What Are College Students Asking About Public Relations Ethics? Deb Silverman, APR, Fellow PRSA

Joining me on this week’s episode is Dr. Deb Silverman, APR, Fellow PRSA, the chair and associate professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo State. I asked Deb to join me and share her insights into the top PR ethics questions and challenges facing college students and young professionals.

Deb shares her insight on a number of important issues, including:

Why don’t you start off by telling our listeners a bit more about yourself and your career?

I’m the chair of the communication department at SUNY Buffalo State. Buffalo State is the largest of the four-year colleges in the state university of New York system. The Communication department is the fourth largest department at Buffalo State. We have 500 students and five academic majors.

I also direct our online master’s in public relations program. I’m a past chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. I served five years on the National PRSA Board of Directors, and that included one year as the treasurer. And I also served for several years on the National Commission on Public Relations Education, and mostly recently on the commission’s ethics subcommittee.

And I’ve given many workshops on ethics topics to public relations students and professionals at PRSA conferences across the country. I’ve published in academic and professional publications on ethics topics.

What are the ethics issues that your students are asking about?

The ethics issues students ask about fall into two major categories. The first one deals with internships. Sometimes we have students that are being asked to do something rather unethical, something that their supervisors themselves do. The second major area pertains to social media issues.

What’s real interesting about the ethics issues of students is that it depends on the level in school for these students. For example, the students in our introductory Principles of Public Relations and our advertising classes are just learning about public relations, and they’re just reading in their coursework about some of the issues that professionals might face. These students have very basic kinds of questions based on the readings in class or their class discussions. And I also have a team exercise on ethics in that Principles class.

The older students in the 400-level Campaigns and Public Relations course have more interest in ethics and they’re a little more skilled at thinking about these things. And so they will sometimes ask about the internship questions, because quite often the students are taking Campaigns. They’re also doing an internship at the same time.

Then there are the graduate students. Those students in those public relations courses are out in the work world. Sometimes they’re already working in public relations. They have just started in public relations. And so they’re interested in everything in the real world, and sometimes they will bring those real-world questions into the classroom where I can bring them up, and we have some great conversations.

What advice do you give students when they say they’ve encountered what they consider to be an ethical issue on their internship?

I tell the students to do two things. First of all, if possible, they talk to their internship supervisor in the workplace. But if the ethical misstep … let’s call it that … pertained to that person, then obviously they can’t go to their supervisor in the internship. At that point, they should go back to their college and talk to the college’s internship coordinator.

Sometimes what will happen is that if the college internship person finds out that there really is something terribly unethical happening…and I’ve seen this…the college placement person will pull the student from that internship and reassign that student to a different placement.

Are there any specific examples you can give about what some of these issues were that the students faced?

Mostly, they were being asked to do something that a supervisor might not do. Writing reviews on social media, for example, for an organization for which they’re representing. You wouldn’t want to do that and give a favorable representation, favorable review.

That one seems to come up quite often. So that one comes to mind most readily. And of the ones that the students have talked about to me personally, that’s the one that really bothers them a lot.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the ethics exercises in your classroom?

First, one thing I want to talk is where you put the ethics unit in the PR curriculum. A few years ago, I did a study with Dr. Karla Gower of the University of Alabama as to the role of ethics in the PR curriculum. And what we found is that a lot of the colleges across the United States that have PR programs are infusing ethics into all of their public relations courses, which is great. That’s where you want it.

More recently, the Commission on Public Relations Education came out with kind of recommendations that we should have a freestanding ethics course, which is good. I think that’s a good idea, but I think more importantly that it should be in every course.

And so in the Principles course, which is the first one the students would take, there’s actually an exercise fairly early in the course, like maybe three, four weeks into the course, where I spend an entire unit on ethics.

And as part of that presentation, in advance I tell the students, “You self-divide into teams of four.” And there’s a list of 10 different ethic violations or ethics missteps types of things. And each team is assigned, in advance, to read this little situation, this scenario, and to then decide among themselves, based on the PRSA code of ethics, how they would handle that on the job.

For example, one of them pertains to accuracy in a news release. So, for example, your organization puts out a news release and there’s an error in it. And you realize it after it’s already hit the media, and you realize there’s a mistake. So what should you do? Should you contact the media to indicate that your organization made a mistake? So that’s just one example.

There are others. One pertains to political communication. So maybe you’re working in PR for the local town council, a candidate for town council, and you discover that the opponent champions family values but he has a mistress. So what’re you going to do there? Do you kind of put that into your campaign material?

