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Sponsorships, Sins and PR: What Are the Boundaries? Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2020


Sponsorships may attract mixed reactions and ethical concerns, although they are crucial tools for the operation of non-profit organizations. Why should a profit-making organization sponsor a non-profit-making organization? Should the profit-making organization sponsor non-profit-making organizations to gain publicity to further its profit venture by appealing to its target market as one that is concerned with non-profit-organizations’ activities that benefit the society?

These questions are important in non-profit-making organizations’ discourse of public relations communications as witnessed in the scenario where Head Start (non-profit-based organization) receives sponsorship from the University of Phoenix (profit-making organization). The move attracted serious PR ethical concerns.

Facts and Ethical Issues

The Society for Public Relations of America (PRSA) members’ codes of conduct are founded on the principles of professional enhancement, mitigation of conflicts of interest, safeguarding confidence, enhancing information disclosures, maintaining competition, and ensuring the free flow of information (“PRSA: Member Codes of Ethics” 2). The goals of PRSA codes of conduct is to ensure that public relations professionals act with honesty while promoting advocacy, fairness, expertise, independence, and loyalty.

Considering the case of the University of Phoenix sponsoring Head Start, putting into consideration the PRSA’s codes of conduct and arguing from the position of PR officer who works for the non-profit-making organization, the problem is whether an ethical conflict arises for Head Start allowing the for-profit organization to sponsor its events. The response to this problem depends on the facts of the case.

The University of Phoenix has a clear intention of using Head Start to gain publicity by treating it as an advertisement tool. This case is supported by the fact, “contributions from the University of Phoenix included the exchange of promotional mentions and opportunities by the non-profit pre-school” (Patterson and Wilkins 2). This situation attracts ethical issues of conflict of interest and disclosure of information. The local staff from the University of Phoenix has volunteered at the preschool in various events. The established relationship led to the nomination of the profit-making organization for the non-profit-making organization’s corporate award, which the Phoenix University won. Here, the ethical principle of competition is put to test.

In 2009, the university paid $78.5 million in the settlement of cases involving false information in its recruitment practices. As Patterson and Wilkins reveal, “officials counteract widespread critique by saying that the university’s structure caters to working students that many traditional schools ignore” (2). The ethical issue of honesty surfaces. The negative image of the university has implications for its performance.

For example, the third quarter of the fiscal year 2012 indicated a 15% reduction in degree enrollments and an 8% reduction of enrollments by new students while the net revenue for the third quarter reduced by 9.2% (Patterson and Wilkins 2). From this fact, the revenue of $3.3 billion reported by the university that quarter raises the ethical issue of information disclosure.

Values and Professional Code of Ethics

The motive of the University of Phoenix’s sponsorship is open to criticism. It compromises the ethics of conduct for the public relations profession and my values that are anchored on honesty and fairness. Its way of doing business is not only out of line with the professional ethics but also establishes the dilemma of whether the non-profit-making organization should discontinue the sponsorship.

In seeking a solution to the ethical dilemma, some principles need to be considered for my sequence’s professional code of ethics and personal values. The principles include conflict of interest, disclosure of information, the principle of competition, and honesty. Upon applying these principles as discussed by PRSA, the emerging question is whether the non-profit organization should be sponsored by an organization that has hidden agendas for its sponsorship (using the non-profit organization to advertise). Should Head Start have any relations with an organization that has negative publicity and paying settlement for a lawsuit that is granted on grounds of dishonesty and misinformation?

The interests of the university in the sponsorship are somewhat misaligned with those of the non-profit-making organization. While Head Start aims at helping students from poor backgrounds, the university seems to sponsor the non-profit organization to gain popularity to attract more enrollments. Therefore, the university’s commitment and support for the course pursued by Head Start is open to criticism. The purpose of the sponsorship and the non-profit-making organization’s mission conflict. The noble question here is whether such sponsorship is necessary at all. This dilemma can only be evaluated by considering ethics and philosophical principles to help in informing the possible courses of action.

Philosophical Principles

Kant’s ethical philosophy, specifically the idea of the categorical imperative, postulates that people have a collective duty to treat one another equally. In this sense, an ethical and morally justified action is the one, which is propelled by perspectives of engaging in an act simply not to foster the realization of individualized interests (Ketz 165). Intent or compliance with the right set of rules and guidelines stands out as the best mechanism for determining the appropriate course of action, rather than relying on achieving the most desired impact. Hence, ethical actions emanate from executing one’s duty, which is defined by rationality in the evaluation of the action. Concerning Kant’s arguments, duties are universal and owed to all people.

Kant’s idea of categorical imperative reinforces the necessity to comply with the set out rules and guidelines. For a PR professional, one of the sources of such rules is the codes of conduct for PR as enumerated by the PRSA. Kant also states that the chosen course of action should be rational (Ketz 165). Hence, it should be reasoned out to comply with personal values while ensuring that one acts in a manner that fulfills his or her duty to the stakeholders.

Putting the dilemma on whether to discontinue the sponsorship or not on the scale of Kant’s ethical theory, the sponsorship erodes the personal value of honesty. It also fails to comply with PRSA principles of conflict of interest, disclosure of information, and competition. Even though the organization provides financial aid to Start Head, to respect principles of PRSA, my values, and following Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative, the sponsorship needs to be discontinued and any PR communications in its regard terminated.


Loyalties are one of the critical tenets of the Potter Box model of ethics in public relations (“Ethics in Public Relations: Potter Box” par.4). The section on philosophical principles concludes that the sponsorship should be discontinued. However, is the action appropriate when loyalties are considered? A consideration of loyalty to the sponsor, the non-profit organization, the poor children benefiting from Head Start, other potential sponsors, all participants to the non-profit organization corporate award, and even students who have suffered in the hands of the sponsor is necessary for the evaluation of the decision to discontinue the sponsorship or to continue with it.

Arguing from the status quo, the sponsor (the University of Phoenix) is a beneficiary of the operations of the non-profit organization. Considering the discussion of ethics offered by Bowen, benefits such as using the non-profit organization to attract more enrollments are a hidden agenda, which is unethical (66). Loyalty to the university is necessary to help in securing continued support for the non-profit organization. However, such support is inconsistent with PRSA’s ethical values and guidelines.

The University of Phoenix’s students is not crucial stakeholders. Their relationship with the non-profit organization is through the sponsor. The non-profit organization is an important stakeholder, which I should have lots of loyalty as its PR officer. However, such loyalty should be to the extent that it complies with the objective of the organization, which is developed around the poor children. Hence, as the PR official, all my decisions should be based on delivering the most benefit to the children via the organization. Hence, they are among the stakeholders to whom I should have much loyalty.

Courses of Action

Supposing the sponsorship continues, the status quo would be maintained. Therefore, as the PR of the non-profit organization, I would continue misinforming the public about the value of the sponsorship. Consequently, the suffering of stakeholders, especially those related to the profit-making organization continues. Head Start will also continue benefiting from money and other resources that were acquired unethically by the university.

Hence, Head Start would be encouraging the unethical behavior of its sponsor. Consequently, the public image of Head Start becomes prejudiced due to its relationship with the sponsors. Hence, other sponsors, if any, would most likely withdraw. The outcome is the loss of funds to pursue the course of the non-profit organization. Ultimately, the poor children whom the non-profit organization ought to be most loyal to may suffer. Head Start’s objective and mission are not realized.

A decision to discontinue the sponsorship would reverse the above cycle of events. Open PR communication about the ethical implication of the sponsorship with the University of Phoenix would most likely attract more sponsors. Thus, the loss of one sponsor would translate into more sponsors contributing to funding the course of the non-profit organization. Consequently, more poor children would gain while the University of Phoenix considers reviewing and changing its unethical behavior to improve its public image. Consequently, its business practices would change for its students to get better opportunities in life.

Hence, when the non-profit company subscribes to being loyal to its main stakeholder (the poor children), such a decision would guarantee cascaded benefit to all other stakeholders. However, it should be remembered in practicing public relations that moral fables are encountered (Pauly and Hutchison 233). For example, upon discontinuing the sponsorship, what happens in the short run before other sponsors join hands with the non-profit organization to pursue its course? Would Head Start fail to meet its expenses and die at least in the short run?


Considering that continuing or discontinuing the sponsorship has a significant implication on Head Start, the dilemma lies in what the best action entails. Discontinuing the sponsorship with the expectation of acquiring other sponsorships is the best course of action since it has long-term effects on the capacity of Head Start to achieve its goals and objectives. However, such a risk threatens the survival of the organization to see the anticipated successful future. Hence, deciding real life is hard. A means of short-term survival is required when the sponsorship by the University of Phoenix is lost. Such means of survival is not guaranteed.

Works Cited

Bowen, Shannon. “Expansion of Ethics as the Tenth Generic Principle of Public Relations Excellence: A Kantian Theory and Model for Managing Ethical Issues.” Journal of Public Relations Research 16.1 (2004): 65-92. Print.

Ethics in Public Relations: Potter Box. 2016. Web.

Ketz, Edward. Accounting Ethics: Theories of Accounting Ethics and their Dissemination, New York, NY: Taylor & Francis US, 2006. Print.

Patterson, Philip, and Lee Wilkins. Media ethics: Issues and Cases. Case 3-D, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013. Print.

Pauly, John, and Liese Hutchison. “Moral Fables of Public Relations Practice: The Tylenol and Exxon Valdez Cases.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 20.4 (2005): 231-249. Print.

PRSA: Member Codes of Ethics. 2000. Web.

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