Communication Ethics in a Connected World

Research in Public Relations and Organisational Communication

by Andrea Catellani (Volume editor) Ansgar Zerfass (Volume editor) Ralph Tench (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 432 Pages


What are the main ethical challenges for strategic communication and public relations professionals today? How can researchers help in understanding and dealing with these challenges in a complex and interconnected world? This book offers some answers to these questions, based on contributions by researchers from different European countries and other continents. The chapters of the first section focus on general concepts about communication and public relations ethics as well as corporate social responsibility. Three sections then deal with: the specific situation of communication and PR ethics in various European countries; the evolution of ethical skills of communication professionals; and the interaction between communication ethics and the public sphere. The final two sections offer insights on recent research in public relations, like employee communication and engagement, mentoring in public relations and the evolution of media relations and social media communication.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Communication Ethics and Csr: Overviews and General Concepts
  • Responsible Advocacy? Reflections on the History, System, and Codes of Public Relations Ethics, with Comments on Education and Research
  • Public Relations. Levinas’ Call for Ethics and Justice
  • Putting the “R” back in CSR Communication. Towards an Ethical Framework of Responsibility
  • Public Relations and Communication Ethics: National Cases
  • Ethical Engagement of Public Relations Practitioners in a Connected World. Results of an Empirical Study in Austria
  • Ethical Practices and Role Perceptions of Bloggers. An Analysis of Literary Bloggers in Spain
  • A Decade into Sustainability Reporting in Turkey
  • Ethics Statements of Public Relations Agencies in Turkey. How do Turkish PR Agencies Present Themselves on the Web?
  • Strategic Communication and Ethics. The Case of the Romanian Touristic Brand
  • Strategic Aspects of Russia’s Cultural Diplomacy in Europe. Challenges and Opportunities of the 21st Century
  • Commodifying and Politicising Insight. A Case of Mediated Debate of Revolving Doors in Norway
  • Ethical Skills and Communication Professionals
  • On the Borderlines of Advocacy. Situational Professional Ethics in the Identity Construction of Public Relations Consultants
  • The Knowledge, Skills and Competencies for Effective Public Affairs Practice. A Mechanism to Embed Ethics
  • Teaching Ethical Principles for PR. An Empirical Study on University Curricula in Germany
  • Communication Ethics and the Public Sphere: Negative Engagement and Gamification
  • Ethical Hateholders and Negative Engagement. A Challenge for Organisational Communication
  • Ethical Implications of Gamification as a Public Relations Strategy
  • Employee Communication and Engagement
  • Strategic Employee Communication – What Does it Really Mean? Towards Responsible Dialogue as a Missing Piece
  • Beyond Sentiment: Exploring Online Employee Engagement. An Empirical Study of Participation in an Online Employee Newsroom
  • National and International studies on Strategic Communication
  • Mentoring in Public Relations. An International Study on Mentoring Programmes of Professional Associations
  • How Global is the Web 2.0 Hype?: A Comparison of Social Media Communication in Brazil, Germany and Portugal
  • The Use of Media in Activist Public Relations. Framing the “Defending our honour” Movement
  • Contributors


This book presents a selection of articles dedicated to the analysis of the situation and the evolution of public relations and organisational strategic communication, with a main focus on ethics and ethical issues.

Public relations, strategic communication and organisational communication always had an important and complex relation with ethics: the work on opinion and reputation puts communication professionals directly in touch with all sorts of ethical issues, and this reality is even more apparent today. A recent edition of the European Communication Monitor (www.communicationmonitor.eu) gives a clear sign of this situation: a majority of communication professionals in Europe have been confronted each year with one or more ethical challenges in their work, and these demands are increasing year on year. The international and intercultural nature of contemporary communication practice, together with the increase of social media, make the ethical dimension of communication more and more evident and demanding. Communicators, as we all are, live in an interconnected world in which “the other” and his or her vision is often closer to ourselves than ever before, which brings with it clear ethical implications. From a more philosophical point of view, one can cite St. Thomas Aquinas, who stated: “moral acts and human acts are the same” (idem sunt actus morales et actus humani). A moral dimension is inherent in all kinds of (voluntary) human acts and behaviours, including communication. This is always true, even if the awareness of this dimension can vary among practitioners, and ethical skills and competencies are present albeit to different degrees.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, many different professional associations around the world have proposed deontological principles, codes and charts: this development of ethical guidelines is a very positive fact, and an important part of the professionalization of communication managers and public relation specialists. On the other hand, the European Communication Monitor 2012 mentioned above underlines the fact that only a minority of practitioners in Europe refers to professional codes of ethics to solve moral problems today. Also, a strong minority of professionals thinks existing codes are out-dated, even if nearly everybody agrees that communication professions need codes, preferably provided by professional associations. This situation means that a lot of work is still to be done to update codes and rules on the one hand, and to improve the ethical awareness and skills of professionals on the other. ← 11 | 12 → Public relations and communication researchers are needed to develop basic and applied knowledge, both from a descriptive-analytic and from a normative point of view.

The reputation of communication professionals has been continually under scrutiny and is frequently exposed to heavy criticism. Paradoxically, the reputation of the professionals in charge of companies’ reputation is at stake. At the same time, researchers have contributed to the criticism or legitimisation of professional communication with different arguments – ranging from philosophers like Jürgen Habermas who described public relations as an “engineering of consent” (recuperating the famous expression of Edward L. Bernays) and a danger for the public sphere, to James E. Grunig who suggests that strategic communication can be symmetrical and Robert L. Heath who argues it can help to foster good in society. Concepts like “dialogue”, “symmetry” and “transparency” included in those theories are challenged from normative and empirical perspectives in recent research and many new perspectives are emerging.

This book presents mainfold insights into this complex and evolving research field, leaving the floor to young and senior researchers from different countries.

Origin and structure of the volume

This book is based on a selection of double-blind peer reviewed papers that were presented at the annual congress of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA), held on the 11th-13th October 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. The local organiser of the congress was the LASCO laboratory, which is a Belgian research group on public relations and organisational communication that puts together researchers and professors of Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) and IHECS institute (Brussels). The main congress theme was “Communication Ethics in a Connected World”. The 20 chapters presented in this volume are a diverse and quality selection and representation of the themes and discussion areas addressed during the congress. A number of other papers presented at the congress were proposed for publication in a special issue of the “Journal of Communication Management”.

The book is arranged into six parts. The first section includes more general chapters, which propose conceptual insights on communication ethics and its relation with corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The first chapter, “Responsible advocacy? Reflections on the history, system, and codes of public relations ethics, with comments on education and research”, presents basic concepts and historical aspects of public communication (i.e. communication in the public sphere) and public relations ethics. The ethical norm of truth is also discussed, and some ← 12 | 13 → basic challenges for public relations ethics in research and education are outlined.

The second chapter, “Public relations: Levinas’ call for ethics and justice”, is a reflection on public relations ethics from the point of view of Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy. The author discusses some main contributions in the field, and in particular a recent book by Johanna Fawkes, and identifies some major “coordinates” for an ethical approach to public relations. The article shows also applications of Levinas’ philosophy to everyday decision-making.

The third chapter, “Putting the ‘R’ back in CSR communication. Towards an ethical framework of responsibility”, proposes a conceptual analysis from an ethical point of view of the term “responsibility”, seen as the key concept of corporate social responsibility. The result is a theoretical frame that is also applied to a concrete example of CSR communication.

The second section of the book offers an interesting tour of national situations concerning communication and public relations ethics and CSR communication, based on rigorous qualitative and quantitative empirical analysis.

The fourth chapter, “Ethical engagement of public relations practitioners in a connected world. Results of an empirical study in Austria”, presents a quantitative survey among Austrian communication professionals about their perceptions and knowledge regarding ethical principles and codes.

The following chapter, “Ethical practices and role perception of bloggers. An analysis of literary bloggers in Spain”, deals with the relationships between public relations professionals working in the publishing industry and literary bloggers. The authors apply a Delphi methodology to explore the status, behaviours and perceptions of those bloggers from an ethical point of view.

The sixth chapter, “A decade into sustainability reporting in Turkey”, presents an analysis of 18 sustainability reports of Turkish corporations, aimed at identifying the most commonly used items among those proposed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Results are an illustration of the actual situation of CSR reporting in Turkey.

The following chapter, “Ethics statements of public relations agencies in Turkey: How do Turkish PR agencies present themselves on the web?”, keeps the attention on Turkey. The authors analyse ethics statements proposed on the web sites of 25 Turkish public relations agencies, in order to identify the most prevalent categories. ← 13 | 14 →

Another region is focused by the eight chapter, “Strategic communication and ethics: The case of the Romanian touristic brand”. The research presented here looks at the case from a critical, social constructivist approach. Discourses about transparency and ethics of the branding initiative are discussed, which bears a lot of insights and inspirations for settings in other countries as well.

The following chapter, “Strategic aspects of Russia’s cultural diplomacy in Europe: Challenges and opportunities of the 21st century”, is a presentation of the Russian cultural diplomacy in Europe. It mobilises the notion of soft power and discusses it, and presents also a short case study.

