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Interview with Gisela Gonçalves
Professor and Director of the Master Program of Strategic Communication
at University of Beira Interior, Portugal

 One of your recent publication is “The Guiding Principles of the profession. A comparative study of Ethical Codes promoted by PR associations”. First of all, can you explain the role of PR association in the promotion of ethical codes for PR professionals? 

Since Lucien Matrat’s Code of ethics, adopted by IPRA in 1965, PR ethics have been widely
discussed within professional associations, at national and international levels. Ethics codes
reflect the normative development of a profession and may be understood as the result of an
ongoing negotiation between the profession and the society in which professional operates. In
the fight for class interests, professional associations might contribute to the defense of good
professional practices, as well as to the monitoring of these practices.

Codes of ethics promoted by professional associations can play rhetorical, aspirational and
educational roles. Codes can be perceived as rhetorical devices insofar as they are documents
which seek not only to define the activity and its guiding values, but also, and above all, to
legitimize the profession in society. Ethical codes also have a clearly aspirational and
educational role as the set of values is, in essence, presented to the professional as an ideal
worth striving for. They provide an ideal standard of behavior, reflecting the ethical issues
common to the profession, and can be guides in the process of decision-making and action.

Some people argue that professional codes of ethics have only a cosmetic purpose as
professional associations usually don’t promote mechanisms to enforce Codes and to punish
infringers. I beg to differ. Professional associations may have a pivotal importance promoting
ethical PR praxis. In addition to proposing, discussing, and updating ethical codes, professional
association can support events, as conferences or workshops, to collectively discuss professional
values and ethical challenges faced by practitioners in their everyday practice. Most of the
discussions around ethics embody what Parsons (2004) refers to as the five pillars that carry the
weight of ethical decision-making in Public Relations: truthfulness (tell the truth); non-
maleficence (do no harm); beneficence (do good); confidentiality (respect privacy); justice (be
fair and socially responsible). See the ICCO (https://iccopr.com/ethics/) or the Global Alliance
“Ethics month” project (https://www.globalalliancepr.org/global-alliance-ethics-month). These
are both goods examples of the role that professional bodies can play in creating a forum to
discussing PR ethics, in a very participative and inclusive way.

During your study you have surely come across different ethical guiding principles, according to the different approaches to the profession. Nevertheless, are there any principles of the profession that can be called “universal” nowadays?

That is precisely one the questions that guided our research, but before trying to answer let me
explain that “The guiding principles of the profession: a comparative study” is a project
developed jointly with two Spanish colleagues Susana Miquel Segarra (University of Jaume I)
and Isabel Ruiz-Mora (University of Malaga). It will be published soon in the new EUPRERA
book, at Emerald.

The quest for universal values is not new neither consensual in the public relations field. Some
authors stress the significance of universal values across countries to enhancing PR
professionalism as others opt for a more relativistic viewpoint, by arguing that PR practice is
influenced by the local context, the cultural, economic, political system and the country’s own
history. In our study we tried to avoid the tension between the local and global approach to
ethics by grounding the analysis in Schwartz’s theory of basic human values. Following this
influential social psychologist, we consider values as basic and fundamental beliefs that guide
or motivate actions. They provide the general guidelines for conduct, that can be universal
across all cultures, but also can vary individually.

Bearing that in mind, a qualitative and quantitative content analysis was carried out on the codes
of ethics of six national associations (Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom and
the United States) and of the Global Code of Ethics, proposed by Global Alliance for PR – a
confederation of the world’s largest public relations and communication management
associations. Findings showed that the values contained in PR codes of ethics are based on a
system of 32 human values and that only three values were identified in all the codes: integrity,
truthfulness and the respect for the common good. Motivational values relating to universalism
(e.g. diversity, social responsibility, sustainability), benevolence (e.g., loyalty, honesty, fairness)
conformity (e.g. confidentiality, accuracy, transparency) are also covered in varying degrees in
all the texts. We also found out that: 1) the Global Alliance code is the only text that deals with
all the values of all the motivations described by Schwartz; and 2) that Latin countries include
more principles of universal universalism, as for ex., diversity, social responsibility, and

In the future we need to enlarge the sample of codes/countires analyzed, but for it can be
stressed that integrity, truthfulness and the respect for the common good are three universal
guiding principles in the PR profession.

You newest Handbook of Nonprofit Communication will be published in autumn. Even though nonprofit communication has its rules, are there any useful suggestion for PR professional operating in other sectors?

I am very happy to confirm that The Routledge Handbook of Nonprofit Communication, co-
edited with my colleague Evandro Oliveira has already been released. This Handbook brings
together multidisciplinary and internationally diverse contributors to provide an overview of
theory, research, and practice in the nonprofit and nongovernmental organization
communication field. Composed of 34 chapters, it is a volume that provides a thorough account
of the challenges that converge in nonprofit research in a changing and complex environment.
On November 9 th we had the online launch of the book, with the presence of prof Thomas Tufte
and several authors that contributed to the handbook (the webinar is available here:


Nonprofit communication entails considerable complexity in terms of goals, audiences and
resources when compared to the business sector. First, nonprofit organizations (NPOs) operate
on a multilayered level, considering a diverse group of stakeholders, including donors,
volunteers, minority groups, regulatory bodies, or other NPOs. Second, at the operational level,
the lack of human and material resources can have consequences on the daily life of these
organizations. But it is at the social level that NPO’s legitimacy is strongly dependent on their
communicative efforts to maintain high ethical standards as “servants of society”. Therefore,
communication goals related to transparency or credibility values, for instance, can be
considered problematic if we look to NPOs needs of balancing audiences’ skepticism and
building trust.

In fact, building and maintaining trust requires openness and transparency in all interactions
with publics and in any sector, not only in the nonprofit. We live in a post-pandemic world and
in a media context that is seriously undermined by phenomena such as fake news, social bots,
and disinformation. The lack of trust in business, public institutions, organizations in civil
society and even in public relations practitioners themselves can only be counteracted with
communicative practices driven by values as honesty, fairness, integrity, and the public interest.
Also necessary is a PR praxis that respects and includes the voices of all kinds of publics,
promoting dialogue and public participation in organization’s’ objectives and mission. There is
no magic recipe for successful PR, in any sector, but the momentum to put emphasis in
communication ethics is here and now.

Stay tuned
In the coming weeks we’ll issue new chapters of #EUPRERApeople! Be sure to receive them in your mailbox: