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Public Interest Communications in the Classroom: Bringing Activism to Public Relations Education Teaching Activism in the Public Relations Classroom

Editorial Record: Submitted June 13, 2021. Revised December 2, 2021. Revised February 23, 2022. Accepted March 7, 2022.


Kelly Chernin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Communication
Department of Communication
Appalachian State University
Boone, North Carolina
Email: cherninka@appstate.edu

Brigitta R. Brunner, Ph.D.
Professor & Associate Director, Public Relations
School of Communication & Journalism
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama
Email: brunnbr@auburn.edu


Public interest communications, an emerging field that implements strategic communications in an effort to drive sustainable social change that advances the human condition, provides an opportunity to create a foundation to incorporate activism in the public relations classroom. This paper highlights why a PIC curriculum is ideal for Generation Z students given their desire to make an impact and utilize technology in meaningful ways. In addition, this paper outlines a possible PIC curriculum that aligns with current public relations standards while discussing the field’s interdisciplinary benefits. Public Interest Communications offers a skillset for future activists.

Keywords: curriculum development, critical pedagogy, public interest communications, activism, ethics


On February 14, 2018, people were notified of yet another mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. As always, there were “thoughts and prayers” Tweets that followed the event. Pundits along with ordinary citizens assumed that the media attention and calls for gun reform would die down after a week. However, the student survivors of the Parkland shooting, high school students who had just experienced a profound tragedy, mobilized and started the March for Our Lives Movement (Jones, 2018). These young activists were not alone. Their peers began environmental organizations and collectives such as the Sunrise Movement and young activists also became involved with Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020. These same young activists are now sitting in university classrooms eager to engage with social causes. While public interest communication (PIC) is still an emerging field, it offers a flexibility that has the potential to engage a new generation of public relations students and to incorporate existing fields of study in an interdisciplinary manner.    

Although the concepts and theories within PIC are still being explored, the most common definition is “the development and implementation of science-based strategic communications with the goal of significant and sustained positive behavior change or action on an issue that transcends the particular objectives of any single organization” (Christiano & Neimand, 2017a, p. 38; Fessmann, 2016). PIC also focuses on human rights and “communication that advances the human condition” (Hon, 2016, para 1).  

As such, this emerging field presents a unique opportunity to integrate activism into public relations the curriculum. Most public relations curricula are typically aligned with corporate structures and founders such as Edward Bernays; however, campaigns such as the early labor movement also utilized many of the same skill sets taught in foundational public relations courses, yet receive little mention (Ciszek, 2015; Pomper, 1959). Journalism and public relations are both areas that teach students essential skills they will need to be successful in the industry. However, PIC has the potential to teach students the skills necessary to be an activist. Currently, classes that are taught about activism tend to focus more on theory. Students learn about collective action (see Olson, 1965) and the importance of community-based social networks (see Tilly, 1978), but learn very little about how to apply these skills. Subsequently, public relations courses offer a variety of skills-based courses, with minimal emphasis on activist movements. Introducing PIC as a class in an existing PR program or as part of a larger, more focused curriculum provides today’s students with a skillset that will teach them to be impactful activists. 

The aim of this article is to introduce PIC as a new area of study similar to the initiatives established by feminist scholars in the 1970s as they attempted to introduce Women’s Studies as a distinct academic and scholarly topic. Today, many universities have gender and women’s studies programs. We are not introducing new theories or data; instead, we are trying to introduce a new area of study that, while related to current programs of study such as public relations, offers something different—something essential to the betterment of our educational institutions and our society. This article thus examines why the behaviors of this current generation provide a strong foundation for the introduction of PIC; PIC’s unique characteristics and how these features can enhance current curricula by introducing an activist skill set; and how practitioners and scholars can implement past models of curriculum development to build PIC as an important area of study. In addition, we will also provide suggestions for how PIC can be incorporated into existing PR curricula based on CPRE guidelines and offer syllabi and program recommendations based on an analysis of currently available PIC syllabi and programs of study.

Important Role of Generation Z

Generation Z (Gen Z) is the group of students most likely to be found in today’s college classroom. Gen Z follows the Millennial generation and is defined as those born between 1997 and 2012 by the Pew Center (see Dimock, 2019). Others define the generation as starting in 1995 and ending in 2010 (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). While we recognize that using terms such as Gen Z has the potential to stereotype a diverse group of people, it is still common practice among researchers to organize generations based on birth year and shared characteristics (Wang & Peng, 2015). Gen Z makes up roughly 20% of the entire current U.S. population (Frey, 2020) and is considered the most diverse generation yet. This group is said to be very accepting of diversity and inclusion (Canvas Blue, 2018; Robinson, 2018). Gen Z members aged 18 to 21 are more likely to attend college than their Millennial or Gen X counterparts (Parker & Igielinik, 2020). Members of Gen Z are also the population who will make up the cohort of traditional-aged college students for the next decade and a half (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2019). They have been profoundly affected by the wars, financial ups and downs, terrorism, school shootings, social causes, and social media that have been ever-present in their lives (Adamy, 2018). Often these concerns have manifested as forms of activism for members of this generation as discussed earlier in this piece.

The connectivity afforded by social media has made their world smaller. Gen Z has been heavily influenced by technology and globalization (Abdullah, et al., 2018) because both factors have been a part of their worlds since day one. They have always had technology and information at their fingertips (Schwieiger & Ladwig, 2018; Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). Some even say this generation use their digital and tech savvy to recreate what activism is and drive change; as one Gen Z member said, “At the click of a button, we can start a movement” (Ziad Ahmed as cited in Cohen, 2020). Members of Gen Z use social media such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok to find their communities, to share their thoughts, and to organize (MacColl, 2019). In other words, members of Gen Z use social media to be activists. While some may dismiss these efforts as clickivism, defined by Oxford Language as, “the practice of supporting a political or social cause via the internet by means such as social media or online petitions, typically characterized as involving little effort or commitment” (n.d., para. 1), social media are important ways for people to organize around the causes about which they care (MacColl, 2019). 

Youth-led activism is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, high school and college-aged students often led the charge for civil rights. In the 1970s, youth advocated for women’s rights and protested against the Vietnam War. Some even say the punk movement of the 1970s was a form of youth-led activism against the status quo (Pekacz, 1994). In more recent times, youth have been involved in the DREAM act, gay-straight alliances, the #BLM movement, addressing climate change, and the movement to end sexual assault.

A campus is often an important place for youth-led activism because students have greater proximity to each other due to dorm and apartment living; they also have down time between classes in which they discuss and engage with one another (Enriquez, 2014; Van Dyke, 1998; Zhao, 1998). College is also often a transformative and transitional time for many students which brings about changes in their routines, and peers and affords the opportunity to explore activism (Munson, 2010). In addition, students in college are typically unmarried, childless, and often do not have jobs making it easier to participate in activism because they have fewer obligations (McAdam, 1998; Earl et al., 2017). Although some may argue today’s youth are not as involved as those of the past (See Delli Carpini, 2000), others say these notions are incorrect (See Henn et al., 2002; Strama, 1998) and the ways in which youth choose to be active has changed. “Just as the student activists of the 1960s were concerned with the issues that had a direct (negative) effect on their lives, so are today’s young activists. And just as their predecessors had used the media available to them to further their cause, so too do today’s young activists” (Teruelle, 2011, p. 204). While Gen Z may not rely as much on traditional media for their activism, they are still activists. They just choose to use social media because it is familiar to them. In this process, this generation is redefining what activism can look like.

The causes about which Gen Z cares about are many. Gen Z is known to advocate for fairness and equal treatment for all; other issues of importance to this generation include healthcare, mental health, higher education, economic security, civic engagement, race equity, and the environment (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). Gay marriage, climate change, and gender identity are also issues this generation is more likely to support than other generations (Biedermen, et al., 2020). Another description of significance is that this generation is very we-centric rather than me-centric (Mohr & Mohr, 2017; Seemiller & Grace, 2016) meaning that Gen Z thinks about others and wants to better society for all.

Irregular Labs, a learning network and innovation lab that helps its clients connect with Gen Z, conducted a study of 2,013 members of Gen Z worldwide. From this study, it was learned that close to 75% of the respondents, not only believed being politically and socially engaged was important to their identities, but they also believed such engagement was the hallmark of a good citizen (Irregular Labs, 2019). These findings seem to suggest PIC might be an area of great interest to today’s college students. Whether it is hyper-local activism such as the student-organized Bucks Students for Climate Action and Protection of the Environment whose members raised money, took part in forums, and initiated climate strikes (Biederman, et al., 2020) and the graduation speech given by Paxton Smith, a Dallas-area valedictorian, who spoke out against the new Texas heartbeat ban law (Zdanowicz & Johnson, 2021), or activism on a national or international level such as March for Our Lives or the Sunshine Movement, Gen Z is talking more, seeing more, and doing more about issues such as climate change than the older generations (Tyson, et al., 2021). Members of Gen Z are not afraid to call out what they see as unfair, and they are not afraid to drive change. While most people know the work of Greta Thurnberg, it should be noted that Gen Z people of color, such as Mari Copeny who has fought for clean water in Flint, Michigan; Amelia Telford who works against global heating and fossil fuels in Australia; and Elizabeth Gulugulu who has put a focus on climate issues in Zimbabwe, have sustained such movements (Clauson-Wolf, 2021). 

Gen Z wants to be more involved with and participate in political, social justice, and humanitarian causes beyond clicktivism, “they just need to know how” (MacColl, 2019, para. 4). It is with the ability to explain the hows of activism, social justice, and advocacy along with preparing students with a skill set for how to be activists and advocates that a PIC curriculum could strongly connect with members of Gen Z. Perhaps the time has come for educators to disrupt how communication fields are taught so students have options beyond a curriculum that is corporately focused.

Public Interest Communications’ Role in the PR Classroom

For public relations programs seeking to introduce an activist toolkit, PIC has the potential to provide a framework for PR professors to still teach essential industry skills while providing a curriculum more suitable for Gen Z learners and future activists. While the overall aim is to build PIC as a unique field of study, PIC was initially introduced within PR and communication classrooms, and still serves an important function as either a unit in an ethics course or as a special topic for PR and journalism majors interested in social change (Fessmann, 2017; Fessmann, 2018a; Fessmann, 2018b).

In addition, PIC frameworks highlight six spheres through which strategic communication could drive change using PIC tactics: media; policy, communities of influence, the market, activism, and behavior change marketing (Christiano, 2017). While activism is only one of the spheres mentioned, an understanding of all six spheres opens the possibility to create a more sustainable platform to drive change and gives students an opportunity to explore a variety of interests and disciplines. As noted previously, this generation of students is adept at utilizing social media; this PIC framework gives Gen Z students multiple avenues to utilize the technologies they grew up with in ways that can create meaningful change for everyone, while still sitting in a classroom. Essentially, these spheres help to provide future activists with a toolkit as they enter society beyond the classroom. Public relations teaches students valuable skills that have been successfully used to promote various brands; however, these same tools can also be used to create a better, more inclusive world (see Weibe, 1951; and Hon’s (1997) work on how public relations tactics were utilized during the Civil Rights Movement). Creating this better and more inclusive environment is what PIC aims to do, and as such, PIC offers a valuable outlet to introduce social justice into the PR classroom. 

As the notion of introducing activism into public relations classrooms becomes more widely discussed (Mules, 2021), PIC has the opportunity to bridge the divide among professors more interested in the functionalist approach, a pedagogical theory that teaches students skill sets that will later benefit the entirety of society, and those more entrenched in activism or critical cultural studies. PIC provides a framework for sustainable social change and provides a new lexicon for those who may want to explore activism in the PR classroom, but fear the stigmatization of such terms. Similar to traditional journalism and public relations, PIC has a theoretical foundation; however, PIC, like the other two fields, should also teach students necessary skills. Functionalists, those who wish for a field to remain neutral, tend to use case studies and corporate structures. In contrast, activists, and professors with critical cultural backgrounds, tend to problematize these structures as sites of oppression (Ciszek, 2015). Given these tensions, creating a space where both of these ideas are welcome within the public relations curricula has proven difficult. PIC has the ability to create a space where both of these avenues can reside. Activists need to learn about messaging, and audience engagement using skills-based approaches, skills that can still be taught by functionalist professors or those with a more traditional PR background. Just as theory and practical skills are complementary in traditional PR curricula, PIC serves as a complement to this same curricula for students who are more interested in social causes. Hou (2019) notes the importance of “rejecting a ‘false binary of public/private’” remarking that what is in the public interest is complicated and not within the domain of any particular group. The tensions between the “state vs. collective, government vs. corporate, commerce vs. public are considered not as mutually exclusive but interwoven as potentially competing forces to shape the public interest in different directions” (Hou, 2019, p. 159). Although Hou is discussing the role of public interest in China, this same idea can be applied to how professors discuss similar tensions within PR. Corporations can participate in PIC initiatives so long as their actions transcend doing more than merely promoting the bottom line (i.e. DICK’s Sporting Goods and the decision to stop selling guns. See Gaither et al., 2018). 

Given that this generation of students is leading the effort to ensure that retail is more sustainable (Petro, 2020), and that companies using pride as a marketing strategy are authentic and not just implementing rainbow-washing approaches (Wolny, 2021), PIC is a valuable area of study that does offer a different approach to traditional CSR approaches that some of these students may see as inauthentic.

 Johnston and Pieczka (2019) view the public interest as the foundation of democratic governance and public policy stating that it should incorporate “political reflection on how the relationship between the individual and the state should be managed” (p. 9). We can see this also being applicable to public relations education in the sense that managing and maintaining relationships between the public and organizations is a central tenet of the field. “Public relations shares a common link with public interest through valorization of publics” (Gaither & Curtin, 2019, p. 124). As areas such as journalism and public relations struggle to reexamine the nature of objectivity and the relevancy of a functionalist approach to pedagogy while these fields are contemplating how to combat misinformation, PIC offers a potential structure to move beyond the confines of “neutrality and impartiality” (Campbell & Marshall, 2002). Given that PIC utilizes science-based strategic communication strategies, PIC instruction teaches students how to define what is considered the public good by using an evidence-backed approach. When faculty use PIC’s body of knowledge to examine and evaluate how social movements have used strategic communication, students interested in activism will better acquire the necessary skills to be successful than if they took traditional public relations courses. 

Connections to Critical Pedagogy

Teaching activism is not a new concept and is most associated with the notion of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy has been a part of curriculum discussions since the 1970s. Freire (1972) first introduced the view that students should have a voice in their own education. This change was proposed as a way to move past the banking model of education where students were expected to passively listen to lectures and recall facts for an exam. Freire noted that this was a form of educational colonialism that silenced diverse voices and experiences in the classroom. Freire’s views on liberating education are applicable to PIC curriculum building in that it helps students understand how to not only express their own views and take ownership of their own educational process, but also amplify the voices of those they serve in the hopes of creating a more just society. The action-reflection framework proposed by Freire teaches students how to incorporate the importance of genuine and effective dialogue where both action and reflection are essential components (Freire, 1972).  Giroux (1997) later added to the notion of critical pedagogy stating that it provided a “language of possibility.” Today, critical pedagogy is “concerned with the elimination of oppression, the resurgence of hope and possibility–in short, with the making of a better world in which to live. A better world for all” (Shaw as cited in Tintiangco-Cubales, et al., 2020 p. 26). The perspective of making the world a better place to live directly aligns with many of the same PIC goals. 

Traditionally, academia has favored “objective” knowledge; however, this perception is often tied to our notions of objectivity defined by white knowledge construction. Recent events have shed light on the fact that many of our institutional structures, education included, have ignored the voices of marginalized peoples (Tintiangco-Cubales, et al., 2020). As such, there has been an increased push to decolonize syllabi, meaning attempts have been made to bring in more readings from authors from different backgrounds (Ahadi & Guerrero, 2020). In addition to bringing in material sourced from authors of different genders, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities, critical pedagogy values the first-person accounts of students. “Pedagogy takes into account the critical relationship between the purpose of education, the context of education, the content of what is being taught, and the methods of how it is taught. It also includes who is being taught, who is teaching, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to structure and power” (Tintiangco-Cubales, et al., 2020, p. 22). In the past, education has relied heavily on the banking model, alienating students from being active participants in their own education. The banking system is a model that at best encourages thinking, but does little to foster engagement. However, critical pedagogy encourages students to not only be active participants in the classroom, but teaches them to be active members within their own communities. 

Similar to PIC, critical pedagogy is still an emerging field that is constantly being redefined. For public relations, implementing a critical pedagogical approach would mean moving away from the traditional corporate case studies or campaigns and incorporating more cases that look at how activist groups have utilized similar PR tools in their endeavors. Ciszek and Rodriguez (2020), write about the importance of “decentering whiteness and heteronormativity, and [how] it works to disrupt the problem of homogeneity in public relations research and practice” (p. 537). If the field of public relations wants to move forward in an ethical way, it will become increasingly more important for public relations curriculum to adopt a more critical pedagogical approach in an effort to train students to be more aware of the current social and political space they will enter once they join the workforce; a PIC curriculum provides such a foundation. Fessmann (2017) argued that the social activism of the Millennial generation gave reason for further developing PIC. Downes (2017) suggests that by having an understanding of PIC, college students would not only be able to hear the call to promote social change, but also have the ability to follow through and create social change upon graduation and their subsequent employment. We believe the increase in social activism shown by members of Gen Z demonstrates the need for a PIC curriculum is even greater now. Without such a move, public relations and other communication fields may lose students interested in activism and advocacy to other fields and disciplines.

[2] It is difficult to know the full scope of PIC’s current reach because there are likely professors and instructors working in this area who are not aware of the growing PIC academic and practitioner community. However, we received syllabi from five universities, including those from the authors, and spoke to PIC educators currently working on developing curricula standards for the field. Both authors are part of a group of educators currently working to establish a more standard PIC curricula.

Creating a New Field of Study

The process of creating a new academic field is no novel task. Academia is generally steeped in tradition and while fields and disciplines may adapt to changing times, the introduction of new disciplines is not common and takes effort from various stakeholders and institutions. Currently, graduate-level PIC programs are offered at the University of Florida, Florida State University, and West Virginia University. Additionally, faculty from other institutions are introducing and have taught PIC as units in other classes, special topic courses, or potential electives. Researchers are also including PIC as part of their program of research as is evident by the growth of the field’s flagship journal The Journal of Public Interest Communications. However, a formal systematic framework for building this field on a larger scale does not yet exist. Looking at the evolution of Women’s Studies in the 1960s and ‘70s and beyond provides a rough framework as we seek to build PIC as a unique and significant academic discipline.

Ginsberg (2008) wrote that Women’s Studies development “mirror[ed] larger changes in both American and academic politics, culture and history” (p. 1). The same can be seen with the development of PIC and the importance of teaching young activists essential skills. While social movements and activism are not new concepts, climate change and racial injustice are no longer issues that interest and impact a select few. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to massive protests throughout the United States. Young activists such as Greta Thunburg speak out at climate summits attended by world leaders. Students can learn the skills to be architects, doctors, and journalists, but there is currently no field that teaches a unique skill set to our future activists.    

The work of curriculum building should employ a diverse perspective in content, thought, and lived experiences (Kvam et al., 2018). In Martin et al.’s (2020) recent study, they found that including topics surrounding diversity not only helped students expand their viewpoints, but also helped explain key media concepts as well. PIC has the same opportunity to bring concepts such as activism into the public relations classroom, while expanding student viewpoints and also explaining key public relations concepts such as two-way symmetrical communication or the importance of stakeholders. 

Like Freire’s contributions to critical pedagogy, early Women’s Studies scholars and educators “were actively creating and owning knowledge based on their own personal and political experiences” (Ginsberg, 2008, p. 10). PIC, like the beginnings of Women’s Studies, is in the process of simply being recognized as a legitimate discipline. There are a few spaces where scholars can meet to discuss research at conferences (for example Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), International Communication Association (ICA), and frank gathering), but there has yet to be a designated avenue to share syllabi and pedagogy. Although we do review existing PIC syllabi and programs of study in a subsequent section, we hope that this is the start of a larger movement to discuss more comprehensive goals of systematic PIC education. However, we are still building PIC based on personal experience as we create and own its body of knowledge.

In the 1980s, Women’s Studies experienced conservative backlash. Even today, there are critics of gender equality initiatives such as Title IX (Ginsberg, 2008). However, despite this reaction there was an increased effort to focus on efforts to examine the nature of intersectionality in the field. During this time, Women’s Studies programs worked on establishing core courses, minors, and even BA programs. These programs had to contend with defining theory and curricula, while defending themselves against internal academic forces and external political forces (Ginsberg, 2008). Given the current political environment, these challenges exist for the early stages of PIC curriculum development as well.

Much of the academy is siloed based on expertise. Even within communication disciplines you will often see journalism, public relations, advertising, and cultural studies separated into areas or departments. While these areas are unique and important, the communication industry is becoming increasingly hybridized and expects recent graduates to be able to adapt to new positions that often blur the lines among these fields. PIC’s interdisciplinary nature gives students an opportunity to explore many of these avenues beyond the typical silos of traditional programs. In the past, public relations students would not always be exposed to critical cultural ideas, which have a strong foundation in promoting more ethical systems. PIC curriculum can bridge the gaps among many of these areas giving students a more robust understanding of communication. Furthermore, theoretical understandings within PR would be enhanced by a more diversified curriculum and PIC would give students within cultural studies, postcolonial studies, ethnic studies, and queer studies the ability to develop a practical and applicable skill set (Ciszek & Rodriguez, 2020). 

In addition to providing public relations students with a more critical perspective, PIC provides a space to discuss and push back against the similar backlash experienced by Women’s Studies development in the 1980s. PIC’s interdisciplinary nature draws on other areas and provides new ways of speaking about race and gender in a critical way that may provide a more secure avenue for teachers to introduce concepts such as diversity and inclusion into the classroom. One activity presented in current PIC classes and trainings is the “back -of- the- envelope guide to communications strategy[1].” Students are asked to think of a social issue and how to create change within that context. They are then asked “who has to do something they’re not doing now (or stop doing something) for you to achieve that goal?” (Christiano & Neimand, 2017b, para 15). Given the number of proposed bills against Critical Race Theory require that educators “who discuss ugly episodes in history, or controversial events […]explore ‘contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective’” (Florido, 2021, para 13), this activity could possibly allow PR educators to look at “contending perspectives’” in a way that could teach students to think about changing the minds of those who hold on to problematic beliefs.  

[1] The back-of-the-envelope guide communications strategy can be found in Christiano & Neimand (2017b)’s Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Students want to learn more about events such as the Tulsa massacre and Japanese internment camps (Florido, 2021). Events such as the killing of George Floyd have prompted this generation of students to want to learn more about these issues. However, parents, conservative administrators, and politicians present a major barrier to incorporating these topics into the current curriculum. In addition, the traditional silos often present in communication departments and colleges give power to those forces that do not want to consider the importance of change. However, incorporating PIC’s interdisciplinary approach to public relations curricula could be a way to incorporate the back-of-the-envelope guide to our own educational system. By examining the process of Women’s Studies curriculum development, who also faced a similar challenge with regard to negotiating traditional academic structures (Ginsberg, 2008), in addition to critical pedagogy, PIC can use a similar approach of development, adaptability, and perseverance to create a space where both meaningful dialogue is promoted and practical skills are taught. The evolution of Women’s Studies programs over the past 50 years demonstrates how similar fields can be developed in the wake of political tensions in an effort to create change. This context provides some comfort that the same is possible for PIC.

Potential PIC Benefits and Curriculum

While we recognize that PIC is a unique field that can be applicable to a variety of different areas from journalism to health communication, we have chosen to focus specifically on how PIC can be incorporated into public relations programs. We follow the work of Taylor (2001) and Hutchison (2002) who examined ways to incorporate internationalization and ethics respectively into the existing public relations curriculum. They did so by making suggestions for how to bring these concepts into the existing coursework established by the The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) as well as sharing ideas for standalone courses focused on these topics.

Members of the CPRE are mindful that public relations curricula should be flexible and adapt to societal and professional changes while also allowing students to take courses or even pursue minors in other areas of interest to better prepare them for the workplace (Duhe et al., 2018). While the CPRE suggests some content areas that might enhance a student’s learning experience include social media, business literacy, analytics, and digital technology (Duhe et al., 2018) and Krishna, et al. (2020) add listening, digital storytelling, and leadership to this list, the authors of this manuscript believe educators could add to interdisciplinarity within public relations curricula by adding coursework related to PIC as electives for PR majors. Further, they believe a PIC-focused curriculum could be built by following the guidelines of the CPRE and making adjustments to them much as Taylor (2001) and Hutchinson (2002) did in their work. The following sections look at PIC curriculum building from a micro to macro perspective starting with an examination of current syllabi followed by an exploration of current programs of study and our suggestions for a potential curriculum based on CPRE guidelines.

A Review of existing PIC Syllabi and Programs of Study

 Similar to the early introduction of Women’s Studies programs in the 1970s, PIC classes appear to be offered at only a few institutions[2]. This review is by no means exhaustive, but does attempt to cover key learning objectives, major assignments, and required readings. Five PIC class syllabi were examined; four focused within PR/PIC and one focusing on journalism and PIC. One of the major similarities across all the syllabi examined was the emphasis on discussion. This discussion-based emphasis appears to align with Freire’s (1972) pedagogical principle of giving students and future activists ownership of their own education and compliments the nature of the course content, which predominantly emphasizes relevant and timely case studies focusing on social justice campaigns. In addition to implementing discussion, there are a number of skills building activities and learning goals including campaign analyses and overviews for developing strategic plans. For example, one activity that gets students to learn the complexities of trying to build activist movements within the policy sector breaks the class into different interest groups. Student groups are given different organizations and have to come up with a strategic plan to persuade one group of students, who are assigned to be government officials up for re-election, to develop a policy that will align with their interests. For the duration of class, students meet with other groups with a similar interest to form coalitions. The instructor also serves as the scheduling assistant for the elected official student group and can halt or grant access to these policy makers in a way that reflects the power the various interest groups may hold within our political system (i.e., a group representing a powerful lobby would get more access than the group of concerned parents). At the end of the activity, students have the opportunity to discuss what they learned with regard to policy, activism, persuasion, and coalition building. Students who took part in the activity said it helped them learn how to compromise with various stakeholders in order to create meaningful change that would benefit the most people.

[2] It is difficult to know the full scope of PIC’s current reach because there are likely professors and instructors working in this area who are not aware of the growing PIC academic and practitioner community. However, we received syllabi from five universities, including those from the authors, and spoke to PIC educators currently working on developing curricula standards for the field. Both authors are part of a group of educators currently working to establish a more standard PIC curricula.

The Intro to PIC syllabi for the University of Florida Master’s program, as well as a forthcoming undergraduate PIC class taught at Auburn University, require New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms as required reading. This book is not a traditional textbook potentially highlighting how PIC does attempt to bridge scholarship and practice. Other required readings include texts and articles related to relevant movements such as March for our Lives. Glimmer of Hope by the March for our Lives founders was also a commonly utilized text. Although there were a number of similar readings, there were also a number of readings that focused on specific social movements such as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Black Lives Matter. Professors also brought in readings to emphasize important activist skill sets such as community organizing, the importance of storytelling and using metaphors, and audience engagement. The University of Washington’s journalism/PIC course assigned Community-Centered Journalism and Reporting Inequality along with the Associated Press Stylebook. These texts again highlight the importance of combining skill building (AP Stylebook) with theory. The two other texts, while more focused on social justice issues pertaining to journalism and not PR, also demonstrate the importance of community building and understanding your publics in a more comprehensive and just manner.

Another way professors can bring activism into the PR classroom through PIC is to utilize guest speakers. At the University of Florida, guest speakers from Participant Media, Burness, and other PIC-related organizations have come to classes to give students networking opportunities and first-hand knowledge with regard to working in the PIC field beyond the classroom. Professors doing PIC related research can also provide useful insights for students. Providing a mix of practitioner and research focused guest speakers helps to promote the idea of using scientifically grounded strategies to promote social change. Guest speakers and partnerships with local non-profits and activist groups would also provide students with relevant hands-on experience.

West Virginia University is also in the process of developing an Advocacy and PIC class with the intent of also creating a stand-alone MA program. While WVU is currently in the process of creating PIC classes and programs, they do promote the Public Interest Communication Research Lab which “work[s] to train leading undergraduate and graduate students to continue the legacy of pursuing social science for social change” (West Virginia University Media Innovation Center, 2021, para 2). These research-based institutions help students learn and apply various skills they can utilize in future careers as advocates and activists much as our proposed PIC curriculum would.

Suggested Program Curriculum

Following Taylor’s (2001) and Hutchison’s (2002) examples, we offer suggestions for how educators could incorporate PIC into existing public relations programs. From a larger program view, the ideal PIC curriculum would include 45 hours comprised of PIC, PR, journalism, mass communication, and/or communication courses and would be filled out with electives from other disciplines beyond those found in communication schools and departments. Any programs accredited by ACEJMC would also need to be certain any program course hours do not exceed the limits imposed by the accrediting body. By allowing such flexibility, the addition of a PIC curriculum or track would be fairly easy and also cost efficient as few new courses would be needed. In addition, the curriculum would allow students to build a major to fit their unique interests as they pertain to the public interest such as interests in social justice, racial equity, sustainability, gender studies, social movements, peace and hunger studies, health, science, ecology, etc.

The PIC curriculum would need to have a theoretical basis that might include coursework in public relations, mass communication, communication, and/or rhetoric. The PIC curriculum might be set-up with choices from which students could select the course or courses of most interest to them or it could be set-up to match the strengths and abilities of the current faculty. Similarly, a PIC curriculum should include a research course. Again, PIC students could pick from courses such as survey research methods, qualitative research, quantitative research, critical perspectives, and/or rhetorical methods based on their interests and/or the offerings of their respective departments. A writing course would also be necessary for the PIC curriculum. This course could also come from a program’s existing coursework as a public relations writing or a news writing course would suffice.

This suggested PIC curriculum should also include PIC-specific content. In place of the introductory public relations or similar course, a new course that introduces students to PIC, advocacy, activism, and cause communication could be added. If the addition of a new course is not feasible, the addition of a PIC, advocacy, activism, and cause communication unit to an existing introduction to public relations course could be implemented until the new PIC-focused course could be created. While it would be ideal if a PIC case studies course built on content related to PIC could be offered, infusing PIC-related cases into an existing case studies course would be acceptable until an independent PIC case studies course could be developed. Similarly, the PIC curriculum would be best suited with a PIC campaigns course that allowed students to work with community partners who worked and advocated for the public interest. Such a course could also tie-in well with any civic engagement work the department, school, college and/or university was actively supporting and could build better relationships with entities across campus. Again, if a separate PIC campaigns course could not be offered, faculty could include a PIC-related community partner as one with whom students could work with for their semester project.

Another required course in a PIC curriculum would be an ethics class. Again, if there is an existing public relations ethics class, PIC-specific content could be added to it if resources did not allow for a stand-alone PIC-specific ethics course. However, either course should include the ethics of care perspective because such a worldview to ethics would be most appropriate for budding PIC professionals. Much of PR’s ethical perspective, especially in times of crisis, is influenced by an ethics of justice perspective where legal obligations and an effort to maintain or rebuild reputation are emphasized (Tao & Kim, 2017). In contrast, an ethics-of-care perspective would bring a more humanistic approach to ethics. Ethics of care derives from the work of Gilligan (1982) and shifts the focus of ethical responses to accountability to those people affected by the situation from a focus on legal rights (Bauman, 2011; Simola, 2003). Such a shift in ethical perspective puts the public interest in the center of any communication efforts (Fraustino & Kennedy, 2018). As Madden and Alt (2021) simply state, “care should come before image” (p. 38). By adding ethics of care to coursework, academics would be fostering Gen Z students’ orientation of being we-centric.      

The PIC curriculum should also include an internship experience for students so that they could apply their knowledge and skills in a professional setting. This step might require a conversation between PIC faculty and internship directors to be sure the experience would allow students to work within PIC, advocacy, activism and/or cause communication and to help internship directors to better recognize what would constitute PIC-related internships.

Finally, students should have the ability to pick from a range of courses for electives. PIC faculty might have to work with faculty in other departments to make agreements for PIC students to take courses in these other areas to ensure there are enough seats in these outside courses. Some areas in which students might take electives include sociology, sustainability, science communication, health communication, ecology, gender studies, climate, social movements, diversity, political science, nonprofit management, civic engagement, social media, digital storytelling, leadership, organizational communication, rhetoric, business, marketing, management, crisis communication, foreign languages, and corporate social responsibility. Courses outside of communication divisions such as ecology, sociology, health, science, climate, social movements, diversity, civic engagement, foreign languages, peace and conflict studies, hunger studies, and political science would help students to build the interdisciplinarity of their knowledge and allow them to pursue their interests as they relate to the public interest. Similarly, courses in areas such as nonprofit management, leadership, organizational communication, crisis communication, corporate social responsibility, management, and business would help students to understand how to manage and maintain organizations devoted to PIC and advocacy. Further courses in social media, digital storytelling, rhetoric, foreign languages, and marketing would help students to build persuasive promotional materials and develop better programs for PIC organizations. 

Innovative Solutions for Student Engagement: Suggestions for Instructors interested in PIC

In addition to utilizing resources that incorporate interdisciplinary learning, PIC gives students the opportunity to pursue civic engagement in the classroom. In 2006, The Carnegie classification system for higher education included a “Community Engagement Classification.” This classification was meant to incorporate service-learning “to the primary systems and structures of higher education” (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, 2011, p. 3). Civic engagement is closely tied to the goals of higher education and PIC and is meant to encourage students to become democratic citizens (Saltmarsh, 2011). Civic engagement incorporates service-learning initiatives which move us beyond the banking model of education (Freire, 1972) and teaches students to be advocates and active members of the community.

When thinking of the sustainability of a movement, a central PIC tenet, recent Gen Z-led movements offer ample opportunity for student engagement in the classroom as well as throughout the university and local community. For example, the Sunrise Movement allows participants to join hubs, which offer new opportunities to collaborate with local communities. Similarly, March for Our Lives has various local and university chapters. The localized focus of these movements not only helps to sustain the movements encouraging long-term action and change, but also gives students an opportunity to become involved at a reasonable entry point. 

Students can feel overwhelmed by massive social issues such as racial injustice, gun control, and climate change. Larger movements might also present a barrier to entry for those who do not live in urban areas. Brewer and Roccas (2001) suggest that individuals need to feel connected to a movement, while also feeling as if they are contributing in a unique way. The simple act of discussing activism and advocacy in the context of something such as the Sunshine Movement, when talking about climate change, or March for Our Lives, if discussing public relations and policy, can spark student interests enough for them to consider becoming involved in local chapters beyond the classroom. The initial act of joining a local chapter might even prompt students to become involved in national chapters once they graduate. Heimens and Timms (2018) refer to this phenomenon as moving up the participation ladder, which increases participation in social causes. Additionally, such involvement allows students to realize the political and social engagement that members of Gen Z equate with being good citizens (Irregular Labs, 2019). The participation ladder also provides a low-stakes entry for professors who might feel more comfortable casually discussing social causes, but might be less inclined to directly bring in activist community partners and projects.


While PIC is still an emerging field, some scholars (Christiano, 2017) believe that it has the potential to make inroads in curtailing inequities and addressing social justice issues. While PIC is grounded in the public relations discipline and its scholarship, PIC courses and curricula differ in both content and in the students that they attract – those students “who are interested in social activism but who are not comfortable with the corporate focus of PR” (Fessmann, 2017, p. 27). This proposed PIC curriculum would allow Gen Z students, those who will be the generation of traditional college-aged students for the next decade and a half (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2019), to pursue their passions and interests in ending inequities and social injustices. It allows for interdisciplinarity and flexibility to best suit student, faculty, and program needs and resources. PIC-centric courses could easily support students who wish to apply their learning to societal issues.

In sum, the PIC curriculum could be one through which members of Gen Z learn how to use their energy, passions, and knowledge of social media to do more and be more engaged with social justice, politics, and other causes so that they are no longer accused of being slacktivists. “Thus, PIC ultimately hopes to train and empower a new generation of communication-savvy social change activists” (Fessmann, 2017, p. 27). During the 1970s, the original pioneers of Women’s Studies found the interdisciplinary nature of this new discipline difficult based on their more traditional trainings. However, with the introduction of graduate programs, the field’s unique nature became normalized and Ph.D. programs in the area trained a new generation of scholars interested in changing views of gender and societal power (Ginsberg, 2008). PIC development is in a similar stage, and we hope this first step is just the start of growing a rigorous and distinct field of study that has the opportunity to teach future activists. As Downes (2017) states, PIC curricula should “empower others who can rally around causes leading toward the good” (p. 39). When educators introduce PIC to students, they ultimately introduce PIC to organizations as students educated in PIC will soon move up into management roles and will have the opportunity to work for the public good directly.


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© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Chernin, K. and Brunner, B. (2022). Public interest communications in the classroom: Bringing activism to public relations education. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(2), 111-146. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3051

Beyond slacktivism: Lessons for authentic activist messages through public relations (Teaching brief for Teaching Activism Special Issue)

Editorial Record: Submitted June 15, 2021. Revised November 16, 2021. Revised February 26, 2022. Accepted March 7, 2022.


Melissa Janoske McLean, Ph.D.
Owner, Tenure and Beyond Coaching, LLC
Email: melissa.janoske@gmail.com

Kim Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Instructor and Online Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN
Email: ksmarks@memphis.edu


This teaching brief looks at two aspects of public relations work for organizations who wish to make issue/activist statements: how to write an effective statement that is followed by action, and how to engage in ethical conversation with publics about the statement. The brief also addresses what happens if there are no follow up actions, and how to build relationships with the dominant coalition in order to aid in writing statements that will match organizational actions. These two lessons each include a discussion of purpose, materials, objectives, activities, and assessment (including ACEJMC assessment format and terminology) for easy adaptation into the public relations classroom.

Keywords: brand activism, corporate activism, activist statement, ethics, activism, public relations


Building relationships with an organization’s or client’s publics often occurs through the writing and dissemination of statements. Historically, these statements are distributed through traditional news outlets but more and more often, they are also being shared via social media.

These statements are going beyond announcing new products or changes in organizational leadership; organizations are also offering statements of opinion and belief, especially about social issues, social policies, and social change, and publics are watching very closely. This teaching brief will look at how PR professionals can help clients make corporate social activism (CSA) count through writing effective statements that are followed-up by action, incorporating organizational values into the statement and supporting their organization’s or client’s beliefs. It’s important to note that the vocabulary for these types of statements and actions by organizations is developing with some referring to it as advocacy (Dodd & Supa, 2014) and some as activism (Chatterji & Toffel, 2018; Hambrick & Wowak, 2019; Oikkonen & Jääskeläinen, 2019). With the increased emphasis on an organization’s actions (Bhagwat et al, 2020) – both stand-alone and in support of statements – corporate social activism is the term used in this teaching brief.

While understanding how to write these statements effectively is important, it is also important for PR professionals to understand that not every public will agree with them all the time. PR professionals need to be prepared for backlash on these statements from publics who disagree with them. This lesson will look at how to acknowledge and work through their anger or vitriol with the organization or individual and to ethically communicate with these publics, and potentially make them allies. 

Follow through must play a role here. Organizations offering statements supporting a social issue or policy must be ready to follow-up with actions that also support it. This lesson will address what happens if that doesn’t occur, and how to write statements that will match organizational actions.

