Talking about ethics and social media is like discussing ethics and automobiles or ethics and electricity. There is nothing intrinsically moral or immoral about social media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr and others are mere communication tools. Yet social media is an unprecedented phenomenon that greatly influences our daily lives, particularly in the developed world.
The number of people involved in those communications platforms is astounding. These days there are very few human activities that do not have, or soon will have, an app of some kind. Future progress in technology will most likely facilitate the development of new social media platforms. We can reasonably expect that social media will continue to expand at an accelerated pace for several years to come.
Social media is very much part of the public relations offering. Most of our clients request some social media application in the programs we propose. What is, or should be, the role of ethics in this new environment?
The question is particularly pertinent for those involved in public relations and concerned about ethical conduct because the potential harm that we may inflict on others, directly through our PR activity or indirectly through the media, is significant.
There have been a number of stories about disastrous results that were the direct consequences of unethical use of social media.
For instance, in July 2008 an Ohio teenager committed suicide after nude photos of her appeared on the Internet. She had originally sent those pictures to her then boyfriend.
After they broke up, the ex-boyfriend emailed the photos to a large number of students at the high school they both attended. This led to severe harassment; she was ashamed to appear in public, and, tragically, she hanged herself.
In June 2011 U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to resign for having sent, from his Twitter account, inappropriate photos of himself to a woman he did not know in person but met online.
He inadvertently sent that photo to all his Twitter followers. Once he was exposed Weiner lied about it repeatedly, claiming at first that his computer had been hacked. His reaction did not improve his case in the court of public opinion.
FIRST, DO NO HARM
In business, social media has been used to discredit and malign competitors. You may remember John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Food Markets, who used a fake name to post criticism of a competitor, Wild Oats Markets, which Whole Food was trying to purchase.
He was most likely trying to bring down the stock price of Wild Oats.
Closer to home (the PR industry), we all remember the fake blog of “WalMarting Across America” that turned out to be written by two employees of Edelman on behalf of Walmart, a client of the agency.
Of course, there is a major difference between the reckless posting of images and the malicious posting of content intended to cause harm to an individual or a corporation.
Chris Boudreaux, co-author of “The Most Powerful Brand on Earth” and consultant to global brands, created an online database of 245 social media policies from the world’s largest brands and agencies (hosted at SocialMediaGovernance.com).
In studying social media policies since 2008, he has found that most social media policies fall into one of three stages. “In the first stage of maturity organizations tend to publish a policy that focuses purely on protecting the company from risk. Such policies tend to talk about respecting copyright, being ‘authentic’, etc.,” Boudreaux said.
These kinds of policies tend to look very much alike from brand to brand. Then, in the second stage of maturity, brands publish a social media policy that helps employees to protect themselves, in addition to protecting the brand.
THE VALUE OF VALUES
Some brands publish guidance on protecting one’s privacy in social media.
In the third stage of maturity, brands finally publish policies that help employees to support the goals of the brand. For example, such policies explain how employees can use brand digital assets, or respond to customer inquiries online.
While Boudreaux first published those maturity stages in 2009, they are still quite relevant. “Regardless of their stage of maturity, almost all brands today are updating their policies to reflect guidance and decisions published during the past year by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and Federal Trade Commission,” he said.
Ethical principles and values are universal and timeless. Moses’ and Socrates’ teachings, and Kant’s principles, can be applied in any situation or circumstance and that includes social media. The principles are the same but their application can be different.
Many of the recent well-publicized ethical lapses of inappropriate picture posting, improper speech or violation of privacy would not have happened had the content creator adhered to basic fundamental values.
As content creators, whether publishing images, videos or text, we should be as responsible as we expect journalists to be.
A FALSE NOTION
Ruder Finn, the company I work for, has developed a Facebook posting policy.
We do not discriminate against any views. However, we reserve the right to delete violent, obscene, profane, hateful or racist posts, links, images or comments that threaten or defame any person or organization as well as comments that suggest or encourage illegal activity.
Maybe the best advice to all users of the social media platforms is not to do anything online that we would not do offline.
We somehow have the false notion that we can remain anonymous on the Web. It is simply not true.
Furthermore, any activity on a social media platform that would embarrass us if made public is probably not one we should engage in. There is value in transparency. It just needs to be upgraded for a social media age. We hark back to a 1913 article that Louis Brandeis wrote in Harper’s, titled, “What Publicity Can Do,” in which he advised, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” PRN
(This is the debut column of The Ethics Advisor, focusing on ethical issues that impact public relations. The column will appear periodically in PR News .)
Emmanuel Tchividjian is senior VP and Ethics Officer at Ruder Finn. He can be reached at tchividjiane@RuderFinn.com.
PR Ethics: A Glossary
Ethics is fundamentally about values. What are the specific PR values at stake in the use of social media? Here are several:
▶ Truthfulness. We should try to be truthful and as accurate as possible in all our communications. This will allow us to build and maintain a reputation of integrity. Being truthful is essential in building trust and trust is at the core of any human relationship, whether online or offline.
▶ Respect. We have a moral obligation to respect others both by what we say and what we do. Being respectful of others will prevent a content creator from posting undignified and degrading material. Respect does not allow hate speech or discriminatory comments.
▶ Honesty. Avoiding deception at all costs is highly recommended for any action that we propose to be ethical. We should make sure that in our social media activities we do not allow others to be “led to believe” something that we know is not true.
▶ Transparency. We should always inform our viewers who we speak for (who pays us) and avoid, as much as we can, anonymity. This will allow us to keep both our integrity and independence.
▶ Privacy. The fact that privacy on the Web is a myth does not allow us, from an ethical point of view, to willingly violate the privacy of someone else. We should be as protective of other people’s privacy as we are our own.
▶ Fairness. We should try to be as fair as possible in our social media activities. One sure way is to apply the “Golden Rule.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others like you would like them to treat you. The concept of fairness suddenly becomes, much clearer.
This article appeared in the July 1 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.