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Luttrell & Ward (2018) Looking in to see out: An Introspective Approach to Teaching Ethics in PR, Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 4, Issue 2, 123-127
Public Relations Education
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Volume 4, Issue 2, Fall 2018
A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
Table of Contents
21-50 What do Employers Want? What Should Faculty Teach? A
Content Analysis of Entry-Level Employment Ads in Public
Brigitta R. Brunner, Kim Zarkin, & Bradford L. Yates
51-86 Teaching Digital and Social Media Analytics: Exploring Best
PRD GIFT Winners from AEJMC 2018
87-98 Building a Social Learning Flock: Using Twitter Chats to
Enhance Experiential Learning Across Universities
Amanda J. Weed, Karen Freberg, Emily S. Kinsky,
& Amber L. Hutchins
99-106 Diagnosing Health Campaigns: A Campaign Evaluation
Laura E. Willis
Teaching Briefs (continued)
PRD GIFT Winners from AEJMC 2018
107-114 Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy
115-122 Sparking Creativity Through Purpose-Driven Storytelling
123-127 Looking in to see out: An Introspective Approach to Teaching
Ethics in PR
Regina Luttrell & Jamie Ward
128-133 Social Media Campaigns: Strategies for Public Relations and
Matthew J. Kushin
134-145 Meltwater Media Intelligence Software
Matthew J. Kushin
PRD GIFT Winner AEJMC 2018
Looking in to see out:
An Introspective Approach to
Teaching Ethics in PR
Regina Luttrell, Syracuse University
Jamie Ward, Eastern Michigan University
Instances requiring concrete decisions, whether ultimately judged
as correct or not, inundate our daily lives. When discussing the topic of
public relations ethics within today’s classroom, students are commonly
requested to contemplate and explain their perception of what ethics
are and their importance within the industry. Inevitably, responses to
explaining ethics follow a similar theme: “Ethics differentiates between
good and bad” or “Ethics are gray - neither right or wrong.”
By leveraging numerous ethical theories, including Immanuel
Kant’s ethics (Kant & Paton, 1964; Sullivan, 1989), John Locke’s natural-
rights libertarianism (Locke & Gough, 1966; Simon, 1951), Jeremy
Bentham’s utilitarianism (Bentham, 1823; Heydt, 2014), and Lawrence
Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Kohlberg, 1976; Thoma, 2014)
as the foundation of ethical principles, this assignment has been developed
as an introduction to the process of making ethical decisions.
Recognizing that assessing “right” and “wrong” can be difficult
and is often influenced by individual contexts, a firm understanding of
ethical theory, and a framework for ethical decision-making that allows for
the development of a set of behavioral standards that can help guide the
appropriate actions for a range of situations (Luttrell & Ward, 2018). Upon
completing this assignment adapted from our textbook, A Practical Guide
to Ethics in PR, students will better understand the code of ethics guiding
the field of PR and also identify, recognize, and write their own personal
Journal of Public Relations Education
2018, Vol. 4, No. 2, 123-127
code of ethics by distinguishing what influences their decisions as students
and future PR professionals.
Student Learning Goals
To truly understand how ethical codes affect us as individuals, it
is important to think about the components that have shaped our ethical
principles. The majority of us subscribe to some level of basic ethical
theories. Whether rooted in early lessons from childhood, our faith or
religious beliefs, or simply from life experiences, we make judgments
about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of certain actions based on our
own moral values (Luttrell & Ward, 2018). According to Parsons
(2016), ethics provide a set of guiding principles for behavior that helps
individuals decide the appropriate way to respond in various situations.
Ethics propagate from having to make tough choices and from the need to
provide justification as to why we make particular choices.
During an in-class lecture, students are asked to examine the PRSA
code of ethics (Public Relations Society of America, 2011). They read and
dissect the code of ethics, ultimately concluding that ethics applies to all
levels of behavior and judgment. Acting properly as individuals, creating
responsible organizations and governments, and bettering our society
as a whole are behaviors that accompany being a good citizen and PR
The benefits to students are numerous, especially in relation to the
PR industry, where ethical dilemmas are encountered almost daily. After
completing this assignment, students recognize leading ethical theorists,
identify the increasing importance of ethics in PR, and analyze the role
ethics play within the profession. This assignment is applicable to a variety
of courses within the PR discipline, including writing, social media, ethics,
and case studies. The activity appeals to a wide range of students because
it captures their attention from the start. Students are surprised to see the
various ways in which ethics ground the profession. They are excited to
learn how their personal beliefs play a role in their decisions as students
Luttrell & Ward
Vol. 4(2), 2018 Journal of Public Relations Education 125
and future practitioners.
Connection to Theory and Practice
After initially reviewing ethical philosophies from Kant, Locke,
Bentham, and Kohlberg, as well as examining the PRSA code of ethics,
students are asked to search for the code of ethics subscribed to by their
favorite brand. Upon locating the code, the class discusses the merit of
what is being presented. Some organizations offer concrete examples
of how the organization acts ethically, while others offer a generic
statement regarding their ethical principles. This is an important aspect
of the assignment because students begin to see the difference between
“lip service” and truly abiding by principles that guide the organization’s
Students are then asked to write their own code of ethics by the
conclusion of the lesson. (See the Appendix for the assignment). Typically,
they are given a week to complete the writing assignment. This code
should consist of a set of simple, direct statements that describe each
student’s personal ethics. To evaluate how well the code of ethics is
written, it is important to ask, “Could someone read this code of ethics and
predict the kind of choices I would make?”
This assignment engages and challenges students to think
analytically and creatively, yet also allows the freedom to research new
ideas, values, and methods that eventually support their personal code
of ethics. PR practitioners are advocates for organizations, clients, and
stakeholders. Therefore, it is crucial that students construct and analyze the
elements of ethical decisions, in addition to understanding and articulating
the ethical, legal, and social responsibilities of PR professionals.
Bentham, J. (1823). An introduction to the principles of morals and
legislation (Vol. 1). London, UK: Oxford at Clarendon.
Heydt, C. (2014). Utilitarianism before Bentham. In B. Eggleston & D.E.
Miller (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to utilitarianism (pp.16-
37). Cambridge: Cambridge University. https://doi.org/10.1017/
Kant, I., & Paton, H. J. (1964). Immanuel Kant: Groundwork of the
metaphysic of morals. New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-
developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development
and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp. 31-53). New
York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Locke, J., & Gough, J. W. (1966). The second treatise of government, and
a letter concerning toleration. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
Luttrell, R., & Ward, J. (2018). A practical guide to ethics in PR. Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Parsons, P. (2016). Ethics in PR: A guide to best practice. London, UK:
Kogan Page Limited.
Public Relations Society of America. (2011). PRSA Member code of
ethics. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/ethics/code-of-ethics
Simon, W. M. (1951). John Locke: Philosophy and political theory.
American Political Science Review, 45(2), 386-399. https://doi.
Sullivan, R. J. (1989). Immanuel Kant’s moral theory. Cambridge, UK:
Thoma, S. J. (2014). Measuring moral thinking from a neo-Kohlbergian
perspective. Theory and Research in Education, 12(3), 347-365.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by February 5, 2018. A
blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Katie Place,
and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2018.
Luttrell & Ward
Vol. 4(2), 2018 Journal of Public Relations Education 127
To truly understand a personal ethical code, it is imperative to consider
the components that have shaped personal ethical principles. It is rare that
we interact with individuals who do not live by some beliefs represented
in various common ethical theories. Personal experiences drive ethical
Think about your personal experiences and how they might shape your
beliefs. The questions below will help you begin your analysis. Learning
to identify a moral code allows you to better see where your beliefs fit
with other ethical theorists and assist you in identifying your core values.
• What external influencers (parents, teachers, friends, etc.) have shaped
• What values have you maintained that you were taught as a child?
• Are there any values that you were taught as a child that have changed
as you matured?
• What qualities do you value in yourself and/or in others?
• When considering what you have learned with regard to Kant, Locke,
Bentham, and Kohlberg, what ethical theory or theories do you most
closely identify with?
• What ethical systems do you follow on a day-to-day basis?
• What are some of your strongest beliefs about humanity? For example,
do you believe that everyone deserves respect? Do you believe that all
people are inherently “good”?
• Are there any ethical practices you think are absolutes? For example,
is lying always wrong?
Ethical codes should be comprised of a preamble and highlight various
ethical codes to live by both inside and outside the classroom (minimum
of 4, maximum of 6). When complete, include a summary of how ethics
plays an integral role in the profession of PR.
*Assignment adapted from Luttrell and Ward (2018).