Public relations practitioners need to be able to write these activism statements, make sure their organization is supportive of the words and the necessary actions, and engage in ethical communication with their publics about the statement and the actions of the organization. Therefore, this teaching brief will include two lessons: 1) recognizing and crafting an effective activist statement and 2) building ethical and activist relationships, as well as a case study. Each lesson includes learning objectives, activities, and assessments.

Lesson #1: Identify & Practice Writing Activist Statements for an Organization


To help students understand how PR professionals can craft effective social activist statements for sharing on a client’s or organization’s social media channels by studying and writing similar statements.


A variety of social activist statements posted on social media channels or website from organizations, including Ben & Jerry’s (to complement the case study below), Peloton, Nordstrom, Dove, Uber, and Gushers. We also recommend the professor look to see if their own university/college/department wrote statements for analysis.


At the end of the lesson students will be able to:

  1. Discuss the differences between corporate social responsibility and corporate social activism.
  2. Recognize corporate social activism messages.
  3. Identify an organization’s values from their written social activism statements.
  4. Build connections between an organization’s stated values and social causes through their actions.
  5. Understand how to communicate authentically during times of heightened uncertainty.

Body of Lesson:

This lesson should start with a discussion of effective public relations writing and writing for activism and the differences between corporate social responsibility and corporate social activism.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be defined as “business firms contributing in a positive way to society by going beyond a narrow focus on profit maximization” (McWilliams, 2015, p. 1). CSR focuses on an organization’s actions that “advance social good beyond that which is required by law” (Kang et al, 2016, p. 59) and the strategies organization’s take to demonstrate that it is operating ethically. 

Activism is defined as “the activity of working to achieve political or social change” (Oxford Dictionary, 2020). In the past, activism has been viewed by public relations scholars and practitioners from an organization-centric point of view (Ciszek, 2015) because PR professionals typically find themselves in the position of responding to activism directed at the organization. Smith (2005, p. 6) defined activism as a process where pressure is exerted on organizations (or other institutions) to change policies and practices. Today, stakeholders expect an organization to demonstrate its values through public support for or against public policies on social or moral issues through both statements and actions. Bhagwat et al (2020) call this phenomenon “corporate sociopolitical activism (CSA) also referred to as corporate social activism.

The main difference between CSR and CSA is that the focus of CSR efforts and initiatives are typically widely accepted and can be said to work within the framework of society’s current value system while CSA efforts and initiatives are typically polarizing and partisan (Bhagwat et al, 2020). An example that helps drive home the difference between CSR and CSA is Walmart. In 2015, Walmart stopped selling rifles commonly used in mass shootings, engaging in corporate social responsibility and distancing itself from the controversial firearms industry (Bhattarai, 2019). In 2019, following a mass shooting in one of its stores, Walmart CEO Doug McMillan urged lawmakers to enact stricter gun control measures, moving the retail giant from CSR to CSA (Tensley, 2019).

Important questions to ask and answer during the lesson include: What does persuasive writing look like in times of heightened uncertainty (typical during activist moments)? How do you humanize your communication efforts to demonstrate authenticity? How do you make sure a statement reflects corporate values and actions? How can you encourage publics who agree with you to extend their support via social media?

Key Concepts:

  • Persuasive writing
  • Communicating authentically
  • Organizational values
  • Uncertainty
  • Corporate social activism vs corporate social responsibility


  1. Have students read and evaluate a variety of statements from organizations, including Ben & Jerry’s and, if available, their own institution. What were the goals/objectives of these statements? What are the organizational values evident in the writing? How do they address their publics? Can students find evidence of the organization taking action to back up their statements? If not, what action(s) can they suggest? Why?
  1. Then have students practice writing their own statement for an organization and issue of their own choosing. How will they make sure it reflects organizational values? Who are the main publics they are trying to reach? Who are the stakeholders that may and may not support the organization’s statement and actions? How will they balance writing to those who support them with those who may not? Have students plan out at least one follow-on action that the organization can take after the statement is released to back up their words.  


  • Student understanding of concepts will be demonstrated by their contributions to the discussion.
  • The in-class writing exercise (Activity #2) will be peer reviewed and edited, and then their statements and recommended actions will be shared with the class for analysis and discussion.

How assessment of student learning will be met:


  • Learn about corporate social activism and the role that public relations plays in helping an organization demonstrate its values to stakeholders.
  • Learn the importance of an organization backing up social activism statements with action.
  • Analyze existing content on popular social media platforms to determine an organization’s or brand’s values, goals, and objectives.


  • Given social media content, distinguish the differences between corporate social responsibility and corporate social activism.
  • Recognize social issues and policies that align with an organization based on the organization’s stated values.


  • Improve persuasive writing and authentic communication skills through written corporate and brand social activism statements.
  • Choose appropriate actions for an organization to take in support of social activism statements.

Lesson #2: Ethical Activist Communication with Publics


To understand how to ethically communicate with and engage with publics regarding comments resulting from social activism statements, especially with followers who disagree with them or shame the organization for past actions or lack of action that supports the organization’s stand.


Access to Ben & Jerry’s, Peloton, Nordstrom, Dove, Uber, and Gushers social media pages (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), with a focus on the content announcing corporate social activist statements and/or actions. Again, if their university/college/department issued a corporate activist statement and/or took action, this should be included as well. These posts should include access to a sample of comments and responses that agree and disagree with the organization’s statements/actions.


  1. Explain the differences between bandwagon activism and social activism.
  2. Identify techniques and language to humanize responses to hostile followers on social media platforms.
  3. Create authentic messages to effectively engage with hostile followers on social media platforms.
  4. Discuss the differences between audiences and communication strategies on popular social media platforms.

Body of Lesson:

This lesson will start by reviewing best practices for engaging with audiences on social media – from followers who applaud your brand to followers who are critical, emotional or abusive. For examples of best practices see Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect (Luttrell, 2016) and Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications (Freberg, 2019). Additionally, the importance of organizational accountability (sharing about the action behind the words) and ‘owning’ past errors (apologizing for past organizational mistakes), will be emphasized. Students will discuss and evaluate the responses of organizations to both positive and negative comments to their statements on different social media platforms. Different types of activism (bandwagon and corporate social) will be looked at, discussed and differentiated.

Bandwagon activism happens when an organization’s social activist statements aren’t seen as genuine and authentic and aren’t followed up by action. When an organization’s statements are viewed by the public as “jumping on the bandwagon” and only one-time opportunities to employ temporary tactics, CSA can backfire (Sakoui & Faughnder, 2020). An example of this is when Amazon faced scrutiny for sharing statements supporting Black Lives Matter wihout implementing any real changes to reflect the statements into their internal policies and business practices (Paul, 2020).

Key Concepts:

  • Bandwagon activism versus corporate social activism
  • Humanizing the message
  • Adapting strategies for audiences on different platforms
  • Actions speak louder than words


  1. Have students look at an organization’s social activist statements on social media and find examples in the comments section of these posts that are in support of and against the organization’s shared statement to compare and discuss. Students will present their examples of negative and positive comments to the organization’s activist statements on social media to the class and discuss why the organization’s statement is successful or not, based upon the comments. (Was the statement deemed inauthentic? Did commenters see it as organizational bandwagon activism? Did the organization either not have or forget to mention potential actions to support message? Was it not aligned with the organization’s stated values?)
  1. Then, ask students to craft responses to both positive and negative social media comments on the organization’s social media activism content.


  • Student understanding of concepts will be demonstrated by their contributions to the discussion.
  • The in-class writing exercise (Activity #2) will be peer reviewed and edited, and then their responses will be shared with the class for analysis and discussion.

How assessment of student learning will be met:


  • Learn the differences between bandwagon activism and social activism.
  • Learn how to humanize messages with authentic language and empathy.


  • Given social media content, distinguish the differences between bandwagon activism and corporate social activism.
  • Understand the effective use of empathy to humanize an organization’s response to negative or hostile comments on the organization’s social justice statements.


  • Analyze existing social activism content on popular social media platforms to determine appropriate strategies for different channels.
  • Improve writing skills and humanizing messages through written responses to positive, negative/hostile, and/or emotional comments on social media platforms.

Case Study

A useful case study for organizational issue activism focuses on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and their social justice/Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism on social media. They are unabashed in their beliefs and stances, take proactive action to support those beliefs, and encourage people to both agree and disagree with them on social media.

Some of the actions they have taken to support their statements include creating the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation (launched 1985), which distributes money ($2.8 million in 2018) to support grassroots organizing for social and environmental justice. They have also created multiple new flavors to support their issues, including a Colin Kaepernick Change the Whirled Non-Dairy pint.

Additionally, Ben & Jerry’s supports issues that are relevant and important to their customers, employees, and leadership, allowing for a variety of issues and ways to support the causes. In 2016, when Ben & Jerry’s announced their support for BLM on social media, they had the largest reaction in their organizational history, including everything from cheering them on to announcing the customer was boycotting their product (Ben & Jerry’s, 2016; Ciszek & Logan, 2018).

Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s Director of Social Mission Special Projects, said that “We respect that some people will have a set of values that are meaningful and important to them, and we may lose some customers. But what we’ve also learned is that those who share those values are more deeply loyal” (Forbes, 2020, para. 8). Fans on Facebook (one of their main platforms) support this: “I think I just need to buy another deep freezer for all the ice cream I’m gonna have to buy to counter everyone that claims they are gonna quit buying Ben & Jerry’s because wait for it…they speak out on injustice.”

Finally, Ben & Jerry’s believes that “purpose-driven companies really are the companies of the future; they’re profitable and more sustainable” (Forbes, 2020, para. 12). This belief, along with the idea that it’s simply the right thing to do, is clear through all their messaging, and that confidence is perhaps unique to their presentation and statements.

Ben & Jerry’s offers an interesting perspective on making social justice statements on social media, and they back up their words with clear and concrete actions. They also have a fun and yet sincere approach to engaging publics in conversation on social media. These qualities combine to make them an excellent case study for this module and for student learning.


Ben & Jerry’s. (2016, October 6). Why Black lives matter. Benjerry.com. Retreived from https://www.benjerry.com/whats-new/2016/why-black-lives-matter/

Bhagwat, Y., Warren, N. L., Beck, J. T., & Watson, G. F. (2020). Corporate Sociopolitical Activism and Firm Value. Journal of Marketing, 84(5), 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242920937000

Bhattarai, A. (2019, September 3). ‘The status quo is unacceptable’: Walmart will stop selling some ammunition and exit the handgun market. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/09/03/status-quo-is-unacceptable-walmart-will-stop-selling-some-ammunition-exit-handgun-market/

Chatterji, A. K., & Toffel, M. W. (2018). The New CEO Activists. Harvard Business Review, 96(1), 78-89.

Ciszek, E., & Logan, N. (2018). Challenging the dialogic promise: How Ben & Jerry’s support for Black Lives Matter fosters dissensus on social media. Journal of Public Relations Research, 30(3), 115-127. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2018.1498342

Dodd, M. D., & Supa, D. W. (2014). Conceputalizing and Measuring “Corporate Social Advocacy” Communication: Examining the Impact on Corporate Financial Performance. Public Relations Journal, 8(3), 2-23. http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Vol8/No3/

Freberg, K. (2019). Social Media for Strategic Communication: Creative Strategies and Research-Based Applications. Sage.

Hambrick, D. C., & Wowak, A. J. (2019) CEO Sociopolitical Activism: A Stakeholder Alignment Model. Academy of Management Review, 46(1). https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2018.0084

Kang, C., Germann, F., & Grewal, R. (2016). Washing Away Your Sins? Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Social Irresponsibility, and Firm Performance. Journal of Marketing, 80(2), 59-79.

Luttrell, R. (2016). Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect. (2nd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.

Marquis, C. (2020, June 9). Why Ben & Jerry’s won’t stay silent on white supremacy–or other social justice issues. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christophermarquis/2020/06/09/why-ben–jerrys-wont-stay-silent-on-white-supremacy-or-other-social-justice-issues/?sh=39e3d3016f07

McWilliams, A. (2015). Corporate social responsibility, in Wiley Encyclopedia of Management, 1-4.

Olkkonen, L., & Jääskeläinen, J. (2019). Corporate Activism: Exploring Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication. Academy of Managemenet Proceedings, 2019(17350).

Oxford Dictionary (2020). Activism, retrieved on Nov. 15, 2021 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/activism

Paul, K. (2020, June 9). Amazon says ‘Black Lives Matter’. But the company has deep ties to policing. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/09/amazon-black-lives-matter-police-ring-jeff-bezos

Sakoui, A., & Faughnder, R. (2020, June 1). Solidarity, or joining the ‘bandwagon’? Some corporate activism backfires amid protests. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-06-01/solidarity-joining-bandwagon-some-corporate-activism-backfires-amid-protests

Smith, M. F. (2005). Activism. In R. L. Heath (Ed.). Encyclopedia of public relations (pp. 5-10). Sage

Tensley, B. (2019, September 4). What Walmart’s gun control move says about America. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/04/politics/walmart-guns-real-america/index.html

© Copyright 2022 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: McLean, M.J. and Malone, K.M.(2022). Beyond slacktivism: Lessons for authentic activist messages through public relations. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(2), 158-171. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3122

Captioning Social Media Video

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted June 29, 2020. Revision submitted August 9, 2020. Manuscript accepted for publication September 11, 2020. First published online May 2021.


Lakshmi N. Tirumala
Assistant Professor
Digital Media Production
Drake University
Des Moines, IA
Email: lakshmi.tirumala@drake.edu

Ed Youngblood
Professor and Associate Director
Media Studies Auburn University 
Auburn, AL
Email: ney0002@auburn.edu


Research suggests that the majority of Facebook users typically watch videos with the audio off and often skip over videos that require them to turn on audio, particularly when users are on a mobile device. To counter this tendency, content creators need to caption their social media videos. In many cases, content creators should also be captioning their video because of legal accessibility requirements, particularly if they are producing content for educational institutions or government agencies. In the U.S., these laws might include the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This article offers instructions for preparing captions for videos distributed on social media, including guidance on writing quality captions, using captioning tools, and suggested classroom activities. 

Keywords: accessibility, captions, ethics, public relations education, teaching

Ethics is a critical component of public relations (PR) education and interviews with leading PR professionals suggest there are gaps in the ethical components of PR education (Bortree, 2019). While there is little discussion in the PR education literature about making content accessible to people with disabilities, accessibility fits into the Commission on Public Relations Education’s call for incorporating ethics across the curriculum, including the need for students to be knowledgeable in making information accessible, respect for others, and acting in the public interest (Bortree et al., 2019). Accessibility is important to the general public. The presence of website accessibility credentials can positively affect public perceptions of company corporate responsibility (Katerattanakul et al. 2018). There have also been broader calls for incorporating accessibility, including captioning, into the mass communication and PR curricula (Youngblood et al., 2018). 

Why Teach Captioning?

Social media (SM) is a critical PR element and PR students need skills in SM tools and practices that help them effectively reach their target audience (Kinsky et al., 2016). Video is an important part of the PR SM toolbox and students should understand how to make video accessible. Captioning, onscreen-text describing a video’s audio component (Federal Communication Commission [FCC], 2018), is an important element of that process. Captioning makes sense from an ethical perspective because messaging needs to be inclusive. Almost 8 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing (DHoH) (Brault, 2012) and captioning allows DHoH audience members to participate in the video culture. In silent films, dialogue appeared as on-screen text, so DHoH only missed music played along with the film. Sound-based movies, introduced in 1927, disenfranchised DHoH and captioned films in the US did not appear until 1951. US television captioning began with WGBH’s 1972 captioned version of Julia Child’s The French Chef, which relied on open captions—text that is an integral part of the film/video and viewers cannot turn off (Downey, 2008). Broadcasters soon switched to closed captions, captions viewers can turn on and off, a technique that can also be used for SM video.

Captioning SM video prevents disenfranchising DHoH SM users and also makes sense based on how many people use SM video. Around 85% of users consume SM video with the audio muted, (Patel, 2016), and SM platforms, particularly Facebook, stress captioning’s importance in meeting audience expectations (Facebook for Business, n.d., 2016). Captioning offers benefits when the audio is not muted as well. Dual-coding theory argues people absorb information better when presented simultaneously in multiple modalities, (Paivio, 1990), and captioned video has broad societal benefits among the non-DHoH population, including promoting language acquisition and increasing literacy. Captioning helps with recall. Students retain information better when they watch videos with captions and, more importantly from a PR perspective, people have better brand recall when watching captioned material (Gernsbacher, 2015). Closed captioning improves search engine optimizations (SEO) as search engines can crawl the caption files. Search engines cannot read open captions (3Play Media, n.d.).

Many organizations fall under online-accessibility mandates, particularly government agencies and schools (Youngblood et al., 2018). Federal laws addressing captioning include 

  • Television Decoder Circuity Act (1990): requiring televisions have closed caption Circuitry Act;
  • Telecommunications Act of 1996: established broadcast caption requirements;
  • Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: required government and education electronic media accessibility;
  • Twenty-First Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act (2010): required increased online video captioning. 

While the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was designed for the brick-and-mortar world, in 2012, federal judge Michael Ponsor extended it to the virtual world in the National Association for the Deaf’s captioning lawsuit against Netflix, making it all the more important that PR students understand captioning (Youngblood et al., 2018). 

This combination of ethical and legal imperatives, coupled with user preferences, argues that understanding captioning should be an integral part of teaching PR students about SM video. This article provides background material to help set up an introductory lesson in captioning, including captioning best practices, multiple approaches to creating captions, and outlining a captioning assignment and how to assess it. The article assumes students already have a basic understanding of working with timeline-based media.

Captions and Creating Quality Captions

Captioning is not just repeating on-screen dialogue. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) offers a captioning framework: captions should be accurate, synchronized with the video, complete (all voices and important sounds captioned), and well placed—not obscuring important information (FCC, 2018). If you watch captioned video, you will find that captioning practices vary. For this article, we are drawing on The Described and Captioned Media Program’s (n.d.) Captioning Key. If only one person is speaking, captioning can be relatively easy—make sure that the captions match exactly what is said, typically including grammatical errors and ‘errs’ and ‘ums.’ With the exception of live television captions, most closed-captioned text should be sentence case, with all uppercase indicating someone is speaking loudly. When additional voices are added, captioners may need to add identifiers to clarify who is speaking, putting the name in parentheses and the spoken text on the next line:


Aunt Linda, how great to hear from you.

Again, conventions vary, as it would not be uncommon to see this caption written on a single line. Important background sounds may need to be captioned, typically setting the sound inside brackets, such as an engine revving up being [engine revving]. Off screen sounds can also be important. If a person looks up when an off-camera door is heard closing, the sound should be captioned [door closes]. Music should be captioned. Examples include [music] and captioning the music’s tone [relaxing music]. In the captions shown in Figure 3, the lyrics for the background music were included because they were important to the video’s content. The captions identify the artist and the song [The Newbeats play “Bread and Butter”] and mark the lyrics with a musical note—♪—at the beginning and end. The key is making sure captions convey all important audio information. Viewers also need to know when there is not any audio for the video [no audio] or unexpected quiet [silence] (Described and Captioned Media Program, n.d.). Captioners need to be careful how they format caption text, and the readability section of Table 1 provides some highlights based on Captioning Key (Described and Captioned Media Program, n.d.)—an article that can be used as a reading assignment. Readers interested in a deeper dive into captioning should read Reading Sounds (Zdenek, 2015) and Closed Captioning (Downey, 2008).

Closed captions work by pairing a video file with a text-based caption file. There are over 30 closed captioning formats (3Play Media, n.d.). U.S. students will most likely use SubRip (.SRT) and the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Video Text Tracks (WebVTT or .VTT) and  need to be aware of which format a given SM platform supports. These text files provide media players with caption text and how long to display the captions. The captions below are from an .SRT for a documentary on the first Apollo moon landing. The number at the beginning of each section identifies the order of the captioning segment. The paired set of numbers on the next line tells the player when to display the caption that follows. These numbers are written in hours: minutes: seconds: milliseconds. 


00:00:10,500 –> 00:00:12,900


We copy you down Eagle.


00:00:13,000 –> 00:00:16,700

(Tranquility Base) 

Houston, Tranquility Base here.


00:00:16,800 –> 00:00:18,400

The Eagle has landed.

In some cases, the final set of time code digits may indicate a frame number and set off by a semi-colon rather than comma. As an example, 00:00:04;18 describes the 18th frame after the four-second mark. Be careful when editing captioning files in a text editor to make sure the correct number of digits are present or the media player may not render the caption correctly. .VTT code is similar, but uses a period rather than comma to separate seconds and milliseconds, e.g., 00:00:47.564 –> 00:00:49.49 and has the option to include formatting and placement information (W3C, 2019). As .VTT and .SRT are text documents, they can be created in a basic text editor such as Notepad. The process is easier with a captioning tool, whether built into the platform like Facebook’s or a stand-alone tool, like Kapwing’s. 

Bringing captioning into the classroom

This captioning assignment was used in an upper-level video production class that included PR majors. The students responded well to the assignment and reported gaining an appreciation of what captions bring to audience members and the effort it takes to create quality captions. The assignments objectives are 1) to understand the ethical responsibility of making media content accessible, 2) to learn the importance of captioning video content, 3) to understand captioning best practices, and 4) to acquire the skills to use captioning tools. Students should learn to include captions as soon as they begin planning and producing SM video and need to understand which captioning type to use. Facebook and Twitter support closed captioning, while Instagram does not and needs open captions. Captioning is particularly important to integrate into client-based projects where students have the opportunity to serve as captioning advocates, helping educate clients about best practices. When setting up the captioning assignment, students need to understand why captioning is important. In addressing this issue, the instructor should discuss

  • Ethical imperatives for inclusive design and meeting the all users’ needs;
  • Legal requirements for inclusive design and captioning, particularly for government and educational institutions (Sections 504 and 508) and the federal court’s 2012 application of ADA to the virtual world; 
  • Meeting user captioning expectations, particularly for mobile devices; 
  • Added PR benefits, particularly SEO and increased brand recognition when captions are used alongside audio. 

Next, the instructor should discuss captioning best practices (see Table 1), including FCC guidelines, and have students watch a muted video and discuss what information they are missing without captions. Crisis/emergency communication is particularly suited for this exercise and encourages discussing ethical and legal concerns. The instructor should then introduce a captioning tool and discuss how to use the tool. We provide discussions of Facebook’s captioning tool and Kapwing’s Subtitler below (see Table 2 for additional tools). Drawing on captioning best practices, the students should caption 30-seconds of video provided by the instructor. The video should have important background sounds and music, as well as off-camera voices. Depending on time, students can begin with auto-generated captions or be given a script. The instructor should stress that copy-and-pasting the scripted lines is not effective caption. Evaluate student captions using the rubric in Table 1. As an alternative, faculty can use this first attempt at captioning as an opportunity for discussion and have students compare their captioning choices, either in small groups or as a class, and discuss their decisions. 

Facebook’s Captioning Tool

Facebook auto-plays muted videos as users scroll through their feeds (Constine, 2017), and having a text-version of dialogue helps draw user attention. The captioning tool is not available for personal feeds, so students need to choose their distribution methods carefully. This tutorial covers captioning during upload, but the process is similar when captioning existing video and when adding second-language subtitles. To add video content find the “Video” option in the left-hand menu—you may need to click “See more.” On the Video page, upload the video by clicking “Upload Video” and locating your video in the file browser. On the left side of the Upload Video page (see Figure 1), add a title, description, appropriate tags, and the video’s spoken language. Select “Subtitles & Captions (CC)” on the page’s right-hand side to begin captioning and confirm the video’s main spoken language. Facebook offers three options: uploading an .SRT, auto-generating captions, and writing captions. In all three cases, you will probably use the caption editing tool. 

You have to use the correct file naming convention when uploading an .SRT: filename.[language code)_[country code].srt. As an example, the filename for Fred and the voice of food safety (Food and Drug Administration [FDA], n.d.) might be “fredFoodSafety.en_US.srt,” identifying the SRT as encoded in English as spoken in the U.S. Facebook provides a list of supported language and country codes (Facebook, n.d.). Once you upload the .SRT (see Figure 2), a “Captions Added” box with the text “English:Uploaded” appears with a pencil (edit) and x (delete). Underneath select the default captioning language, which sets a default caption version to show if the user’s preference is not available. You can add additional captions/subtitles in other languages. Watch the video to confirm the captions imported correctly by selecting the pencil (edit). Watch for timing and for encoding problems, such as an apostrophe appearing as ’. Use the editor to fix any errors.

You can have Facebook auto-generate captions by clicking the Auto-Generate button. The “Captions Added” option will show “English:Autogenerated.” The captions will need editing, which you can do by selecting the pencil (edit) option. In addition to fixing mis-transcribed words, add identifiers to show who is speaking and caption important background sounds. 

The last option is to create captions from scratch by clicking “Write.” This process is easier if you have a script to cut-and-paste text from. When you open the caption editor, it will ask you to select what language the captions are written in. Once you select the language, you will see a list of time markers on the right side of the editor (see Figure 3), including predefined time ranges. The numbers are measured in minutes:seconds:thousandths-of-a-second. You can adjust the numbers by clicking on them, but time spans cannot overlap between clips. To start captioning at the beginning of the video, enter captions in the first time-block, usually starting a half-second into the video. Each time-block represents a single captioning line. As you add lines of text, you will need to adjust the times for each box accordingly. You can adjust a caption’s time on screen in the editor underneath the video, clicking on the beginning or end of the blue captioning box and dragging it to the desired time. You can also drag captions around on the timeline, though at the time of this writing, the drag option does not always work correctly. 

If you need to add captions after you upload or edit captions, you will need to open your Video Library to get to the caption editor. To get to the editor, follow the Publishing Tools link in the top page navigation bar and then look for the Video Library link in the left-hand navigation. When you hover over a video title, there will be a pencil icon that will let you edit the video. Select the Subtitles & Captions (CC) button to get to the captioning options. 

Facebook does not provide an easy way to retrieve the caption file it creates, making it difficult to reuse captions in other applications. Getting the caption file requires opening up the Facebook video in a web browser, using inspect code to find the caption file, opening the file in the browser, copying the text into a text editor, saving it as a .VTT, and converting the .VTT to an .SRT (Mbugua, 2020). Students planning to distribute captioned material on multiple platforms may want to do their initial captioning outside of Facebook, particularly if the videos are more than a few minutes long. 

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

Kapwing’s Subtitler: A dedicated captioning tool

Not all SM platforms provide a built-in captioning tool. Twitter allows for closed captioning and subtitles but requires you upload an SRT. To add an .SRT, go to your Media Studio library, find the Subtitles tab, select the subtitle language, upload, find your .SRT, and select “update file.” Some SM platforms, such as Instagram, do not support closed captions, meaning you have to create open captions that are an integral part of the video. 

Kapwing’s online Subtitle Maker (see Figure 4) lets you create both .SRT and open-caption versions of your video. The free version limits you to projects under seven minutes. As with Facebook, you can upload an .SRT, auto-generate captions, or manually enter captions. This example uses auto-generated captions to create an open-captioned video. Once the source video loads, click the green Auto-generate button and select the video language (see Figure 5). After captions are generated, they need to be edited and timed (see Figure 6). You can edit caption text by clicking into it. You can adjust caption timing by moving the white start and stop circles above the caption text. Be careful that captioning timing between sections do not overlap. Under Text Options on the interface’s left side, you can adjust font type, size, color, background, and alignment. Video format depends on your target platform and the Video Options menu can help with the decision making (see Figure 7). Changing the video proportions while using the Fit option, may result in a black border below the video. Using this border space is a popular way to create open captions (see Figure 8). To export an open-captioned video, click the red “CREATE >” button, which will create an open-caption .MP4. If you have a paid account, you can also download the .SRT.

Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8


Teaching PR students to create usable captions for SM videos prepares them to meet viewer captioning expectations, meaning their message will more likely reach its audience, particularly on mobile devices. Closed captions improve SEO, making closed captioned videos more findable than non-captioned or open captioned videos. Most importantly, teaching captioning emphasizes ethical best-practices in content accessibility and prepares students to be accessibility advocates. While this article focuses specifically on captioning SM video, faculty should consider including accessibility more broadly in their teaching—audio podcasting courses might include having students produce transcripts, web design classes should teach students to build accessible websites, and document design courses should include how to create accessible PDFs. 


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Bortree, D. S., Bowen, S. A., Gower, K., Larsen, N. Neill, M., Silverman, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2019). Ethics education report. Commission on Public Relations Education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Ethics-Education-Report-to-Toth-Phair-10-14-19.pdf

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Constine, J. (2017, January 4). Facebook adds automatic subtitling for Page videos. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2017/01/04/facebook-video-captions/

Described and Captioned Media Program. (n.d.). Captioning key. Guidelines and best practices for captioning educational video. Retrieved June 2, 2020, from https://dcmp.org/learn/captioningkey

Downey, G. (2008). Closed captioning: Subtitling, stenography, and the digital convergence of text with television. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Facebook. (n.d.). What is the naming convention for SubRip (.srt) files? Facebook Help Center. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/help/1528795707381162

Facebook for Business. (n.d.). Best practices for mobile video. Facebook Business Help Center. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/business/help/144240239372256?id=603833089963720

Facebook for Business. (2016, February 10). Capture attention with updated features for video ads. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/business/news/updated-features-for-video-ads

Federal Communication Commission. (2018). Closed captioning on television. Retrieved December 28, 2019, from https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/closed-captioning-television

Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Fred and the voice of food safety: How to avoid food-borne Illness. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from https://archive.org/details/gov.ntis.ava18185vnb1

Gernsbacher, M. A. (2015). Video captions benefit everyone. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(1), 195–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

Katerattanakul, P., Hong, S., Lee, H. M., & Kam, H. J. (2018). The effects of web accessibility certification on the perception of companies’ corporate social responsibility. Universal Access in the Information Society, 17, 161–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10209-017-0532-1

Kinsky, E. S., Freberg, K., Kim, C., Kushin, M., & Ward, W. (2016). Hootsuite University: Equipping academics and future PR professionals for social media success. Journal of Public Relations Education, 2(1), 1–8.

Mbugua, D. (2020, February 26). How to easily download Facebook captions or subtitles (Even if you don’t own the video). Freelancer Insights. https://freelancerinsights.com/how-to-easily-download-facebook-captions-or-subtitles-even-if-you-dont-own-the-video/

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© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Tirumala, L.N. & Youngblood, E. (2021). Captioning Social Media Video. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(1), 169-187. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=2419

PR Ethics Literacy: Identifying Moral and Ethical Values Through Purposeful Ethical Education

Editorial Record: Special issue deadline June 15, 2020. Revision submitted September 4, 2020. First published online December 22, 2020.


Jamie Ward, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Public Relations
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, MI
Email: jward29@emich.edu

Regina Luttrell, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Research and Creative Activity, Assistant Professor
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY
Email: rmluttre@syr.edu

Adrienne Wallace, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Advertising & Public Relations 
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI
Email: wallacad@gvsu.edu


The topic of ethics should become a required element that is routinely explored in the communication classroom (Kolić Stanić, 2020). It is reported that “in the field of public relations, unethical practices have been regarded as a serious problem with numerous deleterious effects” (Ki et al., 2011, p. 267). This is not a desire that practitioners, educators, or scholars want to perpetuate (Taylor & Yang, 2015). Long has the profession suffered from labels including “PR hacks” and “spin doctors” and from professionals that merely push propaganda for the benefit of their organization to the detriment of the public. Using a case study as the model, this ethics assignment allows students to better understand the impact that sound ethical decisions can have on both the profession as well as the associated publics.

Keywords: ethics, literacy, moral code, public relations, case studies

Educators are encouraged to integrate ethics into the education of future public relations practitioners; however, before that can be achieved, a system of ethical PR literacy must be established. PR literacy is defined as identifying ethical viewpoints and understanding the ethical orientations of personal and situational experiences and allows for students to critically analyze, apply, and evaluate frameworks and principles for decision-making capacity. The exercise of teaching ethics and introducing ethical codes of conduct within the classroom has proven to discourage unethical behavior (Neill, 2019).  

This ethics assignment utilizes the PURE model of ethical decision making, which includes a decision-making guide (Appendix) based on research by Kathy Fitzpatrick (2016). Per the Bivins and Kohlberg models of identifying moral obligations for PR practitioners, the highest stage of ethical development evolves from basic individual concern to a recognition of how the student’s behavior impacts others (Luttrell & Ward, 2018). As students become more ethically literate, they have an increased understanding of the overlapping and underlying influence of their ethical behavior on others. 

By leveraging case study methodologies, which promote a deeper understanding of an issue, students become increasingly invested in learning and take away a clearer appreciation of the ethical decision-making process (Gomm et al., 2000; Kolić Stanić, 2020). Krebs et al. (1997) studied performance factors for university students to test Kohlberg’s model. In this study, the authors began work toward a new model of moral decision-making present in students as to uncover the implications for education. The authors discovered:

a common thread runs through many of these implications: moral decisions and the cognitive structures that support them may serve many functions, which may vary with the types of dilemma people consider (e.g., hypothetical, real-life), their level of personal involvement and the contexts in which they occur. (Krebs et al., 1997, p. 142) 

The use of case studies in a variety of fields can be applied to PR programs to prepare students for the multitude of ethical dilemmas that may need to be addressed over one’s career. Krebs et al. (1997) further support the use of role-play to discuss the consequences or moral dilemmas that arise from self-interest and public-interest conflicts. This can sensitize students to the possibility that they will be better equipped to acknowledge the type of self-interest and justification that may evolve within a corporate or client structure and prepare the students to diffuse such issues.  

The core competencies at the center of this exercise extend to a multitude of courses and the interchangeability of the cases for discussion can be customized to an instructor’s individual classroom needs. The authors of this teaching brief have used a plethora of ethical dilemmas and case studies including The Flint Water Crisis, television anchor Leslie Roberts scandal, Alabama Human Life Protection Act, Sea World’s Blackfish scandal, and the Founders Brewing Co. lawsuit. Any ethical problem could be substituted into this assignment and paired with the instructor’s ethical model of choice. Depending on the instructor’s preference, other ethical models could be applied in the same manner, including the ETHICS model developed by Thomson J. Ling and Jessica M. Hauck (2017), Kathy Fitzpatrick’s Ethical Decision Making Guide (Fitzpatrick, 2016; Fitzpatrick & Gauthier, 2001), Baker and Martinson’s TARES Test (2001), or Kant’s Decision-Making Model (Bowen, 2004). One of the many benefits of this assignment is the ability to customize both the case study as well as the ethical model.

The Ethics Assignment

Instructors should allow for two weeks to complete this assignment. Week one consists of in-class lectures, analysis, and discussion of the ethical dilemma being analyzed; a brief background on the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics; and how traditional ethical theories affect modern day practice including an examination of the ethics of consequences, ethics of duty, and ethics of character, and an overview of the PURE model of ethical decision making. In week two, students will complete the written application assignment. In this example, the authors have chosen to explore the topic of ethical implications within artificial intelligence (AI).


This assignment enables students to develop an understanding of principles of moral reasoning and ethical problem solving and decision-making. Learners will recognize the ethical responsibilities of practitioners and the social responsibilities of corporations and other organizations after completing this unit.


Part 1/Week 1: Analysis and Discussion Surrounding the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in PR

Class 1. During this initial class session, the instructor—leveraging lecture, journal articles, blog posts, and video clips—discusses some of the more challenging ethical principles within this scenario. This situation represents how PR practitioners must advocate for the ethical use of AI within the practice as well as with the organizations we work for or represent. 

Class 2. Students are introduced to the PRSA Code of Ethics (Public Relations Society of America, n.d.) and the PURE model of ethical decision making along with the decision guide. It is imperative that students leave this session with a solid understanding of the selected code of ethics and how to apply ethics theory to present day ethical practices. 

Background Materials. The PRSA Code of Ethics is a set of ethical guidelines that apply to members of PRSA, the world’s largest and foremost organization for PR professionals. 

The PURE Model of Ethical Decision Making and Decision Guide.  This model affords entry-level practitioners the opportunity to see how ethical decisions are grounded not just in the idea of public interest, which is too elusive to guide practice, but rather in theory, which provides them with a way of articulating how they arrived at their decisions.  

Figure 1. Diagram of the PURE Model of Ethical Decision Making (Luttrell & Ward, 2018)

Step One: Introducing the Ethical Dilemma 

The use of AI has become more pervasive as brands have begun using technology to better identify, target, and connect with audiences. To that end, data and privacy issues are of great concern. Some areas explored include the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), chatbots that communicate with consumers and also collect and save their data unknowingly, and the 2019 Facebook announcement regarding the collection of millions of users’ email addresses obtained without permission.

This ethical scenario provides strong points of discussion based on privacy and legal implications as well as race. Researchers Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky (2014) developed this ethical dilemma, which is the foundation for this assignment:

Imagine, in the near future, a bank using a machine learning algorithm to recommend mortgage applications for approval. A rejected applicant brings a lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the algorithm is discriminating racially against mortgage applicants. The bank replies that this is impossible, since the algorithm is deliberately blinded to the race of the applicants. Indeed, that was part of the bank’s rationale for implementing the system. Even so, statistics show that the bank’s approval rate for black applicants has been steadily dropping. Submitting ten apparently equally qualified genuine applicants (as determined by a separate panel of human judges) shows that the algorithm accepts white applicants and rejects black applicants. What could possibly be happening? (p. 316)

The first step of the PURE Model of ethical decision making is to follow your personal, organizational, and industry-specific principles. Individuals carry a personal moral code that guides their day-to-day decision-making abilities. To more robustly understand real-life moral judgments made by practitioners, we must attend to the functions that involve juggling multiple angles of perception for a PR professional. 

Knowing that new PR professionals often rely on their personal morals to make decisions as their experience dealing with ethical dilemmas in the workplace is limited, we must fashion resolving hypothetical moral dilemmas in the classroom to improve future decision-making. Morals may include treating others the way you want to be treated, saying please and thank you, having respect for others, or simply showing compassion. Personal principles tend to be derived from surrounding influences (individuals and environments), including family, friends, and co-workers as well as educational and religious institutions. While it is not always recognized, there is a distinction between morals and ethics. Morality focuses on internal values and beliefs. An individual’s moral compass is generally a combination of learned and modeled behavior, while ethics involve a set of standards or codes that can develop and change over time depending on the situation or location. 

Organizational principles that guide behavior should also be explored. This includes expectations regarding the treatment of clients, or the way information is communicated to the public. The final component of this step focuses on industry-specific principles serving as the collective conscience of the profession. 

When determining if the response to a dilemma is ethical, students should consider whether any personal, organizational, or industry-specific principles have been compromised. Each decision will largely depend on an individual’s personal principles as well as organizational and industry standards of operation. In the example provided in this assignment, one might ask students the moral responsibility of the PR practitioner that works at the bank or the ethical obligations of the app developer that created the automated loan application. 

Given that human bias is inherent in AI algorithms (Silberg & Manyika, 2019), AI systems are only as good as the data that is fed to them and from which they learn. Left unchecked, the potential of undetected bias could uncontrollably increase as the AI accelerates. This is particularly true in cases where AI is devoid of or inconsistent in audits and remains largely unregulated. If this had been tested on the marginalized population’s mortgage applications, the erroneous algorithm could have been avoided by better training the system with data that is fair and unbiased. 

Practitioners must decide how to craft an ethical response for the public. Drawing on organizational and industry principles such as transparency and honesty, as found in the PRSA Code of Ethics, it is important to divulge racial disparities in an algorithm’s response. Once completed, it will likely make the public skeptical of any rejected applications, and relationships with the public will likely be tarnished. Each of these points alludes to a much larger discussion on how personal beliefs often lay the groundwork for ethical decision making. 

