New ethical challenges for PR professionals

Ansgar Zerfass, Jens Hagelstein

The digital transformation has provided communicators with new practices and opportunities, but do these also come with ethical challenges?

To map moral problems connected to new digital tools and options, we surveyed 2,324 practitioners in the field of PR and communication across Europe.

Ethical encounters appear to be on the rise. As much as 64,8 % of the respondents said they had experienced at least one moral challenge in their work within the past 12 months. Compared to a survey from 2012, this number has increased.

New digital opportunities come with dilemmas

So, let us first have a closer look at what the new communication options are and what can be problematic about each one of them:

  • Social media influencers - Influencers are used for promotional messages, but communication professionals must be cautious about the messages’ transparency and authenticity.
  • Corporate influencers - When employees state opinions in social media, do they communicate their own opinion or their organization’s? Moral issues can arise when employees suppress their personal opinion.
  • Public wikis – Since public wikis can affect an organisation’s reputation, PR professionals should monitor them, but editing the wiki entries about their own organization is considered unethical.
  • Social bots are automated programs used to engage in social media, both in a good or bad way. They can easily be mistaken as humans and influence the discussion and the opinion of other users.
  • Big data, profiling and targeting. Advanced data mining can enable more targeted communication, but collecting big data comes with dilemmas of personal data privacy.

State of the modern PR ethics

Two out of three PR professionals stated that the use of social bots to generate feedback and followers on social media is ethically challenging. In addition, more than half of the respondents were concerned about the exploitation of users’ personal data in social media, paying influencers, and using sponsored content. 

“86% of the respondents stated that an important tool to cope with moral dilemmas are their personal values and beliefs, followed by ethical guidelines from their respective organization. Only half of the survey´s respondents stated they had ethical training during their career or education.”

Our survey points out that the older the professionals are, the more critical they are about digital communication tools from an ethical perspective. We also saw that political circumstances play a role. PR professionals in countries suffering from high levels of corruption face more moral challenges in their daily work, compared to those working in less corrupt countries.

How to address these problems

Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. First and foremost, professional associations must keep their ethical guidelines up to date to keep up with the development of new technology. The guidelines should cover a wide range of topics in digital communication, including transparency, labelling of paid content, sponsors or influencers, and responsibilities for communication in social media.

Organizations should adopt and customize their own guidelines according to their strategy and purpose. Managers should be aware of the challenge and facilitate courses.

Educational institutions also have a responsibility. Earlier studies have pointed out a lack of dedicated ethics courses in the field of public relations. As for our survey, only 17% of the respondents had had training within the last year. New courses should be offered and cover real-life examples, rather than abstract theory.

One thing is clear, the development of these technologies will not stop, and neither will the need for ethical guidance on different levels to tackle them.



Hagelstein, J., Einwiller, S., Zerfass, A., (2021). The ethical dimension of public relations in Europe: Digital channels, moral challenges, resources and training. Public Relations Review, 42 (4), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2021.102063

Published 24. November 2021

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