Spin, Cover up and Other Unethical Methods of Public Relations

The paid televised ad for the latest diversion (pick one) looks inviting, so Average Joe decides to sit in on a class offered by the same company that teaches newbies like him the fine art of (pick a diversion). He is stoked!

Joe is happy because everywhere he goes he is bombarded by news of this latest and greatest innovation in fitness. He has finally found a hobby that he can actually enjoy. It promises him all of the hair-raising thrills he has been looking for all of his life. In addition, it promises to help him have better coordination and balance. Even better, he will finally lose that pot around his stomach!

Just as the hot instructor that teaches (said hobby) gives Joe a list of all of the toys he will need to engage in this sport, he makes a hefty transfer to his Apple Pay account to cover the cost of the equipment he sees in the ad. A week later, his stuff arrives at the house and he can play!

To his chagrin though, as seen on TV does not play out in the middle of his living room. The equipment is too heavy, and he really has to be a yoga instructor to handle some of the moves. Ultimately, he decides to contain his activities to the living room to avoid an injury and embarrassment in pursuit of a cheap thrill, or an expensive one in this case.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever bought into one idea and been given something else?

Countless Americans fall victim to common unethical public relational activities that get us to invest in ideas that simply do not pan out.

What are the most common unethical activities in which public relations professionals engage?

The most common unethical practices involve:

  • spinning information so the story is more palatable to the consumer,
  • completely omitting valuable information, information that would influence the public,
  • engaging in conflicts of interest,
  • or just plain out engaging in lies or distortions.

Common, everyday examples of the way in which these behaviors show up in media are….

Example 1

One highly publicized example of the way in which public relations professionals have engaged in unethical behaviors include the public relations nightmare that surrounded Philip Morris in the latter part of the twentieth century. This tale begins somewhere in the early 1950s and focuses on a meeting where tobacco companies were complicit with both spinning and covering up information.

In brief, the companies, including Philip Morris, were accused of colluding to market cigarettes but in a way that minimized or completely omitted the deleterious effects of cigarette smoking, including contact smoke.

These companies were also accused of obstructing the truth by discrediting studies and by raising questions regarding whether smoking-related diseases were the result of engaging in the practice, even in the face of scientific evidence that proved cigarette smoking was harmful to human health.

Example 2

Another example of unethical public relations activities would be of Mark Penn, chief campaign strategist for Hillary Clinton in 2008, resigning amid allegations he was also working on behalf of a public relations firm that lobbied for a trade agreement that she opposed. While the issue was not a blatant breach of trust, the conflict of interests prevented him from separating his controversial clients from the Clinton campaign.

Why, in this day and age, would there even be a need to engage in unscrupulous public relations practices?

The news industry of today is much different to that of thirty or forty years ago. You, the consumer, do not have to wait to tune into the morning or evening news to be informed. Additionally, online grassroots news organizations make information even more accessible to the public.

Media is everywhere and information is given up to be consumed whether it is through online media, the various news channels, or the numerous news alerts that are accessible through our computers or cell phones. The truth, or some version of it, is available every minute of the day.

Because of the accessibility of information, crisis management becomes very difficult when facing a public who has already been armed with information regarding the event. For this reason, public relations organizations have to explain the unexplainable within a short amount of time, and sometimes these organizations fall short.

In terms of ethics, how far away is public relations as a field from abiding by its guidelines?

The numerous association around the world have come a long way in addressing the ethical issues that arise when dealing with the public or multiple publics, beginning with the industry’s initial birth and continuing today.


The International Public Relations Association (IPRA) developed The Code of Athens in the mid-sixties to establish an ethical framework in which public relations professionals could work. Of the standards created, The Code of Athens, on an international level,prevents public relations professionals from:

  • lying or distorting the truth
  • disseminating information that is not based on established fact
  • participating in unethical and/or dishonest behavior
  • participating in manipulative behaviors to influence the public

As a global community, these standards might vary depending on the country and organization.

…And in the United States

In the United States, the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) current ethical guidelines are similar but address specific points related to:

  • the free flow of information
  • competition
  • confidentiality
  • conflicts of interest
  • and promoting the profession

These standards have not remained stagnant, as the media climate has evolved so has the standards that cover public relations activities.

So, what does this do for public relations…?

These types of organizations have established a standard of ethical guidelines that address all of the possible situations professionals might find themselves faced with when dealing with not only the public but their clients as well.

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