The last chapter of this section, “Commodifying and politicizing insight: A case of mediated debate of revolving doors in Norway”, explores ethical questions and problems linked to the “revolving doors” between the world of politics and public relations industry. The text focuses on two cases from Norway to discuss the implication of the passage of politicians to public relations agencies at the end of their mandate.

The third section of the book deals with identity construction and self-perception of public relations professionals and their roles, as well as with questions of competencies and education.

The eleventh chapter, “On the borderlines of advocacy. Situational professional ethics in the identity construction of public relations consultants”, explores the contradictions between the personal perception of Swedish public relations consultants and the logic of the market in which they operate. These contradictions influence the identity construction of these professionals, and also legitimacy and institutionalisation of the profession in Sweden.

The following chapter, “The knowledge, skills and competencies for effective public affairs practice. A mechanism to embed ethics”, is a discussion on the utility of a competency-based approach to embed ethics into public affairs practice in the United Kingdom. The text contributes in this way to the discussion about the relationship between public affairs and democracy.

The thirteenth chapter, “Teaching ethical principles for PR. An empirical study on university curricula in Germany”, elaborates on the analysis of 46 study curricula in communication management in Germany, in order to understand if and how ethical aspects and competencies are present in these curricula. The results show a very diverse situation.

The following fourth section is dedicated to specific ethical aspects of the presence of public relations in the public sphere. ← 14 | 15 →

The fourteenth chapter, “Ethical hateholders and negative engagement, a challenge for organisational communication”, is a conceptual study on the causes of negative engagement of stakeholders that become “hateholders”, and in particular on the role of organisational behaviour and ethics. The authors show how organisational faults are often at the origin of stakeholders’ negative emotions.

The chapter “Ethical implications of gamification as a public relations strategy” discusses ethical implications of gamification as a communication strategy increasingly adopted by organisations. The empirical basis is the comparison between codes of ethics of public relations and frames found in enterprise game platforms.

The fifth section is not directly linked to the main theme of the congress, but presents two chapters dedicated to employee communication and engagement.

The sixteenth chapter, “Strategic employee communication – what does it really mean? Towards responsible dialogue as a missing piece”, deals with internal strategic communication, and discusses the implications of the actual communication environment which leads to a more active role of employees. The authors propose the paradigm of responsible dialogue as an important component of the communication palette.

The following chapter, “Beyond sentiment: exploring online employee engagement. An empirical study of an online employee newsroom”, explores internal communication within a global software company and analyses engagement in terms of views and volumes of comments to posts on the platform. The results of this in-depth analysis are also useful for determining editorial choices in order to support engagement.

The final section of the book is dedicated to challenging national and international research on public relations and strategic communication. The texts have been selected due to their high quality and their relevance based on peer reviews; they explore new phenomena or offer new insights.

The eighteenth chapter, “Mentoring in public relations: An international study on mentoring programmes of professional associations”, presents the phenomenon of mentoring of young professionals by senior colleagues in public relations and communication, and discusses the results of a qualitative and quantitative research on mentoring programs offered by professional associations around the world.

The following chapter, “How global is the web 2.0 hype? An international comparison of social media communication in Brazil, Germany and Portugal”, tries to get beyond the common idea that participative communication on the web is a universal and homogeneous phenomenon. The article compares the situation in three countries in ← 15 | 16 → Europe and Latin America, using different data and methodologies to underline the fact that integration and professionalization of social media communication varies from one country to the other.

The twentieth chapter, “The use of media in activist public relations. Framing the ‘Defending our honour’ movement”, presents the analysis of the media relations developed by a social movement in Turkey. The authors use a framing approach to explain which techniques were used by the social movement and which effects could be observed in the mass media.

After many hours and quite a lot of energy spent in editing the volume and interacting with the authors, we are honoured to offer this interesting selection of articles as a contribution to the improvement and evolution of public relations and communication sciences. We sincerely thank all the authors for their effort and their contribution to the volume. We hope this book will help researchers and professionals in their quest for new understanding and new practices in the exciting and crucial field of strategic communication. We also hope that the book will give a new impulse to the research of new ways of linking the call for ethics and justice to everyday decision-making, in the context of our complex and interconnected world.

Prof. Dr. Andrea Catellani

Prof. Dr. Ansgar Zerfass

Prof. Dr. Ralph Tench ← 16 | 17 →


← 17 | 18 →


← 18 | 19 →

Responsible Advocacy?

Reflections on the History, System, and Codes of Public Relations Ethics, with Comments on Education and Research


University of Leipzig, Germany1

Questions and problems of an ethics of public communication, especially a public relations ethics, seem to get more attention, both in academic and in the professional field of public relations. Ethical issues of corporate communication, appropriate guidelines, codes, policies and procedures to solve problems are getting more relevant for the top management too. After discussing and defining important basic concepts of PR ethics, the present contribution discusses some aspects of the historical development of public relations ethics. As an example, a norm with an outstanding importance, the norm of truth in public communication, especially public relations communication, is discussed. It is argued that public relations ethics can be understood and analysed as a subsystem of public relations, which itself can be understood as a social system. The analyses can be systematical and historical. Some challenges of public relations ethics in education and scientific research are finally discussed.

Some basic concepts

It seems that ethics and morality are once again high on the agenda. This appears to be one of a number of trends within a modern media-driven society, which many observers associate with the decline or loss of values, or, at best, with radically changing values. In the context of “ethics in a connected world”, however, we need to be more specific. We are not here discussing human ethics or ethical challenges in medicine. We propose to focus instead on the ethics of public relations within the frame ← 19 | 20 → of public communication ethics, that is, the entirety of the complex – and not always consistent – system of norms and values that make up public communication.2

I propose to discuss five topics within this overall theme. Firstly, I will consider some basic concepts and definitions. Secondly, I will deal briefly with the emergence and subsequent history of public relations norms. Thirdly, I will focus on one fundamental norm, the norm of truth and truthful communication. Some remarks on the system of public relations ethics (ethics of public communication) will follow, and the final section will look at education and research in the field of public relations ethics.

My background is a lifelong concern with ethical questions. My postdoctoral thesis (Habilitationsschrift; Bentele, 1988), written some 26 years ago, dealt with the objectivity and credibility of the mass media. I also undertook both normative, basic research in ethics and a considerable amount of empirical research (for example Bentele, 1992, 2008c, 2009; Bentele et al., 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012). Furthermore, over the course of the last 25 years I have debated (and decided) practical questions of public relations ethics with 20 practitioners in the German Council for Public Relations, the self-regulating organization representing the public relations industry in Germany (www.drpr-online.de). For the last two years, I have been Chair of this Council. The Council does not impose draconian sanctions on PR offenders (persons or institutions), but it does administer public reprimands, which can be quite effective (Avenarius & Bentele, 2009).

Moral action, ethics, meta-ethics

To ensure that our discussion is soundly based, let me begin by clarifying some basic concepts.

Ethics as a part of practical philosophy is normally regarded as a kind of reflection of morality, as a theory of practical, moral action. Moral action should not, however, be equated with “good behaviour”, although action, in general, does have ethical aspects. In relation to morality, we need to distinguish – as most philosophers do – between three levels: a) morality as factual action, b) ethics as the theory and reasoning of morality, and c) meta-ethics, in which the strengths and weaknesses of different ethical theories are a matter of debate (Pieper, 2007, Nida-Rümelin, 2005). Morality expressed as practical action is always considered when there ← 20 | 21 → is a perception that a violation of existing and accepted norms and values has occurred. Here are some examples.

  1. When a journalist (such as Tom Kummer, in a famous case in Germany) has been faking interviews with the likes of Brad Pitt or Charles Bronson, then selling and publishing these interviews, such behaviour violates the ethical rules of journalism. Specifically, it violates the rule that interviews must have been actually conducted with real people, not fabricated.
  2. When in 2007 the Deutsche Bahn, a major railway and logistics company, placed orders (worth 1.3 million euros) with three PR agencies to improve the image of the company ahead of a forthcoming IPO, and these agencies made use of blogs, Internet forums, and interviews with non-existent persons, ethical rules of PR were violated. The person responsible for these actions was fired by the new CEO of Deutsche Bahn (although it was not long before he found a new job).
  3. Surreptitious advertising or coupling activities (such as “deals” to pay for advertisements or to obtain favourable press reports) also constitute a violation of PR rules.

When legitimacy of ethical conduct is discussed by practitioners for example, we are in the realm of ethical discourse; when the advantages and disadvantages or the appropriateness of different ethical approaches are discussed, we are in a discourse of meta-ethical questions. While ethical discourse is very common in professional contexts, the meta-ethical discourse exists primarily in the sciences.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 432 pp., 30 graphs, 38 tables

Biographical notes

Andrea Catellani (Volume editor) Ansgar Zerfass (Volume editor) Ralph Tench (Volume editor)

Andrea Catellani is tenured Assistant Professor of Communication at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), Belgium. He is director of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Organisational Communication Systems (LASCO) and of the master program in public relations and organisational communication, both at UCL. Ansgar Zerfass is Professor and Chair in Strategic Communication at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and Professor in Communication and Leadership at BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway. He is President of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA), Brussels. Ralph Tench is Professor of Communication and Director of PhD programmes in the Faculty of Business and Law, Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is a member of the board of directors of EUPRERA and a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Association.


Title: Communication Ethics in a Connected World