Unless your small business has someone on staff to handle public relations, you might
not know what ethical and legal standards you should expect from the public relations
professional or agency you hire. The Public Relations Society of America established a
PRSA Code of Ethics for its members, setting an industry standard for professional
conduct. Government regulations that protect your company and the public’s interest
also keep PR practices in check.
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The PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards wrote its code of ethics. The
organization’s members are expected to communicate honestly and accurately and
avoid conflicts of interest. They’re also expected to protect confidential information,
promote positive competition among PR professionals and report unethical behavior to
authorities. The code requires PR people to act in your best interest as their client or
employer. They must safeguard confidential information about your company, protect
your company and employees’ privacy rights and state accurately what PR can do for
The Federal Trade Commission regulates the advertising industry. Ads and news about
products and services must not mislead or deceive the public, and PR professionals
must see that content is accurate and substantiated. Reports on surveys and product
tests should present adequate details about the research and how the results are
determined. Also, celebrities who endorse products must actually use them.
Defamation is a public act or statement that deliberately harms people and their
reputations. A PR person who uses words, photographs, graphics or symbols that
defame someone could be sued for libel. If the PR person works for you, your company
could be liable, as well.
PR professionals have a duty to uphold people’s right to privacy, especially in media or
company interviews they arrange. The law gives people the right to be left alone or to
withhold information about themselves that could trigger public criticism. PR people
must determine whether the information withheld is offensive or concerns the public
before pressing interviews. The rule applies to staff interviews for employee newsletters
as well as guest interviews for publications, websites and television broadcasts.
Writers, photographers and artists copyright their work to protect it from unauthorized
use. The law allows what it calls “fair use” of copyrighted material for news reporting,
critiquing, commenting, research and teaching. The rule allows PR people to use others’
works in ads, news articles, annual reports or promotional activities as long as they
credit the originator.
The name, tag line or graphic symbol you use to distinguish your company from its
competitors is your trademark. PR should protect its use when promoting your product
or service. It must see that no person or business is using your trademark as its own,
and it should monitor its use by the media. PR also should ensure that your trademark
isn’t altered or distorted in print.
Legal Issues in Public Relations
Public relations practitioners should be aware of various legal
issues that can affect their professional practice. While
practitioners may not be expected to be legal experters, they
should have a working knowledge of the issues.
Updated Summer 2011 as a supplement to Prof. Smith's textbooks,
Strategic Planning for Public Relations and Becoming a Public Relations Writer, (Routledge/Taylor and
Legal Principles v/v Public Relations Practice
- The law always trumps the desires and directives of clients and organizations.
- Communication between public relations counsel and clients is confidential but not
- Federal law prevents governmental agencies from spending money on advertising
or promotion but allows public education and public information.
- Stock-issuing companies must provide timely and accurate information.
- Law addresses issues of corporate speech, including what companies may and
may not say or advocate.
- Some states have laws protecting companies for expressing concern in situations
involving injury or death by employees or customers.
Public relations practitioners deal with various legel issues
Negative, harmful language
Identification of person (not group)
Publication/communication to third party
Fault (negligance for a private person; malice for a public official/public figure)
Harm (extent of injury, loss, problems - basis of financial settlement)
Defenses: Substantial/provable truth, privilege, fair comment & criticism
Additional technical defenses: Statute of limitations, consent, broadcast by political
Private facts (revealing intimate info w/o legitimate public concern)
Intrusion (gathering information secretly)
Misappropriation (commercial use of name/image)
Defenses: Explicit permission, implicit permission
Legal designation of ownership for original creation
Registered: Copyright notice (c)
International: 162 signer countries (Berne Convention)
Fair Use of Copyrighted Material:
- Nonprofit or noncommercial purposes (education, satire, research...thumbnail
- Comment for reviews & excerpts
- Research (via libraries)
Original works owned by author/artist
Works for hire owned by organization that pays uthor/artist (salary or commission)
Both used by companies to protest a product and to distinguish it from competitors
Protection for names, logos, slogans, dolls, mascots, faces/voices
Trade dress: packaging, color (Owens Corning pink insulation), shape (Peperidge
The tradmark symbol is affixed to the product itself
Writing about trademark: capitalize and use "brand"
Similar to trademark, protects symbols/words associated with services & programs
rather than products
Service mark with (sm) symbol is presented via public relations, advertising, or
Examples of service marks:
Army: "Be All that You Can Be"
Better Business Bureau & torch logo
Huntington Beach CA only "Surf City USA"