructions.
Membership in Student Associations
Both educators and practitioners found high value in student involvement in associations such as Public Relations Student Society of America and International Association of Business Communicators (see Table 9). They each identified networking as the number one reason for participating in student associations.
As Table 10 shows, educators and practitioners ranked staying up-to-date on technology as the top faculty qualification (M = 4.51, SD = 0.69 and M = 4.63, SD = 0.65). Educators preferred more than 5 years of professional PR experience (M = 4.15, SD = 1.03), while practitioners ranked more than 10 years of professional PR experience as more important (M = 4.61, SD = 0.69). Similarly, educators rated presenting at academic conferences (M = 3.77, SD = 1.04) as more important than professional conferences (M = 3.47, SD = 0.99), whereas practitioners found the opposite to be more important.
good look at public relations undergraduate education on a periodic basis is an
extremely valuable, though daunting, task. The value that academics and
practitioners can derive from the CPRE reports highlight consistencies, gaps,
Consistencies and Gaps
to the success of undergraduate education is collaboration between educators
and practitioners. Together they can provide the foundation for a cohesive
focus on knowledge, skills, and abilities to prepare undergraduate students for
their future careers. While both educators and practitioners identified ethics
as the top knowledge topic, there were inconsistencies on the other top
knowledge topic areas. Educators identified business acumen and cultural
perspective to aid students in having a well-rounded business grounding.
Practitioners, on the other hand, identified diversity and inclusion and social
issues as core knowledge areas likely to aid graduates to assimilate into the
current work environment. Importantly, practitioners identified ethics,
diversity and inclusion, and social issues as their top found areas, but none
were found at what would be considered a high level; this indicates more work
needs to be done to prepare students for all three knowledge areas.
assessing the desired skills, practitioners and educators were aligned. Writing
is still the most valued skill. In fact, the desire for writing skills has
increased since 2006, but the good news is that writing ability has also
slightly increased. The other skills both groups identified were communication
and social media management. Fortunately, all three of these skills were the
highest ranked skills found, but none were frequently found, so there is still
a need for continued and increased focus. Unfortunately, there was a gap
between the perception of educators delivering writing and communication skills
and practitioners identifying the skills as found.
included strategic communications, social media, and measurement and evaluation
as top curriculum topics, but the practitioners identified content creation as
their most important addition to the curriculum.
and educators identified creative thinking, problem solving, and critical
thinking as the top desired and found abilities (while in slightly different
order for the groups). Analytical thinking was not as highly rated by either,
and there was a big gap with educators identifying higher levels of delivery of
abilities than indications of the abilities being found by practitioners.
While the overwhelming majority of
educators and practitioners in this study was in favor of retaining the CPRE
five-course standard, some programs do not have these five courses specific to
public relations. This is a missed opportunity; for example, 17% of educator
respondents said their writing course is not a public relations writing course.
Given how important writing continues to be, having a public relations writing
course along with multiple other grammar and writing courses would be ideal.
This is especially true considering this research found that writing remains
the core entry-level skill and hiring characteristic.
In 2018, the CPRE published the
global data from the 2016 omnibus survey reported in Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners. In
this report, the Commission recommended adding ethics as a sixth course to the
standard. By recommending ethics as a required course, programs will be able to
improve their focus on ethics and better meet the needs of this dynamic field.
As the profession becomes more
integrated and entry-level positions continue to advertise positions looking
for a bachelor’s degree in a “relevant field,” seeing public relations
coursework as the third desired hiring characteristic is telling. The core
competencies students learn in public relations programs are valuable and
sought after. This should lead academic programs to question the value of
combining advertising and public relations. Consistently, this research found
support for core public relations competencies.
It is concerning to see the
percentage of paid internships remains low, yet internship or work experience
is highly regarded. There has been a strong call to action from academics and
practitioners across the United States to pay student interns. Additionally,
internships should be supervised and considered a learning opportunity for the
In addition to the content shared in
this article, the full 2017 CPRE report Fast
forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners contains 17
chapters with global recommendations.
Broom, G. M., & Sha, B. L. (2013). Cutlip and Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice–Hall.
Editorial Record: Original draft submitted November 13, 2018. Revision subitted April 19, 2019. Manuscript accepted May 20, 2019. First published online November 20, 2019.
new public relations professionals move out of the classroom and into the work
world, they face a range of ethical challenges in their positions. This study
investigated how public relations agencies perceive the preparation of new
college graduates to handle ethical situations and how agencies train new
employees for ethical communication and behavior, shedding light on gaps in
ethical education. Findings offer useful information for faculty and
practitioners who wish to improve young people’s preparation to address ethical
conducting an extensive survey of practitioners and academics in the public
relations field, the Commission on Public Relations Education (2017) issued its
report, “Fast Forward: Foundations and Future State, Educators and
Practitioners,” and made an important recommendation. It called for public
relations programs at colleges and universities to add a required ethics course
to the public relations curriculum (Commission, 2017). The report argues that
communication ethics have never been more important than they are today, given
the increasing level of complexity in the digital world and the challenge of
fake news and misinformation in the public sphere (Commission, 2017). Ethical
behavior among public relations professionals is critical for continuing to
build the reputation of the field. What the report does not address is how
current public relations education prepares (or fails to prepare) young
professionals to face ethical issues in the workforce and how training on
ethics continues into a student’s first job. The current article helps address
those topics by presenting the results of interviews with public relations
agency leaders who identify gaps between ethical preparation and agency needs
and offer insights into how agencies are continuing to educate young
practitioners about ethical issues.
education prepares students to address ethical dilemmas. In his seminal piece,
Plaisance (2006) summarized what the best ethics education looks like. He wrote
that it focuses on “students’ analytical abilities and critical thinking about
stakeholders so that they can effectively deliberate through an ethical
problem” (p. 380); it is focused on “the quality of this deliberation rather than
on distribution of ‘right answers’” (p. 380); it focuses “students’ attention
on how decisions in ethical quandaries are made rather than concentrating on
what the decision turns out to be”; it emphasizes “the process of moral
deliberation” (p. 380); and it helps
“students develop their own moral reasoning skills, grounded in philosophical
concepts, and help increase their awareness of potential ethical issues” (p.
the public relations classroom, faculty work to apply these strategies while
addressing professional topics. Recent work by Neill (2017) identified ethics
topics that are taught in standalone public relations classes and across the
curriculum in the public relations field. Overall, the most common
ethics-related topics were Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics
(91%), corporate social responsibility (84%), current events (82%), media
relations (65%), ethical decision-making models (60%), impact of organizational
culture and values (60%), classical theories by philosophers (55%), other codes
of ethics (other than PRSA) (54%), blogger/influencer relations (51%), global
perspectives on ethics (46%), and how to raise ethical concerns/action plan
years, educators have been calling for a greater focus on ethics in the public
relations curriculum (Austin & Toth, 2011), suggesting that moral
reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical skills should be prioritized in
ethics education (Gale & Bunton, 2005). Case studies and group discussions
were found to be the most effective methods in the public relations classroom
(Silverman & Gower, 2014). However, more research is needed on the gaps
between current instruction and expectations of new employees in the public
skills in ethical decision-making does not end in the classroom, but rather it
is a life-long pursuit, which means education should continue beyond the
undergraduate curriculum and extend into the job setting.
Ethics Education in the Workforce
suggests a strong link between on-the-job ethics training and behavior (Gale
& Bunton, 2005), and yet as few as 35% of public relations employees report
on-the-job training (Neill, 2017). Historically, public relations agencies have
provided very little training on ethics (Lee & Cheng, 2012), but with new
ethical issues arising in an environment of disinformation, public relations
practitioners need to improve their preparation (Commission, 2017). Millennial
practitioners welcome ethics training, particularly discussion using real-world
case studies (Gallicano & Matthews, 2016).
integrity comes with three levels of on-the-job training: initial entry
training, reinforcement education, and sustainment education (Hipple &
Olson, 2011). This may be seen in the public relations agency by first
introducing employees to the code of conduct of the business, then conducting
training to reinforce ethical-decision making, and finally, making sure
management is prepared to create a culture of ethical decision-making. In an
organizational context, an ethical climate and ethical leadership can lead to
stronger ethical decision-making among employees (Wimbush & Shepard, 1994)
and better organizational citizenship behaviors (Hipple & Olson, 2011).
current study explores two important questions related to ethics education:
How well (if at all) do public relations agency leaders perceive new college
graduates to be prepared to face ethical dilemmas on the job?
How (if at all) are public relations agencies training new employees about
ethical communication and behaviors?
interviews were conducted with 12 leaders at top public relations agencies (see
Table 1 for details). The interviews consisted of 15 questions (see Appendix A
for sample questions), and each interview lasted between 30 and 60 minutes.
Question topics included the preparation of new employees, training content,
hours of ethics training, and recommendations for training.
Table 1: Position and gender of participants
Vice President and Chief Ethics
& Compliance Officer
Vice President of Learning &
Senior Vice President, Learning
Senior Vice President
Executive Vice President, Global
President, US Region
Senior Vice President
CEO and Managing Partner
Senior Vice President
primary investigator identified training managers and/or ethics leaders in the
top 40 public relations agencies as ranked by the Holmes Report (2016) and
invited them to participate in this study. Potential participants were asked if
they were the most appropriate person at the agency to answer questions about
ethics training, and if not, the investigator was redirected to a more
were transcribed word-for-word. Transcripts were coded both with pre-identified
concepts of interest and with open codes. Iterative analysis of transcripts led
to key themes and concepts. Below are the results of this analysis organized
into key themes.
