Intern Talk: Dealing with Unethical Practices at an Internship

As public relations students, we learn about ethics as it relates to school and PRSSA. But what happens when an ethical dilemma actually arises in the workplace? Navigating the ins and outs of propriety at internships is difficult; thus, dealing with unethical or questionable practices takes forethought, commitment to upholding the ethical values of the industry and good advisers.

Think about ethics beforehand
According to Robert Pritchard, National PRSSA Faculty Adviser, most ethical dilemmas present themselves innocently. For example, billing a client for your unpaid work can seem like no big deal on the surface, but becomes a serious dilemma when considering the PRSA values of honesty and fairness. Both of these require public relations practitioners to operate fairly and honestly while working on behalf of clients.

Photo courtesy of Taolife Studio
Photo courtesy of Taolife Studio

Due to the fact that ethical dilemmas can be presented as innocent situations, it’s important that you think through your personal values, as well as the values of the public relations profession, before beginning an internship or getting into an ethically questionable situation.

Use the PRSA Code of Ethics as a framework
The PRSA Code of Ethics offers an excellent framework for understanding and working through ethical dilemmas that arise during internships. “Most of our ethical dilemmas are not the result of wanting to do wrong, but of a conflict between obligations and responsibilities,” says Pritchard. The Code of Ethics can help you understand where your responsibilities to yourself and the profession lie and help you handle the dilemma well once it arises.

Talk to a supervisor or mentor
As learning and growing young professionals, it’s normal not to have all the answers. It shows maturity to approach a supervisor or mentor when you cannot deal with an issue singlehandedly or when you are simply unsure if a situation is unethical. Your supervisor or mentor will be able to guide you through the unethical situation or offer advice on how you should approach it.

At the end of the day, however, Pritchard offers this advice to students: “Most of the time, if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”

“Intern Talk” is a monthly guest column produced by Ellie Boggs, vice president of career services. The column covers various aspects of the public relations industry, giving PRSSA members the tools to secure internships and make the most of their professional experiences. For more career resources, visit the PRSSA Career Manual and Internship Center.

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