Where’s the Ethics Emoji?

Where’s the Ethics Emoji?
by Bob Sadowski, APR

As a Gen Xer surrounded by Millennials, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, I just don’t get them. Be it their keen ability to efficiently communicate using nothing but emojis, the mindset that “there’s an app for that” or their need to be tethered to their “devices” 24/7/365, they are of a different mindset than me or, for that matter, the Baby Boomers and other generations.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Every generation has its pros and cons (I mean, sure, I LOVE the ’80s, I believe Bo Knows everything and I still want my MTV—don’t hold these truths against me). But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with ethics? Quite a bit, actually.

As an organization, PRSA is a passionate advocate of living and working by the Code of Ethics. It is our ongoing charge as members to not only abide by the Code but to also promote it and make sure our colleagues, businesses and, yes, future generations “Do the Right Thing” (another shameless ’80s plug). For the latter, if we want to succeed, we need to learn more about these future generations…the Millennials…and how they regard ethics in the profession.

In September 2016, the PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) sponsored a study to learn more about what today’s young professionals really know about the PRSA Code of Ethics. The findings were not overly encouraging:

  • They do not feel prepared to provide ethics counsel.
  • Those who were aware of and likely to use PRSA/PRSSA ethics resources and training did feel more prepared and were more likely to believe that ethics counsel is public relations’ responsibility.
  • Only one-third indicated they felt prepared to offer ethics counsel.
  • Only 41 percent said they were familiar with PRSA’s Code of Ethics
  • Less than half of the respondents said they were likely to consult the Code of Ethics.


While it’s not all gloom and doom, we obviously need to remedy this. The good news is that it may not be as monumental of a task as it seems. I believe many of the very traits that define Millennials will help enable us to get them on track to be ethics advocates and our next generation of PR ethics counsel.

These results certainly are not indicating that young professionals have a total disregard for ethics within public relations; rather, I think the Millennials are begging us to learn more and ready to embrace ethics and everything for which they stand. We joke about Millennials being overly “politically correct” and sensitive almost to a fault—but isn’t that what ethics is all about?

The key is getting through to them. I go back to a founding principle of communications: To successfully communicate to an audience, you need to communicate in the manner they prefer. Our traditional teachings of the Code of Ethics may not be resonating with Millennials, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn. They prefer communications that are short and to the point, delivered via various electronic media channels. Face-to-face communication isn’t as popular and effective as written communication.

Important to note is that survey respondents indicated they were open and receptive to additional information. This is an area of opportunity for PRSA to expand its outreach and professional development resources by targeting new professionals—and they’ve taken steps to do just that.

Over the past 12 months, PRSA hosted an ethics Twitter chat with the New Professionals group and are using its blog to convey ethics information and insight. In addition, BEPS is continuing to research effective techniques for raising ethical concerns, which will lead to the availability of instructional materials for educators and PRSA members in the near future.

This is only one piece to solving this puzzle, of course. We—the individual practitioners—also need to capitalize on the fact that they are “open and receptive” to learning more. We need to continue to be advocates and discuss ethics with young professionals and even mentor them on the subject. Our generation is well-versed and experienced with the topic, primarily due to the years we’ve spent practicing public relations. Young professionals have yet to experience ethical issues first-hand, so let’s help them by sharing our learnings and growing their awareness around the Code and what it stands for.

We would be doing ourselves and our profession a big disservice by not doing so.

Oh, and by the way…there isn’t an ethics emoji but there is a PRSA Ethics app! Just sayin’…



Bob Sadowski, APR, currently leads the marketing efforts of myCUmortgage, a leading Credit Union Service Organization owned by Wright-Patt Credit Union in Beavercreek, Ohio. He has a deep background in corporate public relations, having worked for several industry-leading companies, including ACCO Brands, LexisNexis, Reynolds & Reynolds and Standard Register. He is a past president of the Dayton chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and currently serves as Ethics Chair. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University and resides in Bellbrook, Ohio with his wife and four children.


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