Unless your small business has someone on staff to handle public relations, you might not know what ethical and legal standards you should expect from the public relations professional or agency you hire. The Public Relations Society of America established a PRSA Code of Ethics for its members, setting an industry standard for professional conduct. Government regulations that protect your company and the public’s interest also keep PR practices in check.


The PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards wrote its code of ethics. The organization’s members are expected to communicate honestly and accurately and avoid conflicts of interest. They’re also expected to protect confidential information, promote positive competition among PR professionals and report unethical behavior to authorities. The code requires PR people to act in your best interest as their client or employer. They must safeguard confidential information about your company, protect your company and employees’ privacy rights and state accurately what PR can do for your organization.


The Federal Trade Commission regulates the advertising industry. Ads and news about products and services must not mislead or deceive the public, and PR professionals must see that content is accurate and substantiated. Reports on surveys and product tests should present adequate details about the research and how the results are determined. Also, celebrities who endorse products must actually use them.


Defamation is a public act or statement that deliberately harms people and their reputations. A PR person who uses words, photographs, graphics or symbols that defame someone could be sued for libel. If the PR person works for you, your company could be liable, as well.


PR professionals have a duty to uphold people’s right to privacy, especially in media or company interviews they arrange. The law gives people the right to be left alone or to withhold information about themselves that could trigger public criticism. PR people must determine whether the information withheld is offensive or concerns the public before pressing interviews. The rule applies to staff interviews for employee newsletters as well as guest interviews for publications, websites and television broadcasts.

Writers, photographers and artists copyright their work to protect it from unauthorized use. The law allows what it calls “fair use” of copyrighted material for news reporting, critiquing, commenting, research and teaching. The rule allows PR people to use others’ works in ads, news articles, annual reports or promotional activities as long as they credit the originator.


The name, tag line or graphic symbol you use to distinguish your company from its competitors is your trademark. PR should protect its use when promoting your product or service. It must see that no person or business is using your trademark as its own, and it should monitor its use by the media. PR also should ensure that your trademark isn’t altered or distorted in print.