Each team is asked to spend a week in advance of the class exercise kind of talking about it, looking at the code of ethics, seeing how it would apply in this instance, and then deciding what they as a team would recommend.

What’s interesting about it is that sometimes the students on the team are divided as to how they would respond, which just makes it really interesting. And then the class can jump in. As each team comes into class and each team basically has about 10 minutes to present its ethics scenario and describe how they decided they would handle it. And then I ask for students in the class to add their own thoughts to it.

It makes for a great conversation. And when you’re thinking at that level, these are students, again, they’re just starting to think about ethics. And giving them that real-world thought, and all these scenarios that I present are based on something that happened in real life. So they’re all things that maybe a PR professional might have to encounter in the real world.

In my Campaigns class and in my graduate classes, I will present a scenario that I wrote up based on something that happened recently out there in the real world. And I will remove the names of the companies. And I will ask the students, “Well, what would you do?”

In recent years I’ve done more social media types of exercises there. But again, it’s a good way to get the students talking about things. And especially with the social media situation, that’s been really a great way to have a conversation going.

So I recommend that highly to others. And I think that among educators a lot of us do use ethics scenarios of some sort like that in our classes to get a conversation going.

By the way, this works well in workshops, too, whether you’re talking about students or professionals, to have this kind of a real-world exercise to talk about.

Thinking back over the past couple of years, what’s been the topic that’s generated the liveliest debate, the most robust discussions?

Oh, boy. Two different areas. And this is interesting. And again, it kind of splits. There’s what I’d call the traditional issues. And interestingly, and this goes to the young professional point I was making a few minutes ago, but in the past month I’ve had conversations with two different younger professionals about what I’d call traditional concerns.

For example, in a PR agency an employee concerned about a client who seems to be operating in an unethical manner and not disclosing how a product might harm people. And this employee and his team had done a lot of research and they had discovered this. So again, that’s kind of a real traditional type of concern.

Another one pertained to a nonprofit organization that was bad-mouthing a competitor. And so what should be done there? Well, the nonprofit that’s being bad-mouthed is actually thinking about hiring a lawyer.

So those are kind of traditional’ issues that we’ve talked about for years on the Board of Ethics.

Then there are the social media issues coming into play. And it seemed like the big one in social media is bloggers not disclosing payment to endorse products or celebrities whose social media posts don’t disclose an association with the products they’re endorsing. Those two kind of related there. They’re coming out a lot.

In term of disclosure on social media, I think the rules are pretty clear now in terms of what should be done and what’s expected. So what’s the debate? Are some students advocating that people shouldn’t need to disclose?

No, they’re ignorant of it. I can sit there in class, and I’ll say, “Look, here’s the federal and here’s the FTC.” And I actually pull down the FTC website and talk about that for a few minutes. But I don’t think that really gave it much thought. So I think that’s one big area.

Some of them are interested in what they should be doing as employees, because most of my students work as well as go to school. And so they’re wondering what they as employees can say on the job about their employers. So that’s another area of interest to them. And we talk about that in class as well. So can they go out on their own social media and say something negative about an employer? That kind of comes up, too.

In fact, one of the scenarios that I’ve written up myself pertained to exactly that, where you had some college students who were working for the summer for a local recreation camp for kids. And they had some problems with a coworker, and they had some problems with the workplace. And so these 22-year-old college students were saying negative things on Twitter and on Facebook about their employer and about a coworker. It’s that kind of thing.

So we’ve had that conversation in class. And when I use that one in class, that generates a lot of great discussions about what you can and cannot say in the workplace. So it’s good.

And what’s the advice you give the students about being derogatory towards your employer?

Don’t do it if you like your job.

This was based on an actual situation here in the Buffalo area. And the employees, these young college students, were actually suspended. They were not rehired by the organization for the following summer. It’s pretty clear.

And the students get it when I talk about that.

It sounds like from what you’re saying, one of the biggest challenges is making sure people are aware of what some of the rules and regulations are, and have thought about these ethical situations before they may encounter them in their real life.

That’s so true. The more you can bring these situations into the classroom or into the workshops that I do, I think the better we are, whether we’re talking about the professionals, especially the younger professionals, or the students. So definitely that is part of it.

Now, are there areas you personally are most concerned about when it comes to ethics?

The first one is training. And I’ll use the word “training.” And in college, although current public relations students generally have an ethics unit in all their PR classes, as I mentioned earlier, there is not yet a required ethics course in the PR curriculum. The Commission of Public Relations Education is hoping to change that because its latest report (Fast Forward: The 2017 Report on Undergraduate Education in Public Relations) just included that kind of requirement as a sixth required course for public relations students.

Now, that being said, I can say, “Okay, well, so the current public relations students are kind of getting this ethics training in the coursework. That’s great.” However, many PR professionals were not public relations majors in college. That’s a challenge. So what do you do there? And so the second piece of the training is in the workplace.

I recently did a series of audio-taped interviews with PR managers of several large public relations firms about the training for their employees. Now, what was interesting about that is all the firms have ethics training programs in place. Most of those are annual training programs that are online. Some of them are in-person. The large public relations firms have this kind of ethics training that I’m referring to.

However, the situation is very different in smaller organizations, whether you’re talking about a nonprofit or a small business or even a smaller agency. You may find that those PR professionals are going maybe to a PRSA ethics program in the local chapter once a year, if that. Or maybe not at all.

And so I think that there’s an opportunity there that we that are concerned about ethics are missing, to help those PR professionals. And I think that more can be done there, because even, if you think about it, once a year and you’re going for maybe an hour or a two-hour program, that’s really not a lot.

But I don’t think it’s enough.

We have 255,000 public relations professionals in this country. And I would say that it’s a tiny fraction them are going to these annual ethics programs and trainings. So it’s concerning to me.

Another area is the social media topics that I mentioned a few minutes ago. It seems like social media is the Wild West for a lot of us in public relations. And it’s hard to keep up with everything. And there’s a new social media platform, it comes into being, and bingo, you have new challenges and new opportunities. So how do you handle that? And that’s just something that’s going to … I think that’s keeping all of us really occupied is trying to keep up with all of that.

When you’re talking about social media, the rapid evolution of new channels, new means of communication, so what’s the advice you’re giving people to make sure they are always engaging ethically?

Some platforms, you have more thought that goes into a post. If you’re looking at Facebook, for example, generally if you’re putting out a Facebook post for an organization, there’s a certain level of thought and care and what’s the message going to be. And you’re going to take more time there, I hope.

But if you go to Twitter, that’s one where I would be more concerned. I think you can see more ethical missteps occurring there, because it’s so instant. And you may have a celebrity client or an athlete, and someone who is just quickly sending something out, maybe upset about something, not thinking about it and putting something out there. And bingo, you’ve got a problem.

Instagram, again, sort of more like Facebook, I think. You’re thinking about images there and wording. You’re probably putting a lot more thought into it.

My advice would be basically, think about it before you post.

If people do that, I think that the number of instances will drop. If you give more thought to it, then you’re not as likely to commit an ethical misstep. I think the time factor for a lot of people comes into play here.

And that goes for traditional ethical problems as well. If you’re putting together a campaign and you’re giving it some thought and you’ve run it by a couple people in the organization, as long as you’re thinking like that I think you’re going to reduce these ethical issues. But when you’re hastily doing something, I think that’s where the problems can come up.

When I discuss ethics in my classes, especially the Principles class, I will open up the ethics unit by talking about ethics in the news. What kinds of cases have been out there, especially those that involve public relations professionals?

And you think about it, and a lot of times it is on social media, because there’s got that time factor and people are not thinking initially. And then you have to clean up afterwards. So that’s a challenge.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you have ever been given?

I have to thank my Mom and Dad for this…Be true to the values with which you were raised. And by that, I thank my mom and dad.

For many of us, our families and our religions, possibly, provide the moral compass that will guide us in life. And this goes back to our childhood, for many of us. And even with the interviews that I did with public relations managers, they also acknowledge that their parents or religious leaders were the ones who were very influential in building that moral compass. And then they in turn as adults are modeling that same behavior for their employees. And there’s no question in my mind that leaders of organizations are modeling behavior and influencing that organizational culture, and hopefully in an ethical manner.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wanted to touch on with regards to PR and ethics?

Well, let’s see. It’s a wide-ranging field. For me, it’s kind of a passion, as you know. I really enjoy talking about it. Certainly there are a lot of resources for people that are interested in more information, your podcast being one of them. PRSA’s Code of Ethics is probably the granddaddy of all the codes of ethics, as far as I’m concerned. That’s another point for people that are interested in it.

And being in an organization, thinking about who you can turn to if you are encountering an ethical problem. And hopefully, your listeners will have someone that they can identify in the workplace that they can go to for if there is an ethical problem. Hopefully, it’s an immediate supervisor. I would hope so. Sometimes it’s not.

But if you’re going to go into an organization, who can you turn to? And I think all of us do need to give some consideration to that. I know in my lifetime, I have had one or two instances where I’ve had to consider it as well, because I’ve observed unethical behavior. And you have to know who to go to resolve it.

Listen to the full interview here:

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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