Gaps in PR Ethics Education
first research question asked about the degree to which new professionals were
prepared to address ethical dilemmas in the public relations agency.
Professionals generally thought new graduates were ethical and exhibited
honesty, and as one interviewee said, “When it comes to truthful business
transactions . . . and being accurate, I think they learn that stuff pretty
well in school.” None of the interviewees suggested that new graduates were
woefully unprepared to address ethical issues. In fact, interviewees felt that
young professionals were more passionate about the ethics of organizations than
earlier generations. According to interviewees, young professionals held the
organization to a high standard and preferred to work for an organization that engages
in ethical behaviors. One interviewee said:
They care more about ethics and integrity than they might have 10 years ago. There’s much more of an interest in wanting to work for a place that’s ethical; that culture matters in some ways more than money, whereas I think 10 years ago it was like, “OK, show me the money.”
When asked to identify specific gaps in new graduates’ preparation to face ethical challenges in public relations agencies, interviewees frequently pointed to four topics: digital ethics, ethical media relations, confidentiality, and raising ethical issues. Regarding the first topic, digital ethics, interviewees felt that young professionals needed more education on how writing professional social media content differs from creating personal social media post:
I’ll tell you that the biggest thing . . . that they don’t come prepared in is ethics in digital communication, and disclosure. And that’s something that we have to teach them and say, “When you’re posting on behalf of a client, you need to say it’s on behalf of a client or that it’s a[n agency] client.”
This is not to suggest that new
graduates lacked skills in digital communication, as the interviewee explained:
“What’s interesting to me about that is . . . we’re bringing in people with
incredible digital skills . . . . And yet we still [train on] ethics in digital
communication that they lack or have not ever learned.”
second significant gap, ethical media
relations, emerged in several interviews as leaders felt younger employees
lacked an understanding of how to ethically respond to media requests.
Interviewees complained that new professionals had shared information that was
unverified or unapproved, potentially misleading the media or putting their
clients in a difficult position. New employees needed to better value accuracy
in their media communication, according to leaders.
third gap can be classified as confidentiality.
Agency professionals found that new
employees sometimes discussed agency or client information in their personal
social media, violating client confidentiality. This topic came up several
times, suggesting that it was a widespread misunderstanding on the part of new
finally, nearly all interviewees brought up the fact that new employees needed
to raise ethical issues to
management, and that is a place where learning occurs. A few cited instances
when that happened:
We’ve had . . . younger employees who have enough smarts to say, “What about this?” or, “Let’s start to talk about it,” in which case, they really didn’t understand the ethics behind it.
Preparing them for this kind of
action may be an area where faculty can make the most contribution to their
students’ future ethical toolbox.
Ethics Education in the Public Relations Agency
second research question asked about ongoing training in public relations
agencies. Regarding hours, the agencies
represented in this study consistently reported spending approximately 24 hours
per year on training, but ethics training consists of fewer than one of these
hours. In other words, approximately two hours per month (for 12 months) is
spent training employees on a job-related topic, but fewer than one hour per
year is spent on ethics training. Because agency employees’ hours are billable,
more hours of training mean less revenue, and this creates a conflict for
agencies. One interviewee described it this way:
The conundrum that we in the agency world face is that we make our money on billable hours. So, it’s finding a happy medium where it’s enough training so that you can obviously be developing your staff, and not so much that you’re taking away from your billable hours. Require more [than 24 hours per year], and it doesn’t get done.
interviewees expressed concern that more ethics training was not being done at
the time of the interviews (most hoped to increase training in the future);
however, a few agencies pointed to their culture of ethics as a reason for not
needing training. They felt that the culture provided guidance for employees on
what is acceptable. Agencies pointed out that accountability (management review
of employee work) acted as an ethics check. They felt that employees rarely
acted autonomously, so there was little room for unethical communication.
However, they did not address the issue of preparing management to take on the
role of creating an ethical culture and how this occurs without ethics training
at the management level.
training often involved reviewing the code of ethics or a list of best
practices during the hiring process. Some agencies followed this with other
ethics training, but unfortunately not all, meaning that, for some agencies,
the only ethics training provided to employees was a review of a code of
conduct. Referring to the employee handbook, one interviewee said:
There are like two or three pages on ethics in there. And then in terms of how I would teach it and have people learn, like if you’re a new employee on my team, it’s just learning through me handling it and us talking about it and me overly explaining things.
asked about the topics of the ethics
training, agencies that conduct training mentioned ethical decision-making
and telling the truth. Others cited conflict of interest, transparency, and
reports of unethical behavior. However, given the limited amount of time
dedicated to ethics training, these were covered briefly, if at all. Reflecting
on gaps in their ethics training, agency executives wished they could add
additional topics, including diversity and inclusion and social media use. They
believed that the most effective mode of training for ethical decision-making
is through case studies and discussions (as supported in research by Silverman
& Gower, 2014; Gallicano & Matthews, 2016), but leaders are hesitant to
invest the time in this kind of training because of revenue sacrifices. Case
studies that are highly relevant to practice were most effective, in their
opinions, but few employed this kind of training.
Implications and Recommendations
study offered insights into the way public relations agency executives perceive
the preparation of new graduates to address ethical dilemmas, and it sheds
light on the way agencies are continuing (or not continuing) ethics training on
the job. The interviews suggested that new graduates come to agencies
reasonably prepared to address entry-level ethical issues with several issues
needing additional attention, particularly digital
ethics, ethical media relations, confidentiality, and raising ethical issues.
According to Neill (2017), some of these issues are covered in public relations
programs, including media relations (65%) and raising ethical concerns/action
plan (39%). This suggests that faculty understand the importance of these
issues, but more attention is needed in all four areas to fully prepare
students for work in public relations agencies.
leaders do not feel they have time to conduct additional ethics training, so
employees learn on the job and absorb ethical lessons through the culture and
through modeling. Agencies’ reliance on their culture to educate employees
skips important steps in the ethics education process; particularly, it leaves
young people without foundational knowledge about ethics topics and leaves
little space for safe deliberation and development of moral reasoning skills,
as recommended by Plaisance (2006). The topics covered in agency training are
limited, and, due to financial restraints, training rarely includes meaningful
and time-consuming ethical discussions that are brought on by case studies.
findings lead to several important recommendations for public relations ethics
Recommendations for improving ethics education in the public
Build digital ethics
topics and topics related to confidentiality
into the public relations curriculum. These topics were not among the most
common topics covered by educators, as found by Neill (2017). Helping students
understand the differences between personal and professional communication on
social media, as well as learning what to disclose and to whom will prepare
them for the professional environment.
Strengthen the focus on understanding ethical media relations and raising
ethical issues in the workplace. Neill (2017) noted that these topics are
commonly taught in the PR classroom, yet young professionals need even more
preparation in these areas. Students need better training in how to handle
media in an ethical manner. Helping students build confidence in their ability
to identify and raise ethical concerns will prepare them for the challenges
they will face on the job.
Recommendations for improving ethics education in public
Commit time to reinforcement and sustainment education. Few
agencies conduct regular ethics training with their employees (after initial
trainings). Instead, agencies rely on their culture to drive behavior, and they
overlook the steps of reinforcing learning and sustaining learning. Ethical
culture can lead to greater ethical decision-making among employees, but
education is needed to build that culture.
Embed case studies into ethics training. Most agencies indicated
that their ethics training consisted either of a “list of best practices” or a
review of the code of ethics. Ethical development comes through deliberation
and perspective taking. This works best in the context of case study
discussions (Plaisance, 2006; Silverman & Gower, 2014).
Reinforce an ethical culture. Most agencies pointed to their
culture as the best guide for new employees. Without training for management on
ethics and ethical culture, it is unclear how an ethical culture is created or
maintained. More research is needed in this area.
young professionals launch their careers in public relations, they will face
increasingly complex ethical issues. Faculty members’ and managers’ efforts to
prepare them for these challenges not only protect young employees but also
help protect agencies and the organizations they serve to avoid consequences
brought on by ethical missteps. Filling the gap between current ethical
education and expectations should be the responsibility of both faculty and
professionals who train and educate new employees. This study offers
recommendations that should help fill that gap.
study has a number of limitations, including the small sample size and the
narrow list of questions from which the conclusions were drawn. Future research
should explore the type of training conducted by agencies and trends that may
be emerging in ethics training as new issues such as social media disinformation
and fake news crises create more challenges for public relations professionals.
The current study can act as a baseline for assessing the gaps between ethics
preparation of new professionals and the current needs in the field.
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relations curricula: Analysis of international curricula descriptions and
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APPENDIX: Interview Questions
Training in public relations
Does your agency offer training for employees? If so, does the training include
Tell me about your ethics training.
What topics are covered in your training?
At what stages do you offer ethics training? (New employee, annual, monthly,
quarterly, training, promotions)
What are the most important ethics topics that employees need to understand?
4. If you could add training modules to your current
program, what would you cover in them?
Preparation of new college
5. How prepared are new college graduates to address ethical
dilemmas that come up at your firm?
6. What ethical gaps have you seen between preparation and
needs of your firm?
7. What ethical topics are young employees most (and least)
prepared to address?