Are Ethical Values Generational?


In a world where public relations is one of the most misconstrued occupations, it’s hard to explain the industry to outsiders. Those who are misinformed hold the automatic assumption that PR is involved in unethical issues such as propaganda or manipulative lying. This presumption is true at times, as PR practitioners occasionally fit the reputation of “spin doctors,” that twist the truth with lies to fit their client’s needs. However, PR truly is about giving beneficial advice to employers and clients, as well as successfully communicating to the public.

The problem here is it isn’t always comfortable to put your boss in their place in a matter that requires ethical attention. Often a manager doesn’t understand PR more than the professionals themselves. They focus on having a perfect image and increasing profits. While this doesn’t necessarily make the boss unethical, when issues arise violating the company’s values, the PR professional must stand up to their leaders.

As PR Sourcewatch says, “real ethical behavior is expensive, and that’s where the PR industry’s ethical dilemma originates.” This problem surfaces around the fact that cleaning up a client’s image during a crisis is often less costly and simpler to do than repairing the actual issue.

But could these ethical issues in PR go beyond the basics of wanting a “perfect image?” Could there be a pattern to immoral behavior?

Perhaps the problem is generational. In a study conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, a report, “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics,” found that younger workers are more prone to participating in ethical dilemmas in their work. But it is not just a pattern of age; it is a pattern of generation.

The report examined trends from Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists. Different cultural values and significant world events influenced these generations, so it isn’t surprising these circumstances alter their ethical values.

The study observed that certain generational groups are more “at risk” on four different ethical measures: retaliation, reporting, misconduct and pressure to compromise standards. The study found that the younger the generation, the more likely they are to observe misconduct, feel pressure, and experience retaliation toward reporting misconduct.

Is it a surprise that pressure to break the rules is higher in younger generations? 49 percent of Millenials observed workplace misconduct, with 29 percent being significantly more likely to experience a need for retaliation than Gen X’ers, which were at 21 percent, and Boomers at 18 percent.

With pressure to meet the standards of managers, I believe it’s easy to ignore the PR code of ethics, no matter what generation you fall in.

As the study reports, an effective ethics and compliance program in the workplace may encourage a stronger ethical culture and push employees to take ethical actions. Due to rise of social media and transparency issues in rules, ethical behavior can be costly not just in PR, but in every profession. To break the chain of immoral behavior, I believe it really comes down to sticking with what you know is right.

Being honest during times of crisis prevents the industry and the public from calling out the lies and cover-ups of a serious loss. In my opinion, truly facing an issue in PR and repairing the image is the best way to build trust in a client. The public would much rather hear an apology and move on from the loss than have one issue blow up into a catastrophe from lies. That is just more of a mess to clean up.


Johnston, Kevin. “Ethical Issues Confronting Public Relations for Practitioners.” Small Business. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <;.

Winifred. “Public Relations: The Ethical Dilemma.” Public Relations: The Ethical Dilemma. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <;.

Silverman, Deborah. “Ethical Challenges for New PR Professionals.” PRSAY – What Do You Have to Say? 04 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <;.

PR-ethics-road-sign.jpg. Web. 5 Feb. 2016. <;.


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