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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?