PRSA members’ sweeping ethics-reform proposals spearhead big changes

by | Jun 20, 2018 | Public Relations

Update: PRSA responded to this post with the following statement: “It should be noted that this release is from two individual members planning to propose their own PRSA bylaw amendments, and not an official statement from PRSA as readers might infer,” said PRSA Chair Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA.

“Members have the right to campaign for their own bylaw proposals, and it’s obvious the campaigning has started, and that’s OK. I am concerned, however, that some of the campaigning has not brought clarity to such fundamental facts as PRSA’s National Governance Committee is at work on its own bylaw proposals relative to these matters with a team of well-intentioned and committed volunteers. The Governance Committee is also open to collaborating with any individual members on proposals, but not according to deadlines or special requests driven by those members. The timetable and procedures for submitting proposals are clear; members just need to follow them. 

“PRSA completely supports the rights of individual members to advance bylaw proposals according to procedures established expressly for that purpose and looks forward to a healthy debate on the amendments,” D’Angelo concluded.


In what’s likely the most unprecedented appeal for ethics reform in the 71-year history of the Public Relations Society of America—and at the urgent behest of PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards leader James Lukaszewski, APR—two long-time members have announced plans to submit five new bylaw amendment proposals, calling for sweeping ethics, governance, organizational transparency and nonpartisanship reforms.

The bylaw proposals—currently under final-draft development and authored by Susan Hart, APR and Mary Beth West, APR—include measures for PRSA to hold its own leadership accountable when organizational policies, decisions, communications or other actions fail to comply with PRSA’s own Code of Ethics, the public relations profession’s widely held standard for ethical decision-making, conduct and practice.

“PRSA’s credibility, moral authority and brand reputation utterly depend on it.”

“More than ever, organizations and their key stakeholders are holding senior executives accountable for consequences associated with ethical misconduct,” Hart said, in a news release.

“While PRSA is understandably not resourced to serve an enforcement role for every ethical infraction committed by any communications practitioner globally, PRSA must step up its game and—at a minimum—employ an independent means of accountability for breaches of its Code of Ethics by its own leadership, as well as specify the ramifications of ethical violations, from leadership censure to member expulsion,” she continued. “PRSA’s credibility, moral authority and brand reputation utterly depend on it.”

“PRSA has long put forward a well-defined Code of Ethics and Professional Standards,” West said, in the release. “A specific entity—PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS)—is widely perceived (or misperceived, as the case may be) to serve as a source of actionable accountability for ethics violations by PRSA members.”

“In reality, BEPS’s key function is limited only to member education—or ‘inspiration,’ as BEPS itself defines its role—not adjudication of ethics breaches … not even if a reported ethics violation arises within PRSA’s own leadership, and is documented and reported,” West said.

Ethics concerns of 2017 were largely dismissed with no corrective actions

Hart and West say their efforts represent more than a year of work throughout 2017 to hold PRSA accountable to its own Code, as well as to the highest-and-best standards of professional conduct in alignment with member and Leadership Assembly expectations.

Their pending 2018 bylaw proposals offer systemic, governance-rooted corrective actions on a going-forward basis, in direct response to a pattern of concerns in 2017 regarding possible Code violations, on the part of a small cadre of leaders, which were reported by Hart and West to PRSA national leadership and to BEPS throughout 2017.

“Beginning in January 2017 through December 2017, we noted serious concerns based on a range of documented incidents, which we reported to PRSA national leadership and to BEPS, and received little to no response, much less sufficient evidence of corrective actions or leadership accountability,” Hart said.

According to Hart and West, a long pattern of PRSA ethics incidents in 2017 included (but were not limited to):

  • Improper self-appointment by a national board leader to a committee co-chairmanship (Advocacy) in violation of PRSA bylaws;
  • Non-disclosures by PRSA of a $30,000 sponsorship while promoting that sponsor’s brand and its June 2017 politically partisan survey project, all while providing the sponsor a platform for survey sample via PRSA membership;
  • Improper (and possibly out of compliance with federal regulations for 501(c)(6) nonprofits) online deletion and purposeful withholding of national board meeting minutes governance documents; and
  • Documented personal retribution and retaliation using misinformation by leadership toward a PRSA member (West) who had reported leadership ethics concerns.

(More information with documentation on reported concerns will be included in future releases by Hart/West.)

BEPS’s official recommendations kept secret in memo undisclosed in 2017 National Board Meeting minutes

“In October 2017, BEPS finally validated, in part, our concerns with a three-page memorandum directed to the executive committee of the PRSA national board, including multiple ethics-related policy and procedural recommendations, based entirely on issues Mary Beth and I voiced throughout 2017,” Hart said.

“Inexplicably—and against BEPS’s own recommendation that this report be shared with us—the memo was withheld by 2017 PRSA leadership for more than two months and also failed to appear with even a mention in the October, November or December 2017 PRSA national board meeting minutes as an official, written BEPS recommendation to the board,” West said. “Notably, BEPS’s recommendations lacked leadership censures or any accountability measures for reported and documented infractions. Further, without the BEPS memo on record as part of the board minutes, it’s as if the pattern of ethical misconduct on the part of leadership in 2017 never happened.”

Mention of the memo finally did appear in the January 2018 board minutes as a mere “discussion item” at the end of the agenda, as noted by PRSA’s newly seated 2018 board chair.

However, the minutes notation includes no mention that the BEPS memorandum – noted in the January minutes as only a BEPS “communication”—recommended PRSA improvements on specific points including “Disclosure/Transparency,” “Grievance Handling Procedures,” “Advocacy” and “PRSA Board Accountability.”

Current PRSA bylaws are rife with conflicts of interest inherent to BEPS structure and subservience to national board

According to West, while current PRSA bylaws permit BEPS to “provide counsel with respect to disciplinary actions concerning violations of the PRSA Code of Ethics,” the bylaws also state such counsel “may” be provided only “at the discretion of the board.”

In essence, BEPS does not operate independently and, in fact, is subservient to the national board, according to West.

“So here we have a baked-in conflict of interest where PRSA leadership accountability is concerned—wherein, based on current bylaws, BEPS must be formally invited by leadership to engage in providing ethics counsel to leadership, even if it’s leadership breaking our ethics code, completely unchecked by an independent authority and with no incentive to invite BEPS to the table,” West said. “The need for ethics reforms couldn’t be more urgent.”

Hart added, “Based on PRSA’s current bylaws, BEPS reports directly and solely to the PRSA national board, whose national chair selects not only the chair of BEPS but also every BEPS member serving a new term, creating a clear conflict-of-interest if an ethics inquiry involves PRSA leadership itself—such as what we had in multiple situations last year.”

“One bylaw solution we seek to present toward ethical accountability is the option to impanel on an as-needed basis an independent ethics review task force, eliminating any allegiance to the national board, and empowering PRSA members, via the Leadership Assembly delegation, to have more authority in that process,” said West.

Open hostility voiced against Hart/West by BEPS Emeritus member

According to Hart and West, efforts in 2018 toward outreach, communication and collaboration on the Hart/West bylaw proposals concerning ethics issues have been met with unhelpful actions from BEPS.

Hart and West made repeated good-faith appeals, clarifications and follow-ups directly to BEPS Chair Nance Larsen on numerous occasions over the last few weeks, asking for BEPS’s input, suggestions, concerns and recommended changes to two Hart/West bylaw drafts, prior to the bylaws being put forth for member signatures and then Governance Committee receipt and review, per PRSA procedures.

“Despite our frustrations last year, we invited BEPS to have a seat at the table with us toward crafting bylaw proposals we were recommending, particularly the first two that we developed, since one of them contains some of the most detailed language specifying ethics governance improvements going forward,” Hart said.

On June 15, Larsen responded via e-mail to Hart and West—not with BEPS’s input, as had been requested and indicated by Larsen would be provided in some form, but with the following statement that read, in part, “Thank you for offering your draft proposals to PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) for review. The proposals are now in the hands of the Governance Committee. The members of BEPS have carefully reviewed the material and discussed the topics contained. The process now moves to Governance…”

In essence, BEPS discussed the bylaw proposals in detail as a group but leapfrogged to Governance, purposely excluding Hart and West from any information on BEPS’s reactions and comments. When West and Hart expressed via email surprise, confusion, concern and disappointment, Larsen did not respond.

However, Hart and West received a hostile email also copied to all BEPS members, sent on June 16, by BEPS Emeritus member Lukaszewski, charging Hart and West with “vile secrecy” and “secret efforts to restrict our free speech rights, and other proposals affecting PRSA members.” (Even more surprised and confused, Hart and West are challenging Lukaszewski to produce documented evidence or any facts to back up his charges and are standing by for this evidence).

In his email, Lukaszewski also ordered Hart and West: “Put these issues before the entire membership where they can be openly debated, let’s see if anyone else cares.”

Hart’s and West’s decision to issue this and future public-facing news releases on their bylaw proposals for PRSA ethics reform result from Lukaszewski’s order.

Essence of accountability

Per its April 2018 meeting minutes, the PRSA national board discussed grounds for expelling a member from the organization, as the current bylaws only allow the board to expel “any member who shall have been convicted of, or shall have pleaded ‘No Contest’ to a charge of, a felony or misdemeanor related to the conduct of the public relations or communication profession.”

Further, the April 2018 minutes noted that PRSA’s Governance Committee and BEPS are “to review a possible bylaw amendment for membership revocation and further defining the definition of a ‘member of good standing.’ In an effort to uphold the PRSA brand, the organization is currently limited on reasons for member explosion” (sic; Page 5, paragraph 6 under “Leadership Assembly Plans”).

While we have been credited by some current board and BEPS members for pushing ethics to the forefront, we’re continually dismayed by PRSA’s failure to grasp the core tenet of ethics also including a compliance function… holding members—even your colleagues—accountable when their decisions and behaviors not only breach our Code to which they have pledged compliance, but also offend any reasonably minded practitioner,” West said.

“Since PRSA is on the record in its April minutes with a vital concern of ‘upholding the PRSA brand,’ then what better way to do so than to pass bylaw reforms ensuring accountability, independence and transparency, among other values embraced by PRSA’s membership base?’” she said.

Next steps: Actual bylaw verbiage and more information coming soon

Hart and West will soon begin soliciting electronic petition signatures from PRSA members, which is a PRSA bylaw prerequisite before amendments can be reviewed for consideration on the 2018 Leadership Assembly agenda for a vote.

Hart and West have also requested from PRSA’s 2018 national leadership and PRSA’s Governance Committee the opportunity to participate on upcoming Assembly delegate conference calls in August-September 2018 and on the MyPRSA online forum only for Assembly delegates, in order to answer delegate questions about the Hart/West proposals. The request has, thus far, been denied.

In recent days, PRSA selected its new electronic petition system for signature-gathering purposes via the “GoPetition” platform, which Hart and West are required by PRSA to use. Hart and West will disperse the bylaw amendment proposal documents for electronic signatures by PRSA members in the days ahead. More information will be posted on each bylaw proposal with instructions on how to sign the respective petition for each proposal.

Only signatures by PRSA members in good standing—as verified by PRSA Headquarters staff—will count toward the required 25 signatures per proposal, in order to advance the proposals on to the PRSA Governance Committee and national board for review, prior to the proposals being added to the official 2018 National Assembly agenda. There is a deadline of August 6, 2018, for all bylaw proposals to be finalized, but the Governance Committee review process must begin much sooner.

Members can contact their PRSA National Assembly delegate(s) who are set to represent their chapter, section, district and/or professional interest section, to voice their position on the Hart/West bylaw amendment proposals.

In addition to #TakeBackPRSA for all PRSA ethics enthusiasts to use in social media for advocating PRSA’s ethics reform, event hashtags include #PRSAassembly and #PRSAICON.

To place a request to sign one or more of the bylaw petitions, contact Hart at susanhartpr@gmail.com or West at mb@marybethwest.com.

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