Home principles and practice of public relations LAW AND ETHICS IN PUBLIC RELATIONS


33 min read


There are some vital issues any public relations practitioner should address himself/herself to. How do as a practice public relations be in the good books of the law and society. What are the legal sides to public relations practice? How do I relate with my colleagues in the profession. These questions are addressed in this unit when we consider the role of law and Ethics in public relations practice. This unit will look at how the practice of public relations is regulated in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

There are two modes of regulations in public relations. The first is formal regulations set by the government for the protection of its citizens and is referred to as the law. The second is professional regulations designed to enhance the practice of public relations and it is referred to as code of ethics.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. Discuss the role of law in public relations practice 
  2. List and discuss important laws in public relations practice 
  3. Explain the importance of ethics in public relations practice 
  4. Identify some of the ethical values of public relations practice.


3.1 Public Relations Law and Regulations 

The field of public relations comes under the purview of legal regulations which practitioners that desire to keep out of trouble must be familiar with. As a form of mass communication, most of media laws in Nigeria’s statute books equally apply to public relations. Such laws include defamation (libel and slander), copyright, and trademarks, and privacy, contract and cinematography.
Laws are official rules and regulations used to govern a society or group and to control the behaviour of its members. It is in the interest of the public relations practitioner and that of the organisations he/she works with or the client to familiarize himself/herself with these regulations to keep out of legal problems and avoid costly litigation.

3.1.1 Role of Law in Public Relations

The activities of a public relations practitioner affects the society in general and his/her organisation or client in particular. The public relations practitioner does not live or practice his profession in isolation from society. Law is meant to regulate the relationship of members of society, in the other words it serves as an instrument to regulate and control human activities. The role played by law in public relations practice can be identified as follows:

To protect the rights of individuals and the society from the excess which may arise in the practice of public relations.
Promote national security and development by providing means for peaceful resolution of conflicts between practitioners and the society.
Maintain professional standards by prescribing criteria for practice of the profession, thereby enhancing the professional standing of the practice.

3.1.2 Public Relation Laws

Public relations laws can be categorized into two broad segments.
Law of Tort which consists of civil laws for which there are remedies for breach and law of contract which regulates the relationship between a practitioner and his/her client. 

Let us consider the more significant ones here. 
Defamation – Defamation includes statements or communication in words, pictures or symbols that diminish the respect, goodwill, confidence, or esteem or produce other adverse feelings about a person or institution. It can therefore be seen that defamation is the act of damaging the regulation of a person through false and malicious communication that exposes that person or institution to contempt ridicule hatred or social ostracism or lowers him in the estimation or right thinking members of the community. 
Defamation consists of libel which is published or printed defamation and slander which is distributing spoken defamation. Public relations practitioners who issue press releases, write speeches, corporate reports, newsletters, house journals or other communication should constantly watch for pictures and statements that might defame persons or institutions.

Conditions for establishing libel Four basic conditions must be met before a statement is held to be legally libelous. The words are defamatory (hurt someone’s reputation)
Identification of the victim by name or some other way obvious to others The defamatory statement was published or broadcast to an audience other than the victim.

The person making the statement was malicious or negligent.
Defences available in a libel suit
The following defences are variable to any one sued for libel
Justification (truth). The plaintiff (victim) must not only prove that the statement is false, but that it was made with malice or negligence.
Privilege otherwise libelous statements can be protected if they were fair and accurate account of judicial court proceedings or legislative proceedings. Fair comment which includes opinions which are clearly labeled as such on the performance of public figures, celebrates, actors musicians, etc. 

Slander is defamation in words put in oral form like vulgar abuse curse, etc. In spite of this distinction, most of conditions for establishing offence and defences earlier mentioned for libel also apply to slander.
Privacy Privacy laws are to protect the right of the plaintiff “to be let alone”.
Four categories of privacy violation include;

Intension upon the individual’s seclusion or into his or her private affairs, usually through intrusion illegal entry or electronic eaves dropping

Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff that can cause the person mental anguish

Publicity that places the individual in a false light in the public eye, and is made to appear other he or she is. False light results when mental personal humiliation and mental anguish for example, a wrong caption is used to give false impression of people in the picture.

Appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage of the plaintiff’s name or likeness, like using the name or picture of another for advertising or trade purposes without consent or permission.

Copyright and Trade Marks
As public relations practitioners, you may have to use the words and pictures of others in news releases, brochures, pamphlets, reports and speeches. You may have to use the excerpts of others work by yourself or you hire outside contractors to write copy or take pictures. The copyright and Trade Marks Law exist to protect the publishing and selling the creative work of others and generally protecting their intellectual property against any infringement.

The copyright law provides that the copyright owner “shall have exclusive right” to reproduce, distribute and use original works of expression fixed in a tangible medium. The copyright protects the copyright material from being used without the consent of the original copyright owner. In the same vein, the trade marks law protect trade marks, words, names, and symbols used by companies to identify and distinguish their goods or services from those of another.

Any infringement of copyright or trade mark will attract severe sanctions from the law courts. It is therefore necessary that you in the course of your public relations work take adequate care to ensure that due permission is obtained before any of these materials is used by you or your client/organisation.

Self Assessment Exercise Explain the role that the law plays in public relations practice.
3.2 Ethics in Public Relations
In the first segment of this unit, we have considered the role that law plays in public relations practice. We note that an essential function of law is to punish offenders and provide remedy for any member of society who is adversely affected by the conduct of another. The laws are enacted by the government to regulate the conduct and interactions of members of society.

An essential point you should know is that law is punishment after the action or offence must have been committed and the law provides for punishments or remedy to mitigate the effects of the offence.

However, another segment of regulations that guide public relations is Ethics. Ethics operate to take care of areas not patrolled by law. While the law employs- coercion or sanctions to secure compliance ethics employs moral persuasion or moral-suasion to secure compliance. Virtually professions all over the world have code of ethics that guide their members in the performance of their job and this also applies to PR.

Definition of Ethics There are many definitions of Ethics as there are authors and school of philosophy. Generally, Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong in human affairs. Another definition states that ethics can be described as standard or conduct and behaviour based on moral duties and virtues derived from principles of right and wrong.

The Greek philosopher Socrates defines ethics as ‘How we ought to live’. One of the factors identified by Aristotle as under the direct control of the speaker is Ethics which has to do with the character of the speaker. This is the origin of source credibility in modern communication. Aristotle had in his work ‘Rhetoric’ focused on the persuasive power of an individual’s character. To Aristotle the speaker’s character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. To him it adds much to an orator’s influence that his own character should look right. He recognized that good sense, good moral character and goodwill inspire confidence in the orator’s own good character.

Melvin Sharpe has pointedly said that ethical harmony is essential for social stability and social stability is the mission and product of public relations in other words strict adherence to ethical principles is key to harmony in human relations.

3.2.1 Ethical values applied to public relations

As we earlier explained, ethics can be described as the moral standards that are followed in relationships with others. Ethics is important in public relations because most of the problems that public relations is called upon to solve usually arise not from illegal acts, but from unethical conduct or behaviour. Both the public relations practitioner and the organisations for whom he/she works must emphasize the observance of ethical values in their conduct. The major religious in the world emphasize moral values as foundation for harmonious living in society. The Christian maxim “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Ethics therefore is about the values each and everyone of us holds dear as a moral obligation The values can be personal, social or community, and national values, those things that an individual holds dear and feels worth defending. Philosophers have suggested that personal values form the foundation of other value that an individual exhibits. For instance an individual that values wealth so much would not mind to engage in any dishonest act to make money or injure the good of his/her community. Being ethical minded means that you weight the implication of your actions before you do things.

The Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics has identified universal ethics that an ethical minded individual would embrace. They form the foundation for building ethical values in other areas of human life. They are:

* Honesty * Integrity
* Promise-keeping * Fidelity
* Fairness * Caring for others
* Respect for others * Responsible citizenship
* Accountability * Pursuit of Excellence

Like our conscience, each individual has personal ethical values, that the question of what is right or wrong is not an easy one to define and varies from society to society. For this reason, professions provide a code of conduct to guide their members on how to behave in their relationship with fellow members and the general public. The essence of the code of International Public Relations is that honesty and fairness lie at the heart of public relations practice. The code underscores the importance of members promoting and maintaining high standards of public service and ethical conduct. Truth must not be sacrificed for expediency. For a public relations practitioner working for an organisation or client it is his duty to emphasize the ethical practices be observed in the following areas.

– Product line – dangerous products, product performance and standards, packaging and environmental impact
– Marketing practices – sales practice, consumer complaint policies advertising content and fair pricing.
– Pollution – Control projects, adherence to environmental standards, and evaluation procedures for new packages and products.
– Employee safely and health – Work environment policies, accident safeguards, food and medical facilities.
– Corporate philosophy – Contribution performance, encouragement of employee participation is socials projects and community development activities.

It is the duty of the public relations practitioner to counsel management not to pursue profit at the expense of any of these ethical practices. A chief executive of an oil company in Nigeria (name withheld) who is ethical minded had this piece of advice for contractors working for his organisation. “If we made $2 billion profits in a year and lose a single life in the course of our operations, we have suffered a loss”. In other words, our ability to preserve human life should be the yardstick for measuring organisation success, and not met financial profit.

The Lockheed Corporation in the United States has defined six virtues which form the plank of ethical business conduct. They are Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Trust, Responsibility and Citizenship.

Honesty: To be truthful in all endeavours, to be honest and forthright with one another and with customers, communities, supplies and shareholders.

Integrity: To say what we mean. To deliver that we promise, and to stand for what is right.

Respect: To treat one another with dignity and fairness, appreciating the diversity of the workplace and the uniqueness of each employee.

Trust: To build confidence through team work and open candid communication.

Responsibility: To speak up without fear or retribution and report concerns in the work place, including violations of laws, regulations and company policies, and seek clarification and guidance whoever there is doubt.

Citizenship: To obey all the laws of the country and the other countries in which we do business and to do our part to make the communities in which we live better.

(Source: Seitel F.A. The Practice of Public Relations (2001) Page 86).
The Public Relations Society of America has among its codes the following: A member shall deal fairly with clients or employers – past, present and potential, with fellow practitioners and with the general public.

A members shall adhere to truth and accuracy and to generally accepted standards of good taste.
A member shall conduct his/her professional life in accord with the public interest.
A member shall not intentionally communicate false or misleading information and is obligated to use care to avoid communication of false or misleading information.
A member shall not engage in any practice that tends to corrupt the channels of communication or the processes of government. 

A member shall exemplify high standards of honesty and integrity while carrying out dual obligations to a client or employer and to the democratic process.
(For details see the Appendix)

In the words of a renowned American PR scholar the success of public relations in contemporary society will depend largely on how the profession responds to the issue of ethical conduct. To him, public relations professionals must have credibility in order to practice. They must be respected by the various publics with whom they interact. To be credible and achieve respect PR professionals must be ethical. He counsel that the key job for public relations professionals is to “advise clients to adapt to changing conditions and societal expectations rather than try to manipulate the environment for the good of the organisation”. This is the same way to earn the respect and remain credible.

This is the greatest challenge that public relations practitioners face. There is often pressure from the boss or the client to compromise one’s moral principles. Occasionally public relations practitioners may be under pressure to lie for their employers, write press releases that are misleading, withhold information and cover up potentially harmful situations as well as accept or offer gifts and bribes to secure favours. In the real world, there is a continuing conflict between the loyalty a practitioner owes his/her organisation/client and sticking to ethical principles. The challenges is not an easy one given what the eminent management expert Peter Drucker has identified as one of the challenges facing public relations practice. In his words “To this day, most institutions still look upon public relations as their “trumpet” and not as their “hearing aid” whereas it’s got to be both”.


The role of Law and Ethics is very crucial in the practice of public relations. Like any area of mass media communication, public relations is guided by some laws and regulations, which every practitioner must abide with to stay out of trouble. Violations of laws knowingly or not will earn the practitioner and his organisation sanctions and costly litigation. In addition to these laws, the professional has a Code of Ethics which a practitioner must abide with to earn the respect of his peers in particular and the society in general.


In this unit, we have carefully examined the substantial issues in public relations and the law. We have tried to identify the role of law in public relations and the key elements of the laws that govern public relations. We have also carefully gone through the issues of Ethics in public relations. We noted that the key to earning credibility and respect for the profession is for the practitioners to exhibit high standards of ethical conduct in all their activities, in spite of pressures to serve various loyalties.


Explain the conditions a claimant seeking damages in a defamation suit must meet to sustain the claim. What are the defences available to a defendant in a defamation suit?


Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 ultimate source to all your educational info resources and project materials of various discipline.


All research courses listed on our website is for educational and  Research  purpose, Locate your course title and access the research  materials. 

 The research courses comprises of two categories.  Note: success occur when opportunity meets preparation…go for success, go for the feature, study to show your self approve. 



VISIT FOR Available project topics and materials / view departments

  • research materials

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • marketing-research

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • research-methodology

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
Load More Related Articles
  • research materials

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • marketing-research

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • research-methodology

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
Load More In principles and practice of public relations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also

research materials

  THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …