The Modern P.T. Barnum

​P.T. Barnum is considered, by numerous historians, as the master of press agentry. For over 50 years it has been reported that he had an endless imagination that enabled him to successfully manage, direct, and profit from entertainment endeavors, such as circuses. After he died in 1891, he was known by some as the “harmless deceiver” primarily because of his passion and his focus on generating revenue by continuously deceiving the public. One example of his unethical behavior that was specifically used in the circus was promoting a woman who claimed to be 161-years-old; however, it was later proved she was between the ages of 70-80. He has set the precedent for unethical behavior in the public relations field for over 200 years.

​September of 2013 is being recognized as Ethics Awareness Month at Public Relations Society of America. This article will be focused on how one can avoid being identified as the modern P.T. Barnum, while maintaining acceptable ethical behavior, especially in the working environment.

A role model that we can look at as a modern ethical practitioner is Ivy Lee, who is known to be the Father of Public Relations. He succeeded in changing the view Americans have of the public relations field by emphasizing the need for positive and ethical behavior. In 1906, Lee created the document Declaration of Principles or Code of Ethics which became the foundation for ethical behavior in public relations. Member Code of Ethics as reported at, states the following standards:

“ADVOCACY: We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.

HONESTY: We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.

EXPERTISE: We acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience. We advance the profession through continued professional development, research, and education. We build mutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences.

INDEPENDENCE: We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.

LOYALTY: We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

FAIRNESS: We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”

​The standards need to be adhered to by every individual in the public relations arena. More specifically we have to act and convey to our coworkers and to the public at large that we are ethical by following the above standards and more importantly by being trustworthy in all facets of our lives. If public relations practitioners accept these standards we will not be classified as a P.T. Barnum’s, who was more concerned about money than ethics.

​Therefore, always follow the ethical course especially when you are tempted not to and this applies to when you are working campaigns for publics, preparing and then providing your resume to potential employers and communicating with your colleagues; because ethical behavior and attitudes can only begin with you.

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