In this step, students must begin to determine whether personal and organizational principles support the action. 

Step Two: Ensuring the Ethical Principles are Applied without Exception

The second step is to ensure that the selected ethical principles are universal and are applied without exception. This step aligns closely with the beliefs of Immanuel Kant and his views on duty-based ethics (Kant & Gregor, 1998). According to Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, an individual should “act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law of nature” (Kant & Gregor, 1998, p. 39). In other words, principles must be applied to all individuals equally without exception. 

According to Step Two, if one bank justifies the use of this type of algorithm, it must be justified across the board. Can a PR practitioner working in the banking industry justify the use of any type of artificial intelligence knowing that the bot mirrors human bias? Can the criteria of loan applications ever truly be applied across the board without exception? Students should think about the key messaging they would utilize in press releases, media interviews, social posts, etc., as well as how to provide reasonable reassurance in both the process and the monitoring of the AI to squash future issues before they impact people, through regular auditing and adjusting. 

Step Three: Review the Practitioner’s Values

The third step reviews whether the practitioner values the rights of the public as well as their client. When examining this ethical dilemma, students are asked to examine how AI may be violating human rights. One might question personal versus professional priorities. 

Here, PR practitioners need to reconcile the rights of the public with the rights of the organization. The company has a responsibility to improve the AI algorithm. That responsibility must be thoroughly articulated to the public, and practices need to be implemented so that the use of such systems are fair and equitable to all parties involved. PR’s role is to communicate a solution that addresses the public’s concerns over discrimination. This also highlights the bank’s desire to make the application review process equitable.

Students will begin to investigate the importance of making ethical decisions that prioritize the public’s interest. Doing so can help eliminate siloed decisions that have negative repercussions on those without a voice.

Step Four: Weigh the Desired Results Against Morally Questionable Decisions 

In the final step, students will weigh the desired result against any morally questionable decisions or behavior required to attain it. As a tenant of consequentialism, the primary concern is the result. “When examining consequences in ethical advocacy, practitioners need to determine if the ends justify the means” (Luttrell & Ward, 2018, p. 61). 

When discussing this ethical dilemma, the ends justify the means if the bank’s response to finding out about the algorithm was to correct the problem and rereview all previous applications. As a result, the bank earned the trust of the public, saved time, and doubled mortgage applications. However, if none of this happened, the ends did not justify the means. Instructors should have students justify their beliefs and the impact of those beliefs from both sides of this issue. Students should have a thorough understanding of both the PRSA Code of Ethics and the PURE model of ethical decision making to appropriately apply ethical theory to modern-day practices.  

Part 2/Week 2: Applying the Decision-Making Guide

Once students have thoroughly discussed the case and applied appropriate codes of ethics using the PURE model of ethical decision making, they then fill out the decision guide and write an in-depth analysis which includes:

  • Personal, organizational, and industry-specific principles;
  • Universal principles of the case;
  • Discussion on how the rights of the public and the client were handled; and
  • Discussion on the justification of the end result.

Students present their findings to the class and discuss justification for their selection of specific material/content.


Learning objectives for this assignment include assessing the student’s ability to identify and apply theories related to navigating ethical dilemmas, to offer experiential and reflective opportunities for students so they can explore their personal values and ethical perspectives, and to provide students with the ability to make ethical recommendations based on issues faced in the profession. Grounded in cognitive theory, learning in this assignment incorporates the use of memory, repetition, motivation, critical thinking, and reflection (Griffin et al., 1994). This theory is dependent upon the instructor/student relationship. The instructor provides and leads the content to be learned (e.g., the case study, introduction of ethical models, the code of ethics), while the student decodes, interprets, and makes sense of the material (Almasseri & AlHojailan, 2019). The introduction of a framework, model, or theory paired with a current ethical dilemma or case study, is performed repeatedly throughout the semester to further connect theory to professional practice by presenting a multitude of moral theories and cases used to navigate ethical dilemmas. Therefore, this assignment is repeated throughout the semester to reinforce concepts. Additionally, this assignment can be used effectively in courses where ethics is taught as a stand-alone module.

The 260 students that completed this assignment since it began being administered in 2015 were asked whether they were able to identify and apply theories related to the practice. A total of 251 students either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement (146 strongly agreed, 105 agreed). The remaining nine students selected either neutral or strongly disagree.  

Figure 2. Student responses to whether the course and assignments “helped me to identify and apply theories to the practice.”

Students were invited to discuss their rationale and overall observations. Many students commented that making ethical decisions was much more difficult than initially anticipated. “This assignment made me think about the different types of decisions I will have to make as a practitioner and how I will often have to guide others in ethical decision making,” noted one student. Another student commented that “before this class I would just make decisions based on what I thought was right. I never thought about why I was making them.” Others said they appreciated being introduced to the models and theories in supporting their final decision, especially with a complicated topic. Some students expressed that they felt not all situations would need such a model to make an ethical decision.

As evidenced by the evaluation data, the majority of students felt that the lesson was impactful and welcomed the idea of talking through a decision-making process with the confidence of a team or group in the classroom. This assignment supports the research that the basis of transformative training of future PR specialists should include purposeful ethical education through varying media for the development of ethical and moral competence in a practitioner as an emerging young professional. 


Almasseri, M., & AlHojailan, M. I. (2019). How flipped learning based on the cognitive theory of multimedia learning affects students’ academic achievements. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning35(6), 769-781. https://doi.org.libezproxy2.syr.edu/10.1111/jcal.12386

Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 148-175. https://doi.org/10.1080/08900523.2001.9679610

Bostrom, N., & Yudkowsky, E. (2014). The ethics of artificial intelligence. In K. Frankish & W. Ramsey (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of artificial intelligence (pp. 316-334). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139046855.020

Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3

Fitzpatrick, K., & Gauthier, C. (2001). Toward a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 193-212. https://doi.org/10.1080/08900523.2001.9679612

Fitzpatrick, K. R. (2016). Ethical decision-making guide helps resolve ethical dilemmas [Fact sheet]. Public Relations Society of America.  https://www.prsa.org/docs/default-source/about/ethics/ethics-case-studies/ethics-case-study-ethical-desision-making-guide.pdf?sfvrsn=8a55268f_4 

Gomm, R., Hammersley, M., & Foster, P. (2000). Case study method: Key issues, key texts (annotated). Sage.

Griffin, S. A., Case, R., Siegler, R. S., & McGilly, K. (1994). Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice. Rightstart: Providing the central conceptual prerequisites for first formal learning of arithmetic to students at risk for school failure, 25-49.

Kant, I., & Gregor, M. J. (1998). Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge University Press.

Ki, E., Choi, H., & Lee, J. (2012). Does ethics statement of a public relations firm make a difference? yes it does. Journal of Business Ethics, 105(2), 267-276. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0971-1

Kolić Stanić, M. (2020). How the theory of information and journalism ethics contributes to the ethics of public relations: Six principles from the dialogue between codes of ethics and Luka Brajnović’s legacy. Church, Communication and Culture5(1), 36-62. https://doi.org/10.1080/23753234.2020.1713013

Krebs, D. L., Denton, K., & Wark, G. (1997). The forms and functions of real-life moral decision-making. Journal of Moral Education, 26(2), 131-145. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305724970260202

Ling, T. J., & Hauck, J. M. (2017). The ETHICS model: Comprehensive, ethical decision making. VISTAS, 18, 1-12. www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-subject2/vistas-assessment/docs/default-source/vistas/the-ethics-model

Luttrell, R., & Ward, J. (2018). A practical guide to ethics in public relations. Rowman & Littlefield.

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Public Relations Society of America. (n.d.). Code of ethics [Fact sheet]. https://www.prsa.org/ethics/code-of-ethics/

Silberg, J., & Manyika, J. (2019). Notes from the AI frontier: Tackling bias in AI (and in humans). McKinsey Global Institute, 1-6.

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© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Ward, J., Luttrell, R., & Wallace, A. (2020). PR ethics literacy: Identifying moral and ethical values through purposeful ethical education. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(3), 66-80. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/12/22/pr-ethics-literacy-identifying-moral-and-ethical-values-through-purposeful-ethical-education/

Public Relations Education in Singapore: Educating the Next Generation of Practitioners on Ethics

Editorial Record: Special issue deadline June 15, 2020. Revision submitted October 29, 2020. First published online December 22, 2020. 


Eugene Yong Sheng Woon, MMC
Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information
Nanyang Technological University
Email: woon0038@.ntu.edu.sg

Augustine Pang, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication Management (Practice)
Academic Director, Master of Science in Communication Management
Singapore Management University
Email: augustine@smu.edu.sg


This study examines if PR education adequately prepares students for the workplace, particularly in the practice of ethics in the context of Singapore, which has been described as one of “Asia’s economic tigers” (BBC, 2018). This study, thus, aims to first, elucidate the state of PR education specifically in relation to how PR ethics is taught in Singapore. Second, it examines how ethics education prepares students for the workplace in Singapore. Data comes from examining the syllabi of 14 universities in Singapore, both local and international, and interviews with 20 academics and practitioners. Findings suggest there are varying degrees in which ethics is offered by these universities, with clear variation between local and international universities. Findings also suggest that industry practitioners find the teaching of ethics useful for the marketplace while recognizing that ethics cannot be imposed or instituted on the individuals.

Keywords: ethics, Singapore, PR curriculum, international education, ethics education

The challenge in designing a public relations (PR) curriculum is to ensure that it is intellectually rigorous while at the same time relevant to the industry. Given the myriad of ethical challenges the industry has faced in recent years, the need to devise a curriculum centered on ethics is heightened. Ethical practitioners can guide organizations from avoidable crises and incorporating ethics in PR curriculum is historically and consistently recommended (Bivins, 1991; McInerny, 1998; Smethers, 1998). 

The European PR Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) found ethics to be the most valued out of 27 listed courses (Cotton & Tench, 2009). In 2017, ethics became the sixth compulsory component of an ideal PR education curriculum (CPRE, 2018). This means PR education has to be properly designed and implemented to produce professionally competent and ethical practitioners who are able to further their organizations’ interests while preserving stakeholders’ interests. Ethical, professional practice not only contributes to an organization’s image and reputation building, but also generates cost savings by reducing the occurrence or impact of crises. Similarly, the relevance of PR education lies in its pertinence to practice (Middlewood et. al, 1999).

In Singapore, PR positions are difficult to fill (Lee, 2015) as the industry generally prefers experienced practitioners who are assumed to have the requisite competencies, among which is a grounding in ethics (Pang & Yeo, 2012). Entry-level PR positions require a degree, a wide range of skills, and approximately one to two years of relevant experience. This poses an intriguing question: How does PR education in Singapore, particularly the practice of ethics, prepare students for the workplace? 

As a city-state with a population of approximately 5.5 million people, Singapore is a financial and business hub with a highly educated population (Gleason, 2018). Many multinational industries are located in Singapore, and the city-state has been described as one of “Asia’s economic tigers” (BBC, 2018). Singaporeans believe having a college education is the key to success (Cheng, 2015) and are pressured into obtaining one (Davie, 2011). 

Singapore’s tertiary education system consists of four public autonomous universities and 10 commercial private education institutions partnered with overseas universities. The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) consistently appear in the list of global top universities. Based on the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings (Davie, 2020), NUS is ranked 11th while NTU is ranked 13th.

Worldwide, public universities have stringent admissions criteria (Watts, 2006), and each year, thousands of applicants do not qualify for admissions (“4,400 A-Level students,” 2016). To provide an alternative (Waters & Leung, 2014), Singapore opened its doors to overseas applicants (Mok, 2008). Students from Asia and other parts of the world move to Singapore to enroll in universities, cementing Singapore as a global education hub (Sidhu et al., 2011). As of 2018, there were 65,600 students of different nationalities studying in Singapore (Leow, 2019).

Studies have examined the state of PR education in America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (Zhang et al., 2012). Few studies, however, have examined PR in Singapore (see Lim et al., 2005; Lwin & Pang, 2014; Pang & Yeo, 2009; Yeo & Sriramesh, 2009). This study is arguably the first to examine how PR ethics is taught in Singapore. Although senior practitioners are valued for their competencies and experience, students should not be ignored as they are “customers of and investors in public relations” (Erzikova, 2010, p. 188) and become new practitioners and further the practice. This means PR education must be properly designed and implemented to produce professionally competent and ethical practitioners. 

Ethical and professional practice not only contribute to an organization’s image and reputation building, but also generate cost savings by reducing the occurrence and impact of crises. Similarly, the relevance of PR education lies in its pertinence to practice (Middlewood et al., 1999). As such, the teaching of ethics is geared toward preparing students for PR and not toward work in any particular industry. 

This study aims to first expound upon the state of PR education and how PR ethics is taught in Singapore. Second, it examines how teaching ethics in universities based in Singapore prepares students for the workplace. This goal fits the theme of this special issue. 

Increasingly, there has been a need to understand how PR and PR education are conducted in various contexts. This was the inspiration for the 2017 book by Kwansah-Aidoo and George, Culture and Crisis Communication: Transboundary Cases from Nonwestern Perspectives. By examining PR education in Singapore, this study helps to further build on this repository of knowledge of different contexts around the world. This study also supports the research found in the fall 2020 edition of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, which invited contributions from top scholars in regions such as Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Louisa Ha (2020), editor of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, wrote:

We know too little about the media and communication in these regions. Their similarities to or differences from the Western countries can validate existing theories, improve or modify current theories, challenge existing theories, and propose new theories. We want to . . . stimulate the interest of Western scholars on research in these countries and see the value of these studies. We also want to encourage authors from these regions to see what have been done on their countries that have been published in our journal. (pp. 569-570) 

Literature Review

Teaching Ethics in PR education

The need to cultivate professional ethics for practice and to establish a standard for conduct (Barry & Ohland, 2009) has led to a demand for PR ethics courses (Davis, 1999). Some researchers argue that ethics must become an element across curricula (Erzikova, 2010; Hornaman & Sriramesh, 2003; McInerny, 1998; Smethers, 1998). This is due to universities being “viewed as the place where training in ethics should take place prior to graduates entering the workforce” (Moore, 2008, p. 6). Universities are also seen as instruments for inducing positive change in students’ ethical standards and behaviors (Pratt & McLaughlin, 1989) and the “major line of defense” (Watts, 2006, p. 104) before new graduates enter the industry. 

The Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) is the leading authority on PR education and provides recommendations on how PR is taught, and by extension, how PR ethics is taught. In the first of its 12 tenets of an ideal PR curriculum, the CPRE (1999) noted that ethical issues and ethical decision-making are necessary components in undergraduate PR education. According to the CPRE (1999), undergraduate students should obtain knowledge on ethical issues and ethical decision-making skills as well as on legal issues such as privacy, defamation, copyright, product liability, and financial disclosure. In addition, the CPRE suggested legal and regulatory compliance and credibility be taught to students. In its 2006 report, the CPRE suggested that ethics be integrated throughout the PR curriculum, “suggesting short one-hour courses or mini seminars can provide a meaningful ethics forum” (p. 24). In response, some educators argue that ethics should be incorporated into all PR courses (Silverman et al., 2014), while others believe that having an independent course, as well as integrating ethics throughout the curriculum, is the most ideal (Neill, 2017). 

In teaching ethics, Ballard et al. (2014) suggested students develop communication ethics literacy through learning. This includes: (a) ethics in human communication, which is comprised of “ancient and/or contemporary theories of ethics to identify what is good, right, or virtuous in communication” (Ballard et al., 2014, p. 6); (b) drawing on moral instincts to understand ethical notions; and (c) conceiving communication and ethics as equal, symbiotic, and mutually-influencing. Ballard et al. (2014) argue these themes provide rigorous learning of communication ethics. 

Teaching Ethics that are Locally Relevant

Teaching ethics has become an international challenge (Austin & Toth, 2011; Bampton & Maclagan, 2005; Clarkeburn, 2002; Clarkeburn et al., 2002; Davidson et al., 2003; Goldie et al., 2002; Park et al., 2012; Smith & Bath, 2006). While the recommendations by the CPRE are highly relevant, there is an equally strong need to adapt these to specific contexts and not adopt materials “verbatim without any attempt to align the contents with the environmental contexts of the native country” (Sriramesh, 2004, p. 322). Echoing this, Wang (2011) argued for greater adaptation of Western theories and ideas to specific contexts in Asia.

The challenges facing the internationalization of ethics education are threefold. These include: (a) a shortage of educators in ethics; (b) educators lacking experience in ethics education (Avci, 2017); and (c) a lack of resources, unstructured syllabi, and packed curricula that handicap the development and delivery of ethics education (Byrne et al., 2015; Lin et al., 2010; Rasche et al., 2013). Compounding these challenges is the lack of a conclusively effective pedagogical method for delivering ethics education (Avci, 2017).

Studies on teaching ethics in different contexts return various findings. While ethics is often incorporated into the curricula of PR campaigns classes (81%), introductory courses (80%), and PR management courses (47%) or is taught as a unit in Principles of PR, PR Writing, PR Case Studies, PR Campaigns, and International PR courses (Silverman et al., 2014), Chung and Choi (2012) found only 14% of U.S. universities offered PR Ethics. In the UK, 40% of universities offer a course in PR ethics, while in South Korea, 45% of its universities offer a course in ethics (Chung & Choi, 2012). Interestingly, although Thailand emulates the U.S. curriculum structure (Ekachai & Komolsevin, 1998), most universities offered at least two general or mass media ethics or law courses that taught codes of ethics, PR effects, or corporate social responsibility, but none was specific to PR (Chaisuwan, 2009). Similarly, ethics is integrated into open and generic courses such as Communication Ethics or Communication Law in Portugal (Goncalves et al., 2013), and in Spain, only 9% of Spanish universities with PR education had a PR law or ethics course (Xifra, 2007). Universities in the United Arab Emirates adapted courses such as PR History and PR Ethics and Law into PR and the Islamic/Arabic Heritage and Islamic Ethical Theory and Arabic Law (Creedon et al., 1995), and most universities in India offer at least two general or mass media ethics or law courses that taught codes of ethics, PR effects, and corporate social responsibility, but none was specific to PR (Chaisuwan, 2009). Finally, Austin and Toth’s (2011) study of 39 countries besides the US found that ethics is not taught as an independent course but is integrated throughout the curriculum. 

In 2018, the CPRE called for ethics to be integrated throughout the PR curriculum and argued that “ethics knowledge is essential to PR education; it is no longer optional or elective” (p. 67). Subsequently, the CPRE (2018) recommended ethics courses teach moral philosophy and conduct analyses using rigorous philosophical methods and critical thinking. Presently, there is no research examining the state of PR ethics education in Singapore, which leads us to the first research question:

RQ1: Where does ethics situate in the PR curricula among universities based in Singapore?

Relevance of Ethics Education to the Industry

Although educators indicate students are well-prepared in regard to ethics education, reality suggests otherwise. New practitioners were found to overestimate their ability to advise on ethics (Kim & Johnson, 2009; Todd, 2014) and in terms of ethical awareness, 82.4% of new practitioners rated themselves as quite or completely competent in ethical decision making, while 34.2% of employers rated them as good or very good at it (Kim & Johnson, 2009). In their survey of Millennial employees at PR agencies using three workplace scenarios, Curtin et al. (2011) found these young practitioners preferred to avoid an issue by referring to a superior (53.5%) in the first scenario, waiting for someone else to respond in the second scenario (69.5%), or following the superior’s orders (52%) to pose as an activist group member in the third scenario. Their results suggested practitioners may be either overconfident in their ethical capabilities or are being evasive, with the former suggesting a certain curricular success and the latter calling into question the relevance of PR education to industry practice. 

