Is your pitching unethical?

PR pros weighed in online on whether poor media relations practices such as emailing irrelevant ideas and adding reporters to mailing lists flout the laws of morality.


Mass mailing your pitch to every journalist’s email you can get your hands on is wrongheaded—even foolish. But is it unethical?

A recent report from The Plank Center for Public Relations shared that 62% of comms pros reported facing an ethical challenge in the last year. However, what exactly that ethical dilemma might be was ill-defined.

Proper disclosure of facts to the public? Spinning bad news beyond the boundaries of fact and reason? Trying to keep internal and external stakeholder safe during a pandemic in a deeply divisive election year?

Sure, those are dilemmas. But some PR pros seem ready to extend their ethics a little farther than that.

Others are more inclined to see ethics as a matter of working on projects that feel…ethical.

But many are ready to see ethical issues in the media relations field, both when it comes to managing clients as well as protecting relationships with reporters.

Where the rubber meets the road in this debate is the differentiation between personal and professional ethics. While one may set a personal standard, whether the whole industry accedes to your druthers is the point.

Here’s how Glassdoor’s Blog defines the difference between personal principle and professional regulation:

There are a few key differences between personal and professional ethics. The primary difference is that a personal set of ethics refers to an individual’s beliefs and values in any area of life, while professional ethics refers to a person’s values within the workplace.

An example of a personal code of ethics is as follows: A person chooses to return a wallet that they found on the ground to lost and found rather than keep it for themselves due to their personal ethic of honesty. In the workplace, an example of professional ethics would be the same person returns a wallet to their coworker due to a code of conduct rule of no stealing.

Some people differentiate personal and professional ethics by viewing a personal ethical system as a personal moral code or a person’s conscience, while professional ethics are viewed as a set code of conduct that must be adhered to in the workplace.

Professional bodies have attempted to set global, professional ethics standards for the PR industry. The Public Relations Society of America, PRSA, offers these principles:

  • We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.
  • We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
  • We acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience. We advance the profession through continued professional development, research, and education. We build mutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences.
  • We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.
  • We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.
  • We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.

These rules might not spell out instructions to avoid the less scrupulous tactics of some in the media relations game, but they do imply a commitment to integrity. That’s enough of a clarion call for some to label email spam as an immoral act:

Yet, that doesn’t mean promising a client you can deliver something that is out of your reach. That, too, fails the morality test.

And even if you don’t think it’s an unethical move, many PR pros would just label such tomfoolery as “dumb.”

PR and media relations pros would do well to seek both morality and intelligence—some of the very best ingredients for success in a constantly changing marketplace.


2 Responses to “Is your pitching unethical?”

    Ronald N Levy says:

    Can there be too much morality?

    Too much focus on what’s the right thing for us to do rather than on what’s the best thing within the law that we can do for our managements?

    If we were doctors our top priority should certainly be the survival of our patient even if he’s a skunk, a liar or a crook. If it has done some things that were bad for the public, so have we all.

    If you think as I do that capital punishment of a defendant is wrong, judge whether capital punishment of a company—or overly extreme government mutilation—is not only wrong for justice but wrong for society. In truth as the Bible says, all have sinned. So the fact that a company has sinned may be far from enough reason to either kill it or so damage it that it can’t serve the public beautifully as in the past.

    There can be good or bad in almost everything. The good thing about a product we see in the store is obvious but the bad thing is the price. Every single one of us as individuals could probably be better than we are–eat less, work more and work for less money.

    What was done wrong was done by individuals who made a mistake or who may have been wicked as hell but it was THEM and 99.9% of the company’s people are innocent!

    It’s not just doctors and PR people who have a duty of loyalty to clients or at least a duty not to harm them. Police shouldn’t beat up arrested people even if they seem clearly guilty. Accountants shouldn’t rat to the government about clients who want to cheat on taxes; it’s enough to not help because otherwise can people feel comfortable about going to accountants and telling whatever they know?

    Sometimes it is WE who are wrong, not the clients. They may know things we don’t. Or they may flat out disagree with our beliefs about what’s moral and what isn’t. Like even if a million people got addicted from Oxycontin
    (which I once took by the way), did Oxycontin help HUNDREDS of millions avoid the agony of terminal cancer, severe non-stop pain that would benefit no one?

    The Oxycontin I took was prescribed by a top doctor at NYU Langone for my
    shingles. When he asked me how much it hurt on a scale of one to ten I correctly told him 12. He gave me the medicine, the shingles eventually went away and the remains of my Oxycontin were thrown away.

    I have worked for dictators but the people they ruled were innocent. I’ve worked for polluters but the products they made (including newsprint and some life-saving pharmaceuticals) have helped millions or maybe billions. Do I wish polluters had polluted less and made less profit? Yes but how they run their business is their decision not ours.

    If you think the Bible is right that all have sinned, judge whether sometimes we should try to do even more for our managements—even more than we might have thought we could—rather than holding our noses sanctimoniously and figuring we’re too good to help people who have sometimes been bad.

    Steven Spenser says:

    >>”flout the laws of morality”<< ?

    Your article is primarily about professional and personal ethics—not morality. The two concepts are not the same. “Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.” (See:

    Wasting journalists’ time by pitching irrelevant ideas is neither unethical nor immoral—merely foolish and stupid, because you’re only shooting yourself (and your client/employer) in the foot: Recipients of such pitches eventually will stop opening your e-mails.

    Adding journalists to media lists is a basic component of PR campaigns, so that generic practice cannot be unethical or immoral. Similarly, shotgunning news releases to journalists or other targets who would never cover your news is neither unethical nor immoral—just pointlessly stupid.

    However, any PR practitioner who knowingly pitches mistargeted journalists, or disseminates non-newsworthy releases that will fail to generate favorable responses, is doing a disservice to her client. *That* is definitely unprofessional and unethical, because the practitioner is knowingly failing to provide the obligatory (and contractual) “best efforts” of client service.

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