Blueprint ethics code for the profession

One thing I’ve frequently commented about in this blog is ethics in the communication profession. Or, rather, about the lack of an authoritative and cohesive voice that speaks on ethics on behalf of the profession.

I’ve taken my own stand, so to speak, in castigating our professional associations – notably, IABC and PRSA – for their lack of taking a stand on something that is fundamental to the credibility, trust and respect that we as communicators, as well as others, hold of the profession.

When Ketchumgate blew up in the blogosphere in January, led by a hefty swipe at PR bloggers by US journalist and writer Jay Rosen, there was lots of opinion and discussion in lots of blogs. Ultimately, everything died down and nothing changed.

But we could have some traction building now, a couple of significant steps along the road to getting this subject on the agenda in order to create an effective framework for a meaningful discussion about ethics in the profession. Such discussion could lead to the creation of a universal ethics code for the profession.

Fanciful? I don’t think so. It’s not yet the tipping point but it looks like it could be moving that way.

The first step happened earlier this month when Richard Edelman – one of the profession’s most authoritative voices – posted commentary in his blog about British publicist Max Clifford and how PR is being defined by a lowest common denominator. His post included this call:

We need a code of ethics and we need to be prepared to live by it. Violators of the code should be exposed and subject to some form of sanction.

Then last Thursday, Warren Bickford (IABC’s incoming chairman for the 2005-2006 term), posted the full text of IABC’s code of ethics in the IABC Cafe, IABC’s relaunched chairman’s blog.

What I find most interesting about this is that Warren posted the text in response to a discussion that’s rapidly developing in the comments area of another post on that blog to do with the type of advocacy role a professional association like IABC should adopt, on what issues, and how it should do it (I suggested there that ethics is one of those issues).

This is by no means a minor matter for IABC. Historically, IABC has never assumed an advocacy role on anything outside its membership focus. Now, there is a healthy discussion going on that, if progressed to a conclusion, could see a major shift in how IABC behaves and acts as a professional association.

As I’ve said before, one of the simplest ways for an association like IABC to take a stand on ethics is to visibly and actively promote (advocate) its own existing ethics code. In posting the full text in the IABC blog, Warren has made a start on doing precisely that.

Let’s not ignore such steps forward nor allow them to wither on the vine.

If you’re a communication professional with an opinion, add your thoughts to the debate.

And for your convenience, here is the IABC code of ethics (including additional content on enforcement and communication):

IABC Code of Ethics


Because hundreds of thousands of business communicators worldwide engage in activities that affect the lives of millions of people, and because this power carries with it significant social responsibilities, the International Association of Business Communicators developed the Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.

The Code is based on three different yet interrelated principles of professional communication that apply throughout the world.

These principles assume that just societies are governed by a profound respect for human rights and the rule of law; that ethics, the criteria for determining what is right and wrong, can be agreed upon by members of an organization; and, that understanding matters of taste requires sensitivity to cultural norms.

These principles are essential:

– Professional communication is legal.
– Professional communication is ethical.
– Professional communication is in good taste.

Recognizing these principles, members of IABC will:

  • engage in communication that is not only legal but also ethical and sensitive to cultural values and beliefs;
  • engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding; and,
  • adhere to the following articles of the IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.

Because conditions in the world are constantly changing, members of IABC will work to improve their individual competence and to increase the body of knowledge in the field with research and education.


  1. Professional communicators uphold the credibility and dignity of their profession by practicing honest, candid and timely communication and by fostering the free flow of essential information in accord with the public interest.
  2. Professional communicators disseminate accurate information and promptly correct any erroneous communication for which they may be responsible.
  3. Professional communicators understand and support the principles of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas; and, act accordingly.
  4. Professional communicators are sensitive to cultural values and beliefs and engage in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding.
  5. Professional communicators refrain from taking part in any undertaking which the communicator considers to be unethical.
  6. Professional communicators obey laws and public policies governing their professional activities and are sensitive to the spirit of all laws and regulations and, should any law or public policy be violated, for whatever reason, act promptly to correct the situation.
  7. Professional communicators give credit for unique expressions borrowed from others and identify the sources and purposes of all information disseminated to the public.
  8. Professional communicators protect confidential information and, at the same time, comply with all legal requirements for the disclosure of information affecting the welfare of others.
  9. Professional communicators do not use confidential information gained as a result of professional activities for personal benefit and do not represent conflicting or competing interests without written consent of those involved.
  10. Professional communicators do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.
  11. Professional communicators do not guarantee results that are beyond the power of the practitioner to deliver.
  12. Professional communicators are honest not only with others but also, and most importantly, with themselves as individuals; for a professional communicator seeks the truth and speaks that truth first to the self.

Enforcement and Communication of the IABC Code for Professional Communicators

IABC fosters compliance with its Code by engaging in global communication campaigns rather than through negative sanctions. However, in keeping with the sixth article of the IABC Code, members of IABC who are found guilty by an appropriate governmental agency or judicial body of violating laws and public policies governing their professional activities may have their membership terminated by the IABC executive board following procedures set forth in the association’s bylaws.

IABC encourages the widest possible communication about its Code.

The IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators is published in several languages and is freely available to all: Permission is hereby granted to any individual or organization wishing to copy and incorporate all or part of the IABC Code into personal and corporate codes, with the understanding that appropriate credit be given to IABC in any publication of such codes.

The IABC Code is published in the association’s annual directory, The WorldBook of IABC Communicators. The association’s monthly magazine, Communication World, publishes periodic articles dealing with ethical issues. At least one session at the association’s annual conference is devoted to ethics. The international headquarters of IABC, through its professional development activities, encourages and supports efforts by IABC student chapters, professional chapters, and districts/regions to conduct meetings and workshops devoted to the topic of ethics and the IABC Code. New and renewing members of IABC sign the following statement as part of their application: “I have reviewed and understand the IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.”

As a service to communicators worldwide, inquiries about ethics and questions or comments about the IABC Code may be addressed to members of the IABC Ethics Committee. The IABC Ethics Committee is composed of at least three accredited members of IABC who serve staggered three-year terms. Other IABC members may serve on the committee with the approval of the IABC executive committee. The functions of the Ethics Committee are to assist with professional development activities dealing with ethics and to offer advice and assistance to individual communicators regarding specific ethical situations.

While discretion will be used in handling all inquiries about ethics, absolute confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. Those wishing more information about the IABC Code or specific advice about ethics are encouraged to contact IABC World Headquarters (One Hallidie Plaza, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94102 USA; phone, +1 415 544 4700; fax, +1 415 544 4747).


4 thoughts on “Blueprint ethics code for the profession

  1. And in the UK, the award of chartered status to the professional body (now CIPR) implies a greater focus on PR as a force for good when practised responsibly.

  2. And that’s the key point, Richard, isn’t it – “practised responsibly.”
    The CIPR has its own code of conduct ( which, the CIPR says, is an enforceable code and one which CIPR members agree to adhere to. Well, that’s the same policy as IABC’s.
    The PRSA in the US also has a code of ethics ( On enforcement, PRSA says this:
    “Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code.”
    This is all great but such codes need to be actively and visibly promoted (advocated) as professional standards of behaviour. The codes talk about such things, but I wonder how many members of any of these associations have them in mind at all in their day-to-day work. Unlikely.
    My argument is that the associations have an obligation to ensure the codes of conduct or ethics, or whatever they want to call them, are front of mind for everyone.
    PRSA also says this:
    “Ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member. We view the Member Code of Ethics as a model for other professions, organizations, and professionals.”
    I don’t imagine anyone would disagree with this. But it would be great if such lofty ideals actually had some teeth. To quote Richard Edelman again:
    “We need a code of ethics and we need to be prepared to live by it. Violators of the code should be exposed and subject to some form of sanction.”
    What I’d like to see is a single code of ethics that applies to everyone, no matter their professional affiliation.
    How difficult can that be?

  3. IABC Code of Ethics

    Neville Hobson has commented on and posted details of the IABC code of ethics. I really wish I had time to comment on them. At first glance they look like a decent set of rules to live by. The best

  4. >>>Historically, IABC has never assumed an advocacy role on anything outside its membership focus.<<< Generally speaking, this is true. But there is one ancient example of which I am aware:
    The reaction to that piece of advocacy is documented on the
    Enforcement: in terms of process, that would require additional staff to monitor the profession and/or a process whereby members reported alleged infractions. Review would then be required, possibly by a volunteer committee.
    In cases where an infraction is believed to have occurred, review by an attorney would certainly be required. And an association would have to be prepared legally for liability and lawsuits. Insurance coverage would have to be increased. Thus, enforcement is more common in licensed professions.
    It would require funding. Oops, there’s that f-word. What will provide new revenue streams to cover such expenses? Dues?
    I was there when the new code was adopted. Ideally, we would have enforcement. Realistically, how does an association balance that with liability and legal costs? Talking about doing the right thing is one thing, funding it is another. Either we have to invest more, or we have to give something else up.

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