Chapter 5 – Why Public Relations Writing Matters


Ethics is a moral code that serves as a compass for individual or societal behaviour. Engaging in unethical behaviour or messaging can be particularly damaging for business brands. Countless businesses have been involved in scandals and crises stemming from unethical behaviour and judgment. Recovering from these instances is difficult, and the effects are sometimes irreversible.

Most subfields related to the broader strategic industry have what is called a code of ethics or a collection of rules and values that play a foundational role in conduct and the decision-making process. The links below explain the code of ethics for public relations, journalism, and advertising:


Compromising the code of ethics may have legal consequences, depending upon the situation. One of the most common ethical problems that occur in court cases is defamation. Defamation is intentional damage done to one party’s reputation by another party. Although it is not a crime, it is considered a civil suit in a court of law. Individuals or organizations with particularly high stakes attached to their reputation (for example, celebrities, public figures, renowned educators, or popular businesses) are more inclined to sue for defamation.

A recent example is the defamation cases filed by comedian Bill Cosby. In 2015, Cosby faced allegations of sexual assault from more than 50 women, resulting in civil lawsuits and criminal investigations against him. The tremendously negative effect on his reputation resulted in the rescinding of several honorary degrees he had received as well as the cancellation of reruns of his popular TV program from the 1980s and early ’90s, The Cosby Show. In response to the damages, Cosby sued some of the women for defamation, but the cases were later dismissed. The allegations continue to have an impact on Cosby’s image and legacy.

Slander And Libel

There are two categories of defamation: slander and libel. Slander is the spoken version of defamation, when something is said verbally that harms another party’s reputation. Libel is the written version of defamation, when something is published that damages a party’s reputation. Because this textbook focuses on writing, libel will be discussed in greater detail.

Libel includes both print and online publications; even social media posts can be grounds for a libel suit. In 2011, lawyer Rhonda Holmes sued her former client, punk rocker Courtney Love, over a disparaging tweet Love had sent in reference to Holmes’s work ethic. Love was the first person in history to stand trial for social media defamation; prior to her case, there was no record of someone being sued for defamation because of something posted on Twitter (Chow, 2014). Popular media dubbed the case “Twibel.” A jury acquitted Love of all charges.

For more information on the case and its implication read: How Courtney Love and U.S.’s first Twitter libel trial could impact journalists By: Ellyn Angelotti published in Poynter.

Winning a libel suit is difficult. Five elements have to exist in order to render a statement as libelous (Harrower, 2012):

  • The statement was published
  • The statement is conveyed as a fact, not an opinion.
  • The statement is false.
  • The statement is identifiable with or made about the plaintiff.
  • The statement was published with intentional negligence or malice.

The last element is particularly challenging to prove. Many libel suits are dismissed because the plaintiff fails to provide evidence for the existence of each element.

The possibility of defamation is of great concern to every strategic communication professional. Careful information gathering and rigorous fact checking are vital in order to avoid defamatory communication. Double- checking quotes and sources helps minimize the risk of publishing libelous statements.

Conflict Of Interest

Reflection Point
Before reading the section on conflict of interest, think about the following situation:Should a newspaper travel writer accept a free hotel stay, airline ticket, meals, and so on from a resort as an enticement to get the writer to do a story? Does this produce real or perceived bias in the resulting reporting? Is this arrangement disclosed to readers? What if the only way the newspaper could afford to have a travel writer was to accept such free offers? What kinds of conflicts, real or perceived, need to be considered?

Conflict of interest is “a clash between a person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest” (Business Dictionary, 2016). Communication professionals should try to eliminate any action that may compromise their impartiality or the interests of their organization. That includes separating personal interests from the organization’s goals.

The definition seems straightforward, but real-life situations can be murky. As a professional working at an advertising agency, should you take on two clients who are competitors? Most within the industry would say that you should inform both parties of the situation and let them decide if they want to proceed. However, let’s say your agency takes on a client who has a history of using unethical labor practices, something that you staunchly oppose. How do you remain impartial in this situation? How do you write material that benefits your client when your personal opinions may affect the content? Or, should you, as a journalist, accept a small gift from a source (for example, a five-dollar Starbucks gift card) before or after an interview? Most journalists would say no, because accepting a gift from a source, no matter how small, could affect your feelings toward the individual, which could be reflected in your writing.

There are several ways to avoid a conflict of interest. Gather as much information as you can about the potential conflict in order to make an objective decision (or as objective as possible). Firms should have formal rules, and conflicts should be disclosed to supervisors. To safeguard your career and reputation, it’s important to always uphold high ethical standards and conduct yourself in a manner above reproach. You may want to ask colleagues or supervisors for advice. Also, be as upfront as possible with the parties involved.

Learn more about conflict of interest.


Plagiarism is an issue in both academic and professional situations. The term refers to using another person’s work without proper credit or attribution. Plagiarism is a very serious offense in the strategic communication field, and is particularly egregious in journalism. In 2011, a Washington Post journalist, Sari Horwitz, was accused of directly copying content from the Arizona Republic while covering the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The Post issued an apology and suspended Horwitz for three months (Memmott, 2011). Horwitz also expressed her remorse and released a statement as reported by NPR:

“I am deeply sorry. To our readers, my friends and colleagues, my editors, and to the paper I love, I want to apologize. … Under the pressure of tight deadlines, I did something I have never done in my entire career. I used another newspaper’s work as if it were my own. It was wrong. It was inexcusable. And it is one of the cardinal sins in journalism” (Memmott, 2011, para. 2).

Plagiarism is not committed primarily by students or those new to the field. Horwitz was an experienced journalist who had received the Pulitzer Prize three times.

A more recent and highly publicized case of plagiarism involved a speech given at the 2016 Republican National Convention by Melania Trump, wife of the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Soon after she delivered the speech, some took to social media to point out similarities to a speech given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. News media outlets later reported that parts of the speech were lifted directly from Obama’s speech (Horowitz, 2016). Meredith McIver, Melania’s speechwriter and an employee of the Trump organization, took responsibility for the incident and stated that it was a mistake (Horowitz, 2016). McIver was not fired, and many outraged observers questioned the integrity of the Trump campaign.

Lack Of Transparency

Most crisis communication experts agree that transparency is key to maintaining or regaining the public’s trust. Lack of transparency can have devastating effects that sometimes leave a permanent stain on a company or brand’s image. Brands cannot thrive without the public’s trust.

A recent case that demonstrates the negative outcomes of failing to be transparent is the emissions scandal at Volkswagen. In 2015, news outlets reported that the German car company used a “defeat device” in many of its cars as far back as 2009 to cheat on several emissions tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. These devices were able to detect when tests were being conducted and help reduce toxic emissions during the procedures. In reality, the vehicle emissions were well above the levels permitted by the EPA.

Watch the The Verge YouTube video The Volkswagen Scandal.

Soon after the public received the news, Volkswagen sales plummeted and a social backlash against the company ensued. As a result, the CEO resigned and the company lost the public’s trust. The organization is still going through damage control and court settlement procedures. Compromising transparency to benefit a company’s bottom line may seem like a good idea in the moment, but the long-term damages can be significant.

Misleading Advertisements

Similar to public relations agencies, advertising firms often have a reputation for using manipulative tactics at the expense of the consumer. This is largely due to consumers’ experiences with misleading advertisements, or promotions that exaggerate claims or misinform audiences. The goal of an advertisement is to emphasize the benefits of a product or service over any drawbacks or shortcomings.

Picadilly Circus. A corner building with bright LCD billboard covering the street facing side
Source: Pxhere. CC0 Public Domain

However, agencies should not create deceptive advertisements at the expense of consumers, or those that “raise health and safety concerns … and those that cause economic injury”.[1] By law, claims in advertisements have to be truthful and supported by evidence. Going back to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the company also faced legal troubles for falsely advertising that its cars had low emissions. The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Volkswagen in federal court, arguing that the company deceived its consumers through unsubstantiated claims and corrupt evidence.

Learn more about false advertising scandals. Read the article 18 false advertising scandals that cost some brands millions (March 2016) by Will Heilpern in Business Insider.

FTC consumer protection laws vary from state to state. These laws ensure that consumers are not misled and that agencies provide fair communication to their target audiences. The FTC can determine whether an advertisement is deceptive. The criteria for deception are as follows:

  • The advertisement should have a high probability to mislead the average, reasonable consumer; and
  • Advertisement claims should cause the consumer to buy the product or service based on misinformation.

If consumers report an advertisement to the FTC, the organization then goes through a series of steps to decide whether the ad is truly deceptive. You can find a list of the steps on the Small Business FAQ section of the Federal Trade Commission.

Ethics In Public Relations

The issue of ethics is important in the strategic communication profession. Creators of content should heavily rely on a code of ethics when carrying out various tasks. Using ethical reasoning, whether you’re designing a campaign or writing a newspaper article, demonstrates basic understanding of the influence of messages on audiences. Ethical communication also helps an organization avoid dilemmas and compromising situations.

Several cases covered in the press highlight the ramifications of failure to use ethical and honest standards in communication effort

  1. (Federal Trade Commission, “Division of Advertising Practices,” 2016, para. 1)


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The Evolving World of Public Relations Copyright © 2021 by NSCC and Rosemary Martinelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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