Public Relations Tactics

Let’s get (socially) ethical: A BEPS roundtable discussion

August 29, 2013

In early June, current and ex-officio members of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) participated in a roundtable discussion via phone. What follows is an edited version of this conversation centering on ethical concerns about social media communications.

Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA: What are your experiences with social media and ethical concerns?

Nance Larsen, APR, Fellow PRSA: Intentionally tweeting misinformation goes beyond single or random incorrect tweets. There have been social media campaigns designed to discredit businesses by posting damaging material across a wide spectrum of platforms.

In some cases, the news media unintentionally aided these efforts by posting stories based on the misinformation, thereby adding a seeming legitimacy. Corrections work in favor of those generating the misinformation [by] providing more exposure to their predisposed efforts. Material gathered from social media sources needs to be investigated and cited, as with any news source.

Mary Graybill, APR, Fellow PRSA: If social media is reporting something about one of my clients, the first thing we do is check the facts. What happened? Then, [we] follow up with the person who made the post to find out why he or she made the negative comments.

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC,  APR, Fellow PRSA: There are circumstances when people have to respond beyond just getting it all out there and seeing what happens.

George Johnson, APR, Fellow PRSA: I’m not so sure it’s up to public relations professionals to “save society” from the distorters, rumormongers and outright liars who appear too often in social media. What we absolutely have to do is commit ourselves to adhering to our own code of ethics and understand how it applies to social media. I don’t think its application is any different than when applied to print or broadcast media.

Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., APR: Brian Solis wrote a blog post about a service called “Let Me Tweet That For You,” that generates [fake] tweets that appear to be from celebrities. We need to verify, to visit the Twitter account to make sure those tweets are coming from [where they] claim and that the celebrities’ accounts have not been hacked. We all need to be skeptical.

Brooke Worden, APR: I’m looking at The Wall Street Journal, and the top story is about the SEC allowing companies to use social media to disclose company information to investors, if investors are told in advance which outlets it intends to use to make the announcement.

Lukaszewski: That’s a bizarre decision because if there’s a medium that’s non-transparent, it is social media. Nothing can be verified. It is curious that the SEC authorizes a platform where erroneous and often intentionally damaging information is released all the time.

Johnson: I hope the SEC is prepared for enforcement.

Johnson: What are the ethics of social media — if any?

Larsen: Transparency is key — something that seems easily lost in today’s “reality TV” world. Associations, relationships and special interests must be revealed in order to keep the conversation real and authentic, as well as effective and trustworthy.

Neill: One key issue is correcting our mistakes. As soon as we realize that we made one, we have an ethical obligation to make the correction.

Bobbi Simmons,  APR: Some people will communicate nearly anything, whether they know it’s accurate or not. One of the best things we could do is provide real examples of unethical social media usage, its impact and how to effectively manage its damage. This could be an educational exercise for those who have not experienced it personally.

Worden: Another important component is the disclosure of relationships. I was reading a blog called “(a)Musing Foodie.” The author wrote about a new cereal called Honey Bunches of Oats with Greek Yogurt. I saw a disclaimer that identified her as part of Mom-it-Forward, a mommy blogger network, and that they compensated the blogger for her participation. I appreciated the transparency at the bottom of the blog. It doesn’t always happen. But the disclosure of those relationships is important, especially when compensation is involved.

Ann Willets: Disclosure is also a legal requirement. We need to be able to inform our employers and clients in regard to the proper disclosure requirements for websites, blogs and other social media accounts.

Lukaszewski: This is a good point. We have a code in place that can handle issues of unethical conduct. What we don’t have in place are examples of how you build credibility and assure transparency, and the trustworthiness of the comments that you make.

Nick Lucido: In the age of social graphs and Big Data, it’s becoming harder for PR professionals to maintain private, independent viewpoints that are separate from their professional life. Any Like or retweet now symbolