Posted by: Mike Plett | December 2, 2013

To enforce or not to enforce, that is the question

According to Stacks and Bowen (2013), only one-fifth of the associations they looked at had some kind of enforcement statement. Among those listed by Stacks and Bowen was the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). However, if you read PRSA’s online preamble you will find that it has chosen to no longer actively enforce its code. Apparently PRSA’s first code of ethics was aimed at cleaning up the profession’s bad reputation. The code boasted tough guidelines and sanctioned the public shaming of violators, but PRSA claims its efforts at enforcement ultimately failed. According to the website, significant investments in time, money and resources spent over 50 years yielded only a handful of cases that reached its board of directors for action. According to the PRSA, “None of these actions resulted in sanctions or official notifications of ‘violations.’”

As a result, PRSA dropped its active enforcement policy in 2000. Its focus is now on helping members learn how to be ethical and to “detect, deter and avoid unethical behavior.” PRSA does retain the right to bar or expel people from membership who have been or are “sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that fails to comply with the Code.” I guess this is why Stacks and Bowen counted PRSA as having enforcement language in its code.

Do you think PRSA’s switch from enforcement to ethical education was a wise decision? Is there a way that an organization can make enforcement work?


  1. I think we have to look at who is affected by the unethical actions of members of PRSA to determine how to encourage ethical behavior. Employers bear the brunt of the damage caused by their employees’ ethical lapses, and so it’s fitting that they should be responsible to enforce measures against such actions, rather than professional interest or networking associations. The fact that PRSA’s previous efforts to influence members through enforcement never amounted to any meaningful action indicates that that they lacked adequate oversight and investigative insight into the actions of its members. This also suggests that they lacked direct responsibility for their members – otherwise, they would have had grounds to assert greater authority. Professional associations that don’t also certify their members to practice can’t later exercise much authority over those members ‘after the fact’, since disciplinary authority must be held by a body to whom members bear some meaningful responsibility. For PR professionals, that means the companies that employ them.

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