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PRSA speaks out on “Pay for Play,” strengthens Code of Ethics’ transparency provisions

July 1, 2009

From the PRSA Media Room

PRSA has addressed a longstanding ethical issue in the relationship between PR professionals and journalists, updating its Member Code of Ethics with a provision stating that ethical practitioners must encourage full disclosure if any exchange of value with a journalist resulted in editorial coverage.

The update to the Code of Ethics reinforces one of its basic tenets: communications transparency. The code now specifies that public relations practitioners must disclose any exchange of value with journalists that is intended to garner or influence editorial coverage.

“Pay for play occurs when there’s intent to hide an exchange of value between a public relations professional and a journalist,” said Robert Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA, who chairs the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), the group within PRSA responsible for maintaining, updating and educating members of the Society about the PRSA Code of Ethics. “It occurs when professionals make undisclosed payments to journalists or media companies to publish or broadcast a client’s story, or when professionals allow placement of stories that appear to be earned media where compensation was provided in exchange for publication or broadcast.”

PRSA’s code now states that ethical practitioners must “encourage disclosure of any exchange of value that influences how those they represent are covered.” The value exchanged may take the form of cash, travel, gifts or future favors.

Definitions of ethical impropriety vary widely between industries, countries and individuals; in fact, pay for play is condoned and expected in many cultures. PRSA is suggesting disclosure of the exchange of value rather than elimination of pay for play in those industries and cultures where it is usual and customary.

“Readers, listeners, and viewers have the right to expect advance disclosure about anything that might compromise the integrity of the information they are getting,” said Frause. “Journalists should be notified that any gift or in-kind service in exchange for placement should be clearly disclosed so the audience can make up its own mind about the information’s value, bias, accuracy and usefulness.”

The PRSA Code of Ethics serves as a guide for the organization’s 32,000 members and, more broadly, the $4 billion U.S. public relations industry. The intent is to provide a code that inspires ethical behavior, rather than emphasizing punishment for unethical conduct. While compliance is voluntary, members pledge to uphold PRSA code principles each time they renew their annual membership.


Marketing Sociologist says:

Who is a PR practitioner going to disclose they paid for a journalist's travel and hotel - which happens on a daily basis - to? It also starts on the other end. As a journalism student, well known author Tony Hillerman took me to task in his ethics class for receiving music from record companies. He took the sports writers to task for taking free game tickets - and travel! Are all sports PR people going to report how they gave tickets to journalists? Again, where do you report that? Journalists are protracted by Canons of Journalism, which 9 out of 10 journalists today have never heard of. Marketing Sociologist

July 1, 2009

Mike Breslin, APR says:

Marketing Sociologist raises a good question. Here's another: Let's say a practitioner, a PRSA member, does engage in this unethical behavior, and gets caught violating the code. Then what? What's the TANGIBLE penalty he/she suffers? Reputation damage? As MS alludes to, how would the word spread to any meaningful extent? Bottom line: A code without teeth is of limited value in dealing with/eliminating the bad actors in the profession.

Dec. 6, 2013

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