Research that examined students’ views of the relevance of ethics education is limited. U.S. students have been found to demonstrate an incomplete understanding of PR functions and inadequate knowledge of ethics, public affairs, and risk management, which leads them to not instinctively associate PR with ethics, feel that ethics is absent from the practice or poorly emphasized in school, and feel that PR is unethical and manipulative and has no strong ethical base to guide it (S. A. Bowen, 2009). Bowen (2003) argued that both educators and the industry were responsible for allowing the unquestioning perpetuation of negative connotations, which clearly highlights a need for integrating ethics across curricula to reinforce the practice’s promise and devotion to high ethical standards. 

In order to integrate theory with practice in ethics education, service learning was found to have advanced students’ moral reasoning to the highest level (Waters & Burton, 2008) as well as honed students’ knowledge of diverse publics and ethical responsibilities as practitioners (Motley & Sturgill, 2013). More importantly, Place (2018) found service learning strengthened students’ ethics competency in a realistically simulated environment with assistance from their clients. Internships (Conway & Groshek, 2008) are a way for hands-on learning and application of knowledge, skills, and ethics in the industry and clearly demonstrate the industry has a crucial role in training and ethically preparing students for future practice. 

Despite the many pedagogical approaches to imparting ethics, there is no consensus on which method is most effective (Avci, 2017). Universities are under pressure to design their curricula to meet industry needs, and in short, it is a simple matter of supply and demand. As Breaux et al. (2010) mused, “if recruiters do not value ethics . . . should colleges and universities offer these courses?” (p. 4). 

Most educators concur on subjects that constitute a good PR curriculum (Hornaman & Sriramesh, 2003) and agree that graduates should possess ethical values and orientation, which are crucial leadership qualities (Berger & Meng, 2010; Erzikova & Berger, 2012). Silverman et al. (2014) found educators believe that teaching ethics to PR students is critical while the CPRE (2018) reported that educators and practitioners support ethics knowledge, skills, and abilities as crucial for entry-level practitioners. As practitioners, PR graduates function as their organization’s ethics counselor (Bivins, 1991; Bowen, 2008; Fitzpatrick, 1996; Fitzpatrick & Gauthier 2001), and it is imperative that students have relevant education, rather than be in another related communications field to “practice a more sophisticated model of PR” (Hornaman & Sriramesh, 2003, p. 4). 

Teaching ethics to prepare students for the workplace involves increasing students’ awareness of ethical issues (Conway & Groshek, 2008), strengthening their moral reasoning skills (Clarkeburn et al., 2002; Lau, 2010; Park et al., 2012), readjusting their simplistic or idealistic ethical thinking into a more sophisticated manner (Plaisance, 2007), having them participate in and interpret complex dilemmas (Ballard et al., 2014), and working on cultivating their future ethical leadership capability (Gale & Bunton, 2005). These actions demonstrate that ethics education is not simply teaching students to think and behave morally, but rather consists of helping them cultivate and internalize crucial skills in critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, and leadership. This helps contribute to students’ personal, moral, and professional growth (Eschenfelder, 2011) and capability to serve as an organization’s ethics counselor (Bivins, 1991; Bowen, 2008; Fitzpatrick, 1996; Fitzpatrick & Gauthier 2001). 

In Singapore, studies found that PR practitioners spend most of their time on technical duties (Yeo & Sriramesh, 2009). Practitioners serve as generalists or technicians by virtue of their job scope, qualifications, skills, and background (Pang & Yeo, 2012). This leads us to the second question.

RQ2: How does teaching ethics prepare students for the workplace among universities based in Singapore?


For this study, we employ two methods: document analysis and semi-structured, in-depth interviews. These methods enable us to obtain “convergence and corroboration” (G. A. Bowen, 2009, p. 28). 

Document Analysis

Document analysis was used to analyze courses offered in undergraduate curricula from universities in Singapore offering mass communication and/or public relations programs. Programs that focused on journalism, marketing, advertising, media studies, or communication design were not studied as they neither provided students with direct PR knowledge and skills nor a career pathway. Although there were institutions that offered double majors and/or double degrees, this study examines only the curricula components related to mass communication and/or public relations. However, programs that were accompanied by a journalism, marketing, or advertising specialization providing complementary skills and knowledge that would benefit a new practitioner were included in this study. Units of analysis consisted of course titles, description, and outcomes acquired via course syllabi. Four local and 10 overseas Singaporean universities were examined, with complete data from 12 of the 14 universities obtained. Data was acquired in October 2016, which equates to scientific validity of the study only corresponding to the academic year 2016-2017. 

Previous studies (see Austin & Toth, 2011; Goncalves et al., 2013) that examined PR curricula did not name universities when comparing curricula, and no reasons were provided. Conceivably, it could be to describe the programs while being mindful of not downplaying any program. Even though this study lists all the universities studied, to protect the identities of the programs, this study follows a similar approach.

Data Analysis

Data was first organized into prescribed themes. To develop additional themes for analysis, thematic analysis was carried out via “careful, more focused re-reading and review of the data” (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006, p. 32) and “coding and category construction, based on the data’s characteristics, to uncover themes pertinent to a phenomenon” (G. A. Bowen, 2009, p. 32). For instance, a digital/new media course was present in 11 syllabi. Descriptors were extracted, combined, and refined from course descriptions to construct an overall course category property. Emergent concepts were derived from examining characteristics drawn from each course description (G. A. Bowen, 2009).

In-Depth Interviews

In-depth interviews were used to examine academics’ as well as practitioners’ views on the role of ethics in the PR industry. A semi-structured interview method was chosen to provide independence and adaptability in adding questions to the questionnaire (Owen, 2014; Pang & Yeo, 2012). Twenty interviewees were chosen based on the following criteria:

  1. Curriculum directors (CDs) from local universities and private institutions, many of whom are subject matter experts in the field of PR. Among seven CDs, three were from local universities and four from overseas universities.
  2. Educators were included only when recommended by CDs or serving as a substitute for non-participating CDs to ensure the quality of data obtained. 
  3. Ten senior practitioners in PR or corporate communications were included. 

Interviews were conducted throughout November 2016, and each interview lasted approximately one hour. All interviewees regardless of role are considered subject matter experts with senior academics and practitioners serving as “elite interviews” (Bowen, 2008, p. 278). CDs helm curricular improvement, development, suitability, and rigor (Doll et al., 1958), and understand the industry’s needs, while senior practitioners provide insights on hiring expectations and relevance of and improvements for PR education. The selection criteria created participant homogeneity (Guest et al., 2006) and similarity in responses (Bryman, 2012) to allow the study to reach saturation. Given these experts have shared knowledge and experience and “tend to agree more with each other with respect to their particular domain of expertise” (Guest et al., 2006, p. 74), 20 interviews were viewed as sufficient.

Data analysis began with re-reading the transcripts to identify codes (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999) and used McLeod’s (2003) immersion, categorization, phenomenological reduction, triangulation, and interpretation stages. Codes represent notions or observations in the data (Lancy, 1993) that can be based on themes derived from theories and research questions (Pang et al., 2017). During immersion and categorization, the data were scrutinized for meaningful details and categorized and sub-categorized using literature and research questions as analytical frameworks. During phenomenological reduction, immersion and categorization were cyclically repeated and improved as additional themes and interpretations emerged. Finally, themes and sets of connections were analyzed, evaluated, and connected to accepted entrenched theories, arguments, and interpretations. 


The first research question focused on where ethics situates in the PR curricula among universities in Singapore. This study examined undergraduate mass communication and/or public relations curricula of 14 universities in Singapore: four local, two U.S., four U.K. and four Australian universities based in Singapore. The findings for RQ1 are grouped according to the university’s nationality for clear presentation and ease of analysis and comparison. 

Ethics in Singapore Universities

Ethics and/or law are covered within a course in 10 of the 14 universities’ curricula. Among the local universities, ethics was found within a combination of core or elective courses or was subsumed within another related course. Among the private, overseas universities, ethics was present as a core course and/or integrated into another subject. 

Ethics was taught as both a standalone course or integrated into several courses among three of the four public autonomous universities. The standalone courses appeared to be comprehensively taught as they provided students with basic knowledge on media law, ethics and policy as well as “practical grounding on media law and ethics by presenting a wide spectrum of legal issues and ethical dilemmas faced by media practitioners” (a local university), and “addresses psychological theories of moral development, ethical theories in public relations, models of ethical reasoning, professionalism, codes of ethics, ethical strategic management, corporate social responsibility, and the fundamental aspect of ethically managing relationships with stakeholders” (a local university). One aimed to help students “recognize and resolve moral issues, develop critical thinking and analytical skills, appreciate the complexities of ethical issues confronting communication management practitioners.” In particular, two of the local universities taught media ethics and law with a particular emphasis on Singapore. Among the three local universities, ethics was commonly integrated into writing courses (Basic Media Writing, Online Journalism, and Writing for Print and Emerging Media) and strategic media (Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Advertising Strategies, and Strategic Social Media Management). One local university exhibited low coverage of ethics, which was part of the persuasion corporate responsibility courses, as its communication program was offered as a major rather than a full bachelor’s degree program when compared to its local counterparts. Among the local universities, one university had 10 courses containing elements of ethics/law. This finding could be attributed to the fact that the program admits working adults and was designed to meet their career or professional needs. Although another local university’s program had nine courses with elements of ethics, it should be noted that two were related to journalism, one was listed under advertising, one was available only to honors students, and another was the objective for an Advanced Communication Campaigns course. 

Ethics in Singapore-Based Overseas Universities

Though ethics as a subject was found in three Australian programs, it was not evident in the final program. Among the three Australian programs, two taught ethics as a standalone course, whereas one was taught as part of the Foundations of Public Relations and Influence and Impact in Public Relations courses. Ethics was also taught in another program’s Radio News course where it helped students to “develop critical thinking skills and establish professional practices within journalism’s ethical and legal parameters.” The fourth program taught Workplace Law, which did not appear relevant to PR as course descriptions were unavailable for analysis. 

Of the two U.S. programs, only one appeared to examine ethics using “selected texts dealing with one or more of the three basic concepts: ‘The True,’ ‘The Good,’ and ‘The Beautiful’.”  Among the four U.K. programs, only one had a standalone ethics course, which provided an understanding on free speech and privacy “within a historical, philosophical and ethical context” and “a critical understanding of the historical and political framework” of media regulations. As the course description for Advertising: Research and Regulation was unavailable, the study would assume that ethics or law educational elements were present within the course by virtue of the course title. 

Differences Between Singapore and Overseas Universities

Ethics was primarily taught in a theoretical manner among the overseas universities and was given some form of practice in the local universities’ writing courses. Although some of the local and overseas programs had practical courses (e.g., capstones, campaigns), ethics was not mentioned. While some courses appeared to examine issues (e.g., Managing a Communication Business, Contemporary PR Research), the titles can be nebulous and may not necessarily mean or refer to ethics and/or law. Lastly, it was interesting to note that Crisis Communication and Management, which invariably discusses ethics, was offered as a course by all four local universities, while it was largely absent in most of the overseas programs except for one Australian program.     

Ethics Forms the Bedrock of PR Education

In response to the question of how important ethics is in PR education, one academic noted ethics forms the basis of a PR education:

Yes, of course, it should be in the curriculum because as part of the relationships between an organization and the society around it, PR people—as anybody who makes critical decisions—have a responsibility for ethical behavior, their own and that of the organization’s.

Another respondent noted this reinforces the notion that ethics should be taken seriously in the workplace: 

I think it is essential to at least signal to the students what the professional standards are because there is a real danger that in their enthusiasm to achieve their objectives, they are going to compromise on ethics . . . I think ethics have to be integrated into these classes.

Teaching Ethics in PR Education

In response to the question of how universities devised their curriculum, one academic suggested that ethics should be integrated in all classes:

You should choose integration because the danger of the standalone is that maybe you are not getting the information about the OB [out-of-bounds] markers at the right time, maybe it seems like something you are learning for this course rather than learning to integrate into your professional life. So, the essential thing is ethics be integrated into cases, it is only valuable to the extent of sending a broad signal of where the boundaries are.

OB markers are defined as the parameters under which organizations work in Singapore. Euphemistically called OB markers or “out-of-bounds,” they included sensitive topics such as language, race, religion, foreign politics, and unsubstantiated criticism of public institutions (Cheong, 2013). Pang et al. (2014) argued “practitioners acknowledged that the onus was on them to understand these sensitivities. Failure to do so would backfire on the organization even if there was no intention to breach any unwritten rules” (p. 282).

Another academic felt the way ethics was taught in a curriculum depended on the availability of educators:

If there is a mature PR curriculum that is diverse and has excellent teachers, those will be able to integrate ethical thinking into their courses. That’s one way of doing it. If you don’t have instructors or curriculum that lends itself to doing that, having a separate course is better.

In response to what this means for ethics in PR courses, one academic noted:

It is about the synergies. Although media law focuses a lot on defamation and etc., which is very much relevant to journalism, we have a huge chunk of it focused on PR and strategic communications, which is relevant to our key focus.

The second research question examined how teaching ethics prepares students for the workplace in Singapore.

Seeds Sown in Universities for Industry Practice

Interviewees said learning ethics in university prepares students to understand expectations in the workplace. One practitioner explained, “Ethics is important especially in today’s world with the use of social media and the world being so porous, information just gets out there.” The practitioner argued that with so much information generated daily, the lines between generating original content and borrowing content are blurred, which is when ethical practice is important. The practitioner noted:

Previously, people did not share that much information or plagiarize, but today it is so easy to plagiarize content from anywhere. Especially those doing content development— they have to adopt ethical practices as well as practically everything else they do. It has always been about making sure that you are ethical and honest in your communication and that was always stressed. 

Another practitioner argued the seeds of ethical practice must first be sown in universities, contending it is “especially important for some industries like medical PR. Although you can learn about the rules and regulations of the industry on the job, it is better to learn it in the universities.” Given the changing communication landscape, students prepared by universities would be better able to manage challenges than those who are not. One practitioner noted, “We need a very strong ethical framework before going to work because work will challenge you on what is ethical or not. Ethics also teaches you critical thinking and you need that so much in this business.” The practitioner argued that integrating ethics into different PR modules works better than teaching ethics in standalone courses so that students can see the relevance of ethics in all situations. The practitioner added:

If you set up certain ethical frameworks: how to make an analysis, the top questions to ask yourself, elements to look at, and if you bring that framework back into other courses, that would be fantastic! I would encourage that! Having students apply the code or principles of ethics to case studies would be an effective way of teaching. This translates to learning what is taught in universities to the workplace. 

Another practitioner noted that “there must be guidelines on what you can say and do. Every organization needs ethical practices in terms of social media content sharing.” One practitioner explained that “Some of our clients require us to take ethics tests. Every year, we have to log onto a website, listen to an online lecture and take a quiz where we must get all questions correct.”

Limitations of Teaching Ethics

Interviewees argued that even if universities devised the best curriculum, preparing students on ethics in PR does have its limitations. One practitioner said, “It is a good course to have but you have practitioners who are naturally ethical and unethical. It is your character: are you an ethical person?” Another elaborated: 

Ethics is something that you can discuss; it is very hard for people to conform. It is again person-specific. Some have very strong morals and ethics; so even if you don’t teach them a lot of ethics, they will not stray.

While another added that beyond the classroom, it was a constant reminder at the workplace to reinforce ethics:

In the course of work with clients, you have access to confidential stuff, so the ability to keep things to yourself is very critical. There are situations where we are privy to certain things that most people within the client’s organization do not even know about. I think it is good to constantly remind them that the trust factor is very crucial as there must be mutual trust between you and the client.

This extended to working with clients who are ethically-challenged. The practitioner noted, “Besides from the perspective of confidentiality, there are times where clients have questionable ethical issues, and you need to figure out how to manage that or [they] ask you to do certain things that may impact the business.” 

Given all these diverse views, how can ethics be institutionalized so that minimum standards are kept? One academic suggested:

Every practitioner should have a sense of ethics. When we talk about ethics in Singapore specifically, we need to, in some way, standardize . . . we need a yardstick, whether it is PRSA or IPRS. Ultimately, they have their own codes of conduct, and practitioners need to, in a way, have some alignment to ethical background.


Ethics in PR education is well-emphasized in most communication programs offered by Singapore’s public universities. The subject is taught as a standalone course and is also integrated into several courses within their curricula. This demonstrates that ethics education conforms heavily to the CPRE’s (2018) recommendations. Ethics could both be taught independently or emphasized and practiced in several writing and strategy-type courses. By integrating ethics into a practice-based course, students would have more opportunities to apply their knowledge before entering their internships or joining a new practice. In short, ethics education among local communication programs appears to have a healthy balance of learning and application and could be well situated at the rigorous end of the curriculum spectrum. 

Teaching Ethics in Singapore as Compared to Other Countries

The mass communication and/PR curricula in Singapore is focused on imparting essential skills and knowledge on students as those contribute to students’ employability as new PR practitioners. Local universities offer more courses that provide opportunities for students to apply knowledge they acquire, which also includes ethics. To a lesser degree, the Australian programs are also able to achieve this. However, the U.S. and U.K. programs appear highly theoretical. Data suggests that ethics/law are poorly emphasized in the U.K. programs in Singapore. A fair evaluation of the U.K. curricula was difficult to ascertain as course descriptions for two universities were unavailable for analysis. In essence, within Singapore’s curricula, ethics appears well taught and integrated within the local universities’ curricula, but the U.S. and U.K. programs appear to be attempting to meet basic expectations of a good program by offering an ethics course. In terms of ethics education, the Australian programs are arguably more rigorous than their U.K. and U.S. counterparts. 

The landscape appears to be different in the programs offered by the overseas universities. Although three of the four Australian programs have taught ethics as a standalone course at their home universities, findings indicate that ethics is not well-featured or integrated into the curricula taught in Singapore. This means the programs are likely to be situated in the middle of the spectrum whereby they partially-fulfill the CPRE’s (2018) recommendations of providing a course in ethics with minimal and weak integration of ethics in other PR-related courses. Unlike their Australian counterparts, only one of the four U.K. universities in Singapore offering communication studies has a standalone ethics course and only one of the two U.S. programs featured ethics in its curriculum. 

Among the local programs, ethics is integrated into several open and generic courses such as Organizational Communication, Ethics in Communication Management, Corporate Communication, and Corporate Responsibility in the Global Era, which bears some semblance to the Portuguese curricula (Gonclaves et al., 2013). Among the overseas programs, ethics is integrated into communication and media-related courses such as Radio News, Advertising: Research and Regulation, and Workplace Law, which appears to resemble the approach of programs in India (Chaisuwan, 2009). Thus far, ethics in PR education in Singapore seems to be of a pragmatic nature such that it allows for the application within the wide communications field. 

One might argue that the differences between the PR programs in Singapore and its international counterparts are not significant. The differences are more evident between local universities and the overseas universities. Fitch (2013) argued that the curricula from overseas universities tend to be globalized rather than internationalized. Internationalization is where courses were “offered either through a partnership arrangement (with a local education institution or a commercial operator) or at an international campus” and the curricula “seek(s) to relate abstract and general bodies of knowledge to local and foreign situations, reflecting the importance of social, political and geographical factors in education,” while globalized universities are “generic or universal programs that are produced in one location for global consumption” (Fitch, 2013, pp. 137-138). The ramification of the globalized university would be that graduates would have difficulty applying knowledge to local problems and contexts, which would cause the local PR industry to question the relevance of PR education for employment and practice. The globalized nature of some overseas curricula lends to the perception that these programs are “cash cows” rather than designed to meet the needs of the students (Botan & Taylor, 2004, p. 646). 

Beyond the Classroom: What is Learned Must be Reinforced in Industry

Chua and Ameen (2020) found that when confronted with ethical issues, students in Singapore universities are more likely to behave ethically, which could be a function of the education provided. This study argues that beyond awareness and discussions in the classroom, ethics has a utility function as it aims to equip practitioners to protect organizations’ business needs and allow new practitioners to meet the expectations of practice and their role. This means ethics has a practical relevance and value because the additional critical thinking skills gained from ethics courses and the trust built with clients can translate into business and earnings for an agency. 

Pang (2013) argues that practitioners are vital in helping to shape public perception and to manage the information vacuum in times of crisis. This involves managing the media as well as utilizing an integrated media approach (Pang et al., 2018). S. A. Bowen (2009) describes practitioners as “ethics counsel” (p. 271) for organizations, while Lee and Cheng (2011) describe them as demonstrating ethical leadership. 

Even though PR education is still largely about the skills and knowledge needed for practice, an exploration into ethics in varying forms has sown the seeds for future practice in several ways. First, practitioners would have stronger critical thinking skills, which are prized by employers and the industry (Landis, 2015; Mayer, 2016). Second, new practitioners are less likely to overestimate their ability to advise on ethical issues (Kim & Johnson, 2009; Todd, 2014) as they would have learned that carefully considering issues and making decisions with far-reaching impact is difficult. Third, new practitioners are less likely to avoid tackling ethical issues or defer decisions to their superiors (Curtin et al., 2011), which would strengthen the value and relevance of ethics and PR education for employment. Finally, the above would arguably culminate in new practitioners being less reliant on employers to provide further training in ethics, which addresses the industry’s complaints of having to waste resources to train new practitioners (Tench & Fawkes, 2005).

Ethics taught in the classroom must be further cultivated and reinforced in the workplace (Bishop, 1992; Gilligan, 1982; Shenkir, 1990). Carlson and Burke (1998) found shifts in thinking in adult students, from philosophical thinking to leadership action. Students employed analytical and conceptual skills to solve ethical dilemmas; were more at ease with uncertainty; developed an appreciation for limitations; and perceived the usefulness of managing ethics to affect organizational culture. This demonstrated that teaching ethics does have an effect on students and how PR is practiced. 

With a foundation provided, the next steps of growth would likely come from examining case studies (Sparks & Cornwell, 1998) and experiential learning (Silverman et al., 2014). The CPRE (2018) recommends simulations (Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014) and case studies (Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014) aimed at building a strong base of knowledge and skills (Garcia, 2010; Sriramesh, 2002). This favors a professional approach to PR education that is likely to be better received (Zhang et al., 2012). 


This study examined the state of PR education in relation to how PR ethics is taught in Singapore and how teaching ethics prepares students for the workplace in Singapore. Findings suggest there are varying degrees in which ethics is offered by universities in Singapore, with a clear division between the local and overseas universities. Findings also suggest that industry practitioners find teaching ethics to be useful for the marketplace while recognizing that ethics cannot be imposed or instituted on the individual and must be left to the individual’s prerogative.

There are several limitations to this study. First, the data were collected during the 2016-2017 academic year. Some of the curricula may have changed since that time; however, curricula generally do not undergo major changes quickly. Another limitation is that this study only examined degree-level PR curricula. Future studies could examine the diploma-level curricula of polytechnics and private education institutions to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how ethics is taught and how these could form foundations for degree-awarding programs.  

This study elucidated the state, relevance, and value of ethics in PR education in Singapore as well as the local industry’s expectations of new practitioners. It is one of the few attempts at describing the state of PR education in this part of Asia and more specifically in Singapore. It is our expectation that this study will build on other studies to generate a repository of knowledge to understand less examined markets.  


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To cite this article: Woon, E. & Pang, A. (2020). Public relations education in Singapore: Educating the next generation of practitioners on ethics. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(3), 29-65. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/12/22/public-relations-education-in-singapore-educating-the-next-generation-of-practitioners-on-ethics/

Accreditation, Curriculum, and Ethics: Exploring the Public Relations Education Landscape

Editorial Record: Special issue deadline June 15, 2020. Revision submitted October 7, 2020. First published online December 22, 2020.


Teri Del Rosso, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN
Email: t.l.d@memphis.edu

Matthew J. Haught, Ph.D.
Assistant Chair, Associate Professor
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Email: mjhaught@memphis.edu

Kimberly S. Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Instructor, Online Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Email: ksmarks@memphis.edu


The Commission for Public Relations Education issued a report in 2018 recommending that public relations ethics be a required course, in addition to the incorporation of ethics into all public relations courses. To understand the implications of this recommendation, this study explores the nature of public relations ethics education in 15 PR programs accredited by Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and certified by Public Relations Society of America via the Certification in Education for Public Relations  program. Through an analysis of 2020 academic catalogs, findings suggest that although programs have general ethics courses (e.g., media ethics or law and ethics), few programs offer—and fewer require—public relations ethics courses. The research concludes that in conjunction with previous research on ethics in the classroom, programs implement an experiential learning approach to ethics instruction. 

Keywords: ethics, curriculum, accreditation

More and more, public relations professionals are finding that ethics in PR go beyond communication. Stakeholders and publics want companies to not only post on social media, but also to allocate resources, diversify leadership, and donate to social justice causes (Meyers, 2020; Mull, 2020). As PR professionals navigate these issues for their organizations, the need for ethics training is evident. A Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report found that employers rate knowledge regarding ethical issues as one of the top three skills they seek in hiring employees (CPRE, 2018). The report recommended that a course focusing specifically on public relations ethics be required for undergraduate PR students (Bortree et al., 2018). In 2019, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) prescribed a PR Ethics course for all programs seeking certification in its Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) program. This coalescence of factors means that public relations programs need to revisit the ethical training they provide and explore a new path forward. This need was laid out in the CPRE report where it was recommended that all PR courses incorporate ethics into the curriculum and lessons center on “moral philosophy, case studies, and simulations” (Bortree et al., 2018, p. 68). 

Ethics training is not new to journalism and mass communication programs, where public relations programs are often housed. The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) positions ethics training as one of its professional values and competencies that programs must teach students, writing that students must “demonstrate an understanding of professional ethical principles and work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity” (ACEJMC, n.d.-b, para. 18). However, training in most programs tends to be broad and built on the ethics of journalism. As public relations operates differently than journalism, more specific ethics training for public relations is needed. 

The purpose of this study is to explore how public relations programs both accredited by ACEJMC and certified by PRSA through the CEPR program address ethics in their curricula. Given the renewed emphasis on ethics education (CPRE, 2018), this research seeks to understand the state of ethics teaching in this specific subset of programs. As ACEJMC and CEPR represent some of the highest expectations and standards for teaching in journalism, mass communication, and public relations, schools that subject themselves to both reviews should reasonably be expected to have higher standards for ethical education.

Literature Review

Public Relations Ethics: Industry Perspectives

Most definitions and conceptualizations of ethics involve “systematic analysis, distinguishing right from wrong, and determining what should be valued” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). In public relations, that manifests into a practice of valuing “honesty, openness, fair-mindedness, respect, integrity, and forthright communication” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). Historically, PR was viewed as void of ethics and as a profession that put too much energy into spinning and sensationalizing stories and not focusing on truth and relationship building (Bowen, 2007).

As the profession further embraces its role in the corporate suite, many PR professionals are serving as ethical compasses for their organization’s leadership (Bowen, 2007). The PRSA Code of Ethics guides members and the profession as a whole on the ethical responsibilities of public relations professionals. The core professional values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness help PR professionals serve the public good and achieve “excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). 

Globally, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) adopted the Code of Athens in 1965, which was amended in 1968 and again in 2009 (IPRA, 2009). The code’s ethical recommendations to public relations professionals around the world encourage PR practitioners to work in three ethical realms: endeavoring, undertaking, and refraining. These codes center the need to establish and circulate the free flow of information, uphold human dignity, center the truth, avoid manipulation, and balance the concerns of publics and organizations (IPRA, 2009). Similarly, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA) offers a code of ethics that includes a declaration of principles and resources for ethics education and enforcement. GA argues in favor of working in the public interest; obeying laws and respecting diversity of local customs; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of media; honesty, truth, and fact-based communication; integrity; transparency and disclosure; and privacy (GA, 2018).

Public Relations Ethics: Classroom Perspectives

Before public relations professionals enter the industry, their understanding of ethics often comes from their experiences within higher education. At the 2019 PRSA International Conference in San Diego, Elizabeth Toth moderated a conversation with public relations educators at the Educators Academy about how programs can begin to implement the CPRE’s recommendations for ethics education. This presentation explored research around ethics, common ethical issues, core ethical competencies, implementation models, trends in ethics syllabi, creating a PR-specific ethics course, and increasing ethical lessons across the curriculum (Toth et al., 2019).


Administrators and professors often struggle with finding the right balance between skills-based courses, theory and conceptual classes, course requirements, electives, minors, and supplementary classes outside of the major or department (Blom et al., 2012). If a unit opts to seek accreditation for its program, that decision often brings more considerations and requirements with how schools present the course catalog and descriptions to its students. Although the process of accrediting a program can limit and direct how a school builds its programs (e.g., the amount of credits a student can take within the major, see Blom et al., 2012), as of June 2020, 118 programs have earned accreditation by ACEJMC (ACEJMC, n.d.-a). Seamon (2010) argued that the limits imposed by accreditation make a broader curriculum more difficult, and highlighted a study noting that international public relations courses were stymied by accreditation limits (Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008). However, it should be noted that ACEJMC requirements have changed significantly since Seamon’s work to be more open to curricular change, thus, an examination of how ethics training has been implemented in light of those changes is appropriate. Becoming an accredited program provides administrators and professors the opportunity to reflect on the program’s successes and failures, compare itself to other programs, and assess whether its students are prepared for industry work (Blom et al., 2012). In addition to the internal evaluation, a school or department’s accreditation status may influence students’ decisions when they weigh options that include rankings, athletics, and extracurricular activities (Blom et al., 2012; Pellegrini, 2017). These internal and external opportunities provide an incentive for schools and departments with public relations programs to pursue the accreditation with ACEJMC or certification through PRSA. 


Although ACEJMC does not define exactly how units design their programs, the organization outlines nine core standards for accreditation: 1. Mission, governance, and administration; 2. Curriculum and instruction; 3. Diversity and inclusiveness; 4. Full-time and part-time faculty; 5. Scholarship, which includes research, creative, and professional service; 6. Student services; 7. Resources, facilities, and equipment; 8. Professional and public service; 9. Assessment of learning outcomes (ACEJMC, n.d.-b). With each standard there is a basic principle and an outline of key indicators and evidence. These standards provide the rubric for how the programs are evaluated during the accreditation process. The process of accreditation happens every six years and programs complete a self-study before an accreditation team conducts a site visit. After the self-study and site visit, the national accrediting committee reviews the materials and votes, and then the national accrediting council takes final action (ACEJMC, n.d.-c). 

PRSA Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) 

In 1989, the Public Relations Society of America established a certification for public relations programs through its educational affairs committee (PRSSA, 2020). Similar to the ACEJMC process, the CEPR requires programs to submit a self-assessment, followed by a site visit with two PRSA members. CEPR identifies eight standards, which include an analysis of the curriculum; faculty; resources, equipment, and facilities; students; assessment; professional affiliations; relationship with the unit and university; and perspectives on diversity and global public relations (PRSSA, 2020). 

Value of Accreditation 

Research suggests that most journalism and mass communication programs see accreditation as a path to reputation enhancement (Blom et al., 2012). There is no evidence to suggest that accredited schools are “better” than unaccredited schools, especially when it comes to social justice issues (e.g., human rights) (Blom et al., 2012; Reilly, 2018; Seamon, 2010). However, ethics is a key component attributed to professional and public service (ACEJMC) and curriculum and diversity and global perspectives (CEPR). 

Pedagogy and Curricula

The previous standards review and research into accreditation suggests that incorporating ethics more robustly will be initiated by the professor or the school. In 1999, in one of the earliest PR pedagogy articles, Coombs and Rybacki synthesized survey results and conversations that emerged from a pedagogy task force team at the National Communication Association (NCA) summer conference on public relations education. Coombs and Rybacki (1999) concluded the public relations pedagogy was “steeped in active learning” (p. 55). At the time, PR professors placed an emphasis on bridging theory and practice through dynamic assignments, lessons, and outside-of-the-classroom opportunities (Coombs & Rybacki, 1999). Since this trailblazing article on public relations pedagogy, scholars have explored pedagogy through the lens of writing (e.g., Hardin & Pompper, 2004; Waymer, 2014), social media (e.g., Kim & Freberg, 2016), and international perspectives (e.g., Thompson, 2018).

Public Relations Curricula 

Public relations scholars who study PR curriculum note that there has been a transition toward a more skills-based, professional focus (Auger & Cho, 2016). For some, the shift to a more professionally minded profession can erode what some believe is the purpose of higher education, which is to pursue knowledge for the sake of pursuing knowledge (Auger & Cho, 2016; Brint et al., 2005). Attempting to focus on skills-based lessons can result in the exclusion of topics such as race, globalization, and interdisciplinary perspectives (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

A powerful indicator of curricula decisions and priorities can result from the organization in which a public relations program is housed. Public relations programs are sometimes housed in journalism and mass communication schools but are found equally in speech, liberal arts, and business departments and schools (Kruckeberg, 1998). In their study of 234 public relations programs, Auger and Cho (2016) found that more than half (57%) of PR programs were affiliated with the liberal arts and humanities and almost one-third (38%) were housed in communication and journalism schools.

For course offerings, Auger and Cho (2016) found that the liberal arts (53%) and journalism schools (57%) were more likely to offer ethics courses than the public relations programs housed in business schools (31%). The most common type of classes across the curricula were principles/introductory classes, mass communication theory, law, writing, campaigns, and research (Auger & Cho, 2016). Only 51% of programs offered a media ethics class in their curricula, while only 3% offered a specific public relations ethics course (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

Public Relations Skills

As previously discussed, public relations curricula programs are often labeled as a practical field, meaning students can expect to encounter applicable hard and soft skills that they can transfer to their internships and professional careers. As McCleneghan (2006) suggests, “No other profession requires greater knowledge of ‘how to’ communicate than public relations” (p. 42). Almost every year some think-piece pitches a list of the most important skills PR students need to know once they graduate. For example, in 2013, The Guardian listed those skills as communication, research, writing, international mindset, and creativity (Turner, 2013). Seven years later in 2020, the media monitoring and social listening platform Meltwater identified the top 10 skills as: social media, copyrighting, management, multimedia and new media skills, analytics, visual branding, writing, virtual team management, and influencer collaboration (Garrett, 2020).

Public relations scholars have explored the topics of how relevant skills translate from the classroom into the professional world. For example, in 2014, Todd surveyed PRSA members on 24 quantitative categories divided into two subgroups, job skills and professional characteristics, to determine how prepared entry-level workers were for the workforce. The goal of this survey was to determine how Millennial (born between 1982-2002), entry-level workers rate themselves compared to their supervisors, and the survey’s 165 participants were asked to rank themselves or their entry-level employees on the following skills: writing, technology, research, social media, computer, job task preparation, and overall quality of work and performance (Todd, 2014). In addition to these practical skills, Todd (2014) identified professional characteristics (i.e., soft skills) that were key performance indicators in the public relations profession (e.g., awareness of ethics, creativity, cooperation, and time management). The “pressure to teach students the most relevant knowledge and skills to be industry-ready” is one that educators are familiar with, and assessments like these can illuminate how recent graduates are performing  (Todd, 2014, p. 790).

The Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) found that writing is a core skill for future public relations professionals and should be included in every public relations class. In addition to writing, the report suggests that research remains a foundational skill with particular attention paid to data, analytics, and big data (CPRE, 2018). Finally, technology is seen as a “triple threat challenge” (i.e., educators must teach it, study it, and do it) (CPRE, 2018, p. 14). Along with these tangible skills, the report also stressed the need for the incorporation of ethics (CPRE, 2018).

Ethics as a Skill 

Research suggests that educators, professionals, mentors, and advisers agree that ethics is a key skill for graduates (Eschenfelder, 2011). In public relations programs, ethics is often covered in principles, writing, campaigns, and case studies in the classroom and in textbooks (Hutchinson, 2002). These more traditional, static forms of learning ethics, however, might contribute to entry-level public relations professionals overestimating their ability to practice and understand ethical principles and their decision-making skills (Eschenfelder, 2011). Conway and Groshek (2009) suggest that students might gain more from interactive experiences through student media and internships, and Curtin et al. (2011) found that mentors (e.g., PRSA industry advisers and PRSSA faculty advisers) can influence younger workers as they consider ethical dilemmas (also see Todd, 2009). Furthermore, ethics competency is a skill that employers seek from new hires and one that educators feel compelled to teach (DiStaso et al., 2009). Unfortunately, employers rated their employees low on ethics skills (Todd, 2014). These studies suggest that the key to students gaining these skills outside of the classroom in meaningful ways is through dynamic coursework, such as service and project-based learning (e.g., McCollough, 2018), student-run agencies (e.g., Haley et al., 2016), and internships. According to experiential learning theory, this type of learning environment is vital for students as they understand and process experiences into knowledge. 

Experiential Learning Theory

According to Dewey (1938) and other scholars of experiential learning theory (ELT), the theory is best understood as a “theory of experience” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 193). This work draws on learning as the “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” and learning is the result of “grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). ELT focuses on the process rather than the outcome, and scholars of experiential learning theory identify six pillars that facilitate experience as a key component to human learning and development. These pillars can be summarized as: learning as a holistic process that creates knowledge; learning as relearning; and learning as a process that involves transactions between a person and their environment, which are primarily driven by finding solutions for conflict, difference, and disagreements (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005).  Using ELT as a foundation in understanding knowledge acquisition, students can grasp experiences through concrete experience (apprehension) and abstract conceptualization (comprehension) and can transform through reflective observation (intension) and active experimentation (extension) (Baker et al., 2002; Fraustino et al., 2015; Kolb, 1984). These tactics work together and provide students with the experience of process: they can engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and then experiment with conclusions (Fraustino et al., 2015).

ELT and the Strategic Communication Classroom 

Scholarship suggests that public relations professors and instructors are looking to incorporate ELT-driven lessons, assignments, and projects into the public relations classroom. For example, Fraustino et al. (2015) studied the relationship between Twitter chats and digital case studies (i.e., using the now defunct app Storify) and whether students apply public relations concepts to those practices. Other scholars have explored how students engage in teleworking in a cross-institutional setting (Madden et al., 2016), service learning and empathy (Everhart et al., 2016), public relations writing (Meganck & Smith, 2019), and learning about journalism storytelling through Instagram Stories (Byrd & Denney, 2018). 

Research Questions

To understand the present state of ethics education at ACEJMC-accredited and CEPR-certified schools, the present study examines the following research questions:

RQ1: How do programs following both the ACEJMC and CEPR guidelines address ethics writ large in their curricula?

RQ2: How are ethics addressed in public-relations-specific courses in ACEJMC and CEPR accredited programs?


To answer the research questions, we compiled a list of ACEJMC accredited programs (n = 112), PRSA CEPR programs (n = 40), and determined which programs were listed in both (n = 15). After we identified the 15 schools with ACEJMC accreditation and PRSA CEPR certification, we analyzed the 2020 programs of study and course catalogs to determine what kind of public relations program each school offered (e.g., major, concentration, or emphasis area), number of credit hours required inside and outside of the unit, if there were ethics-specific courses available and/or required, if there was a PR-ethics-specific course available and/or required, and which courses specifically mentioned ethics in their course descriptions. To achieve internal validity, the research team first coded three universities collectively and then each of the three researchers individually coded the four remaining schools.

The method of content analysis was chosen for multiple reasons. First, it provided an evidence-based analysis of the offerings and requirements of the programs. While previous studies regarding public relations education used a survey approach (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014), curriculum studies from other disciplines in mass communication found course descriptions to be a fruitful avenue for analysis (Spillman et al., 2017; Tanner et al., 2012). Second, as course names and descriptions are used as indicators of course content and catalogs as indicators of program requirements, their use here is congruent. Finally, content analysis proved to be an expeditious way to collect data, as some previous studies saw low response rates and used content analysis to supplement their data (e.g., Tanner et al., 2012).


To address RQ1, we examined the listings of required courses for the public relations programs at each school. Of the 15 schools, 10 offered public relations as a major, two as an emphasis area, two as a concentration, and one as a specialization. Most schools required students to complete 34-48 credit hours (with three schools requiring 48, and six schools requiring 36-39 credit hours) in public relations and related classes. Programs required as few as three and as many as 27 credit hours be taken outside of the major (e.g., business or statistics classes). Six schools required zero credit hours outside of the program.

Most schools taught elective ethics overall in the form of mass communication ethics, ethics and law, and/or media ethics courses (87%). Thirteen of the 15 schools offered one of these courses—tending to approach ethics similar to the University of Florida (n.d.-a), which described them as a cross-disciplinary introduction to study and practice. Fewer schools required students to take a general mass communication ethics class (67%). Thus, it is possible for a third of these public relations students to graduate without any department ethics training. Furthermore, 13% of students appeared to have no or limited access to ethics training within their major.

To answer RQ2, we analyzed the course descriptions for each of the programs. Only five universities offered an elective in PR-specific ethics (33%) and fewer schools required a public-relations-specific ethics course (20%). Drake University (n.d.-a) had an elective course called Cases in Ethical PR Practice that prepared students through “instruction and practice to execute professional-level thinking, analysis, writing and presentation skills needed for successful public relations campaign management” (Drake University, n.d.-b, para. 1). The University of Florida (n.d.-b) offered an Ethics and Professional Responsibility in Public Relations course, which focused on “ethical responsibilities of the public relations professional” (para. 1). This course provided knowledge and skills for study to “reach and justify ethical decisions,” which elicits “a sense of personal and professional responsibility” (para. 1).

The findings suggest that most students receive their ethics training through interdisciplinary study, focusing on the intersection of law, ethics, and mass communication professions (e.g., journalism, advertising, media studies). Public relations ethics, on the other hand, are more likely to be a learning objective or talking point in courses such as principles of/introduction to public relations, campaigns, and some case studies courses. Five programs addressed ethics in the course description for their Principles of Public Relations classes. These classes indicated topics will cover “ethics and social responsibility” (Syracuse University, n.d., para. 1) or “persuasion, media relations, crisis communication, reputation management, and ethics” (Indiana University, n.d., para. 2), many of which explored different ethical approaches and introduced students to codes of ethics (e.g., PRSA). This positioning indicates that schools recognize the need to introduce ethics early.

Some schools engaged with ethics instruction and scholarship through journalism, multimedia, or advertising classes. The University of Memphis (n.d.), for example, offered an elective class for public relations students in multimedia storytelling in which students could expect to learn and understand “legal and ethical issues in photography” (para. 1). The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh (n.d.) offered a course in Special Topics in Writing/Editing, which addressed several topics, including media ethics. 

These findings indicate that although ethics is an important part of a public relations student’s curricula, there is an opportunity to expand this offering of public-relations-specific ethics courses.


After analyzing the programs at 15 ACEJMC and PRSA CEPR schools, this study’s findings suggest there is room for growth regarding public relations ethics education. Through our analysis of selected public relations programs, we have concluded that public relations programs need to revisit their PR ethics requirements. Given ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified schools have chosen to hold themselves to higher standards, they must be leaders in adopting the CPRE and PRSA recommendations for PR ethics training. Based on their accreditation and certification and the standards of both, the 15 programs in our study should be leading the way on teaching ethics and providing students with the dynamic opportunities to engage the subject matter. The fact that 80% of students might graduate without a PR ethics course and a third of students can graduate without an ethics course at all, sets students up for difficulty in the industry upon graduation. As employers expect ethical knowledge in their hires, universities need to respond by providing ethics training to students.

Experiential Learning Theory in the Ethics Classroom 

The CPRE (2018) report outlines a new course proposal summary for faculty and administrators wishing to build a new PR ethics class based on the recommendations from the undergraduate education report. The report outlines key outcomes and assessment metrics, which include written assignments, class discussions, quizzes, exams, presentations, and projects (Bortree et al., 2019). The provided catalog descriptions focus on students engaging in “discussions and case studies” and being able to “apply learning from the course to an original case study paper” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). In addition, courses should “bridge cultural applications and offer practical insights on how communicators . . . might develop communication strategies that uphold ethical principles” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). 

The active language used in these course and catalog descriptions and the proposed assignments suggest that an experiential learning approach would be best suited for the instruction of PR ethics. Research suggests that lectures on ethics are not as valuable as case studies (Canary, 2007; Todd, 2009), and many students are receiving their ethical training through internships and mentors (Conway & Groshek, 2009; Curtin et al., 2011; Todd, 2014). Although internships and real-world opportunities are wonderful learning tools for students, there is little guarantee that ethics will be practiced in a consistent manner, which makes these environments a challenge.  

For many internships and mentor-driven relationships, the outcome might outweigh the process. Given that experiential learning is process-driven and, as Kolb and Kolb (2005) describe, “a theory of experience” (p. 193), students must be exposed to ethics through a number of different processes and experiences. Our findings indicate that most conversations around ethics are happening in siloed spaces, such as in relationships with the law or as a dedicated week during an introduction to a public relations class. For students to grasp and transform experiences around ethical dilemmas and cases, approaching the subject manner in a way that lets them work together and experience the process is key for entry-level public relations professionals developing the critical thinking needed for this important skill (Eschenfelder, 2011). A standalone ethics course would be a major step toward resolving these issues and would answer the call for greater ethics education from previous research (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014). 


Based on the previous research presented in this study and our own findings, we recommend that public relations programs implement and require a case-study-based public relations ethics course for their advanced-level students. This class should be completed at a level greater than foundational public relations courses and should draw on real work to provide students with the opportunity to grasp and transform the experience of an ethical situation. In this course, students can process the dilemma, engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and experiment with different conclusions (see Fraustino et al., 2015). 

In addition to a case study class, professors and administrators should consider including the word ethics in course descriptions for experiential learning courses, client work, and capstone classes (e.g., internships, student-run agencies, research, and campaigns). Addressing ethics in all facets of a student’s education and creating a specific public-relations-centered ethics course would help students graduate with a more robust understanding of what it means to be an ethical public relations professional. 

The present study is limited in its scope by only examining ACEJMC and CEPR programs. Although the population of universities utilized in this study makes sense for examining those at the highest standards, further investigation across both review bodies would present a clearer picture of the state of public relations education. Future studies should examine these schools as well as public relations programs without certification or accreditation. 


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Meganck, S., & Smith, J. J. (2019). Embracing public relations writing techniques in the classroom. Teaching Journalism & Mass Communication, 9(1), 41-44. https://aejmc.us/spig/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2019/06/Meganck-Smith-TJMC-9.1.pdf

Meyers, A. (2020, June 2). Brands are speaking out on Black Lives Matter. How are consumers going to respond? Morning Consult. https://morningconsult.com/2020/06/02/brands-black-lives-matter-response-poll/

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Neill, M. S. (2017). Ethics education in public relations: Differences between stand-alone ethics courses and an integrated approach. Journal of Media Ethics, 32(2), 118-131. https://doi.org/10.1080/23736992.2017.1294019

Pellegrini, S. (2017). Journalism education in Chile: Navigating historically diverse views and goals. In R. S. Goodman & E. Steyn (Eds.), Global journalism education: Challenges and innovations (pp. 41-64). Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. 

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© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Del Rosso, T., Haught, M.J., & Malone, K.S. (2020). Accreditation, curriculum, and ethics: Exploring the public relations education landscape. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(3), 4-28. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/12/22/accreditation-curriculum-and-ethics-exploring-the-public-relations-education-landscape/

Ethics Education in Public Relations: State of Student Preparation and Agency Training in Ethical Decision-making

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted November 13, 2018. Revision subitted April 19, 2019. Manuscript accepted May 20, 2019. First published online November 20, 2019.


Denise Bortree, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication
Penn State University
Director of the Arthur W. Page Center

As 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 dilemmas.


After 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.

Ethics Education

Ethics 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. 380).

In 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 (39%).

For 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 relations field.

Developing 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

Research 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).

Instilling 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).

The current study explores two important questions related to ethics education:

RQ1: How well (if at all) do public relations agency leaders perceive new college graduates to be prepared to face ethical dilemmas on the job?

RQ2: How (if at all) are public relations agencies training new employees about ethical communication and behaviors?


In-depth 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

Position Gender
Agency CEO Female
Vice President and Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer Male
Vice President of Learning & Development Male
Vice President Female
Senior Vice President, Learning & Development Male
Senior Vice President Male
Executive Vice President, Global Talent Female
President, US Region Female
Senior Vice President Male
Ethics Officer Male
CEO and Managing Partner Female
Senior Vice President Female


The 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 appropriate person.

Data analysis

Interviews 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

The 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.”

The 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. 

The 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 graduates.

And, 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

The 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.

Most 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.

Ethics 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.

When 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

This 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.

Agency 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.

These findings lead to several important recommendations for public relations ethics education.

Recommendations for improving ethics education in the public relations classroom.

  • 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 relations agencies.

  • 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.

As 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.

This 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.


Austin, L. L., & Toth, E. L. (2011). Exploring ethics education in global public relations curricula: Analysis of international curricula descriptions and interviews with public relations educators. Public Relations Review, 37(5), 506-512. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.09.007

Commission for Public Relations Education (2017). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/fast-forward-foundations-future-state-educators-practitioners/

Gale, K., & Bunton, K. (2005). Assessing the impact of ethics instruction on advertising and public relations graduates. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator60(3), 272-285. doi: 10.1177/107769580506000306

Gallicano, T.D., & Matthews, K. (2016). Hope for the future: Millennial PR agency practitioners’ discussion of ethical issues. In B. Brunner (Ed.), The moral compass of public relations (pp. 91-109). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hipple, J., & Olson, S. (2011, April 1). Values-based leadership isn’t for wimps: What every organization can learn from Marine Corps ethics training. The Public Relations Strategist. Retrieved from http://apps.prsa.org/intelligence/TheStrategist/Articles/view/6K-021101/1028/Values_Based_Leadership_Isn_t_for_Wimps_What_Every#.W-dA1JNKjIU.

Holmes Report. (2016). Global 250 top PR agency ranking. Retrieved from https://www.holmesreport.com/ranking-and-data/global-communications-report/2016-pr-agency-rankings/top-250

Lee, S. T., & Cheng, I. H. (2012). Ethics management in public relations: Practitioner conceptualizations of ethical leadership, knowledge, training and compliance. Journal of Mass Media Ethics27(2), 80-96. doi: 10.1080/08900523.2012.694317

Neill, M. S. (2017). Ethics education in public relations: Differences between stand-alone ethics courses and an integrated approach. Journal of Media Ethics, 32(2), 118-131.

Plaisance, P. L. (2006). An assessment of media ethics education: Course content and the values and ethical ideologies of media ethics students. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator61(4), 378-396. doi: 10.1177/107769580606100404

Silverman, D., & Gower, K.K. (2017). Assessing the state of public relations ethics education. Public Relations Journal, 8(4). Retrieved from https://prjournal.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014SilvermanGowerNekmat.pdf

Wimbush, J. C., & Shepard, J. M. (1994). Toward an understanding of ethical climate: Its relationship to ethical behavior and supervisory influence. Journal of Business Ethics13(8), 637-647. doi: 10.1007/BF00871811

APPENDIX: Interview Questions

Training in public relations agencies:

1. Does your agency offer training for employees? If so, does the training include ethics elements?

2. Tell me about your ethics training.

a. What topics are covered in your training?

b. At what stages do you offer ethics training? (New employee, annual, monthly, quarterly, training, promotions)

3. 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 graduates:

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?

JPRE Special Issue, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 2019

Current Issue

Introductory Letter by CPRE Co-Chairs Judith T. Phair, PhairAdvantage Communications, and Elizabeth L. Toth, University of Maryland

Research Article

Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report by Marcia DiStaso, University of Florida

Teaching Brief

Ethics Education in Public Relations: State of Student Preparation and Agency Training in Ethical Decision-Making by Denise Bortree, Penn State University

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 5, Issue 2

Current Issue

Research Articles

Different Formats, Equal Outcomes? Comparing In-Person and Online Education in Public Relations by Brooke Weberling McKeever, University of South Carolina
Visionary Public Relations Coursework: Leveraging Service Learning in Public Relations Courses to Spur Economic Development Through the Arts, Travel, and Tourism by Christopher J. McCollough, Columbus State University
Students’ Perceptions of Diversity Issues in Public Relations Practice by Nancy Muturi, Kansas State University, and Ge Zhu, University of Iowa
Empowering the Future Practitioner: Postmodernism in the Undergraduate Public Relations Classroom by Stephanie Madden, Pennsylvania State University, Katie Brown, University of Maryland, and Sifan Xu, University of Tennessee

Teaching Briefs: AEJMC-PRD 2019 GIFT Winners

“Think Different”: How to Incite Creativity With a Two-Word Campaign Challenge by Nicole H. O’Donnell, Virginia Commonwealth University
Mining the Gap: Research to Guide CSR Communications Strategy by Janis Teruggi Page, University of Illinois at Chicago
What Are Your Students Doing Over Spring Break? Using Disaster Relief Work to Teach Students About Crisis Communication by Cessna C. Winslow, Tarleton State University
Applying Industry Standards to Public Relations Evaluation: Barcelona Principles (2.0) by Zifei Fay Chen, University of San Francisco
5-Minute Case Talk Assignment in Crisis PR Classes: Empower Students to Explore and Present by Hyun Ju Jeong, University of Kentucky

Book Reviews

Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, and Ethical Public Relations: Strengthening Synergies With Human Resources Reviewed by Julia Gessner and Denise Bortree, Pennsylvania State University
Spin Reviewed by Cheryl Ann Lambert, Kent State University
Social Media and Crisis Communication Reviewed by Heather Robbins, Pennsylvania State University

A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC © Copyright 2019 AEJMC Public Relations Division

The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories.

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

Read the full issue here:

Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors / Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Questions?  Meet the Editorial Staff.

Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job


Denise Bortree, Penn State University

Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job

Authors: Marlene S. Neill and Amy Oliver Barnes

Business Expert Press, LLC, 2018

ISBN: 9781947098640 (paperback);  9781947098657 (EISBN)

150 pages

In an age of misinformation and fake news, the role of public relations professionals increasingly includes guiding organizations toward transparency, integrity, and ethics. In addition, professionals are taking stock of their own personal ethical decision making, as they encounter ethically murky situations in the work world. In the book Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job, authors Dr. Marlene Neill, APR, assistant professor at Baylor University, and Amy Barnes, APR, associate professor at University of Arkansas, Little Rock, offer advice for today’s public relations professionals. The book addresses important questions about providing ethical counsel, leveraging personal influence to persuade leadership’s ethical decision making, and deciding when to walk away from a job.

Packed with research and interviews with senior professionals, the book brings together decades of research on public relations ethics and presents it in an accessible way that’s useful for practitioners, researchers, and students. Moving from topic to topic, the book offers a map for someone who is building personal influence as an ethics counselor or someone who is currently facing an ethical dilemma. Frequent stories and quotes from the profession give the reader a good sense of how professionals understand and address ethical issues. It is clear that the authors have spent years in public relations practice and bring that experience, along with their strong research skills, to this topic. Chapters wrap up with a summary of the key points and “Questions to Ponder” that give the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and how they may match (or not) the experiences shared in the book.

Ethical Principles and Ethics Counsel

The first chapter of the book introduces basic ethical concepts and explains more advanced ethical principles, establishing the purpose and value of the book to public relations. It then argues the need for public relations to be the ethical conscience of the organization, stating that the department’s unique position as a boundary spanner and environmental scanner lends it to this role. However, the authors argue, being an ethical conscience is a challenging position. “This role takes courage as it often involves providing less-than-welcome advice to people who may outrank you” (p. 14). The rest of the book helps instruct readers about how to prepare for and implement this role.

Role of the Ethics Counselor

Having established the need for ethics counsel and argued that public relations is uniquely qualified for the role, the book moves on to answer the next important question: “So what can public relations do to earn respect so that their counsel is valued?” (p. 19). Chapter 2 explains how “power” and “influence” help fuel successful advocacy and how public relations professionals need to have influence in order to act as counselors to senior management. Internal organizational structures and personalities can create barriers to influence in public relations. One of the most important ways to build influence is through building relationships and coalitions as discussed in Chapter 3. As the authors point out, internal collaborations can raise challenges for the ethics counselor, and this chapter offers suggestions for addressing these challenges.

Advice from Senior Professionals

Sometimes the best way to make an ethical decision is to hear what others have done. Chapter 4 allows the voices of senior professionals to guide the reader through the process of building and leveraging influence to advocate for an ethical cause. The professionals share their struggles and the outcomes (good and bad) of their own attempts to offer counsel. In an interesting twist, the chapter also looks at how gender might influence the way public relations professionals engage strategies to influence management. The results of a study of PRSA Fellows and Page Society members found that male and female leaders find different strategies to be more successful. The chapter wraps up by sharing strategies to avoid when offering ethics counsel.

Chapter 5 builds on the advice in Chapter 4, and the authors dig deeper into the issue of leveraging allies and coalitions to advocate for an ethical cause. Insights offered in this chapter aid the readers in understanding the political dynamics of organizational settings. These include suggestions to help identify influencers within an organization and ways to gain access to current coalitions. As the chapter says, “Being politically savvy also means knowing who sits on influential committees and how decisions are made in an organization” (p. 59).

When Ethics Counsel Fails

Chapter 6 begins by making an important observation, “Sometimes ethics counsel falls on deaf ears” (p. 67). What if an ethics counselor implements the strategies recommended in this book but is unable to convince management to reconsider an ethical decision? According to the authors, three options exist: drop the issue, appeal to someone else, or find another job. How to decide which is the best option is the subject of Chapter 6. By offering examples and principles to consider, the authors help the reader clarify the importance of the issue they are addressing and how best to move forward. When should a professional consider rocking the boat or becoming a whistleblower, as the chapter title suggests?

Practical Advice for Ethics Counselors

So how does a professional prepare to become an ethics counselor? Chapter 7 offers many suggestions, including mentorship and training. The authors argue that one role of ethics counselors is creating an ethical culture in an organization by communicating values, building structures that encourage ethics, and rewarding ethical behavior. Chapter 8 defines ethical culture and explains its value for the organization. In Chapter 9, the authors share practical guidance that would help new public relations professionals perform more successfully in any organizational setting. These nuggets of advice come from senior practitioners and range from “young professionals need to build business literacy” (p. 101) to “leadership involves listening to the concerns of various stakeholders” (p. 112). The book wraps up (Chapter 10) with suggestions for engaging with ethics topics every day. These bits of advice include reviewing codes of ethics, reading case studies and blogs, and talking to others about ethics. This is good advice especially for young professionals, and the last two chapters make this book not only a reference for senior practitioners but also a good source of information for young practitioners alike.


Who can benefit from reading this book? Faculty, including both teachers and researchers, would appreciate this book. At only 140 pages, it could easily be added to a reading list for a graduate or undergraduate course on ethics. The writing is clear, and topics in the book follow logically, allowing those who have not worked in the field to understand the importance of ethics. Researchers will appreciate the way the authors weave together decades of research on public relations ethics and demonstrate how it translates to real-world practice. The book also identifies areas where more research is needed.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say all senior public relations professionals should read this book. In a communication environment ruled by social media, organizations that are caught acting in unethical ways will experience public reprimands with far-reaching consequences. Preventing mistakes like this begins by creating a culture of ethics within the organization that allows employees to raise ethical issues when they see them. This book offers excellent advice to both senior and junior professionals that would help create such an environment.

Overall, this is an excellent, well-researched book, and it presents professional dilemmas and solutions in a way that resonate as authentic. I would strongly recommend this book to students who are preparing for the work world or public relations professionals who want to improve the effectiveness of their ethical counsel.

Disclaimer: The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, directed by Denise Bortree, partially funded the authors of this book; however, the Center does not financially benefit from its publication, including any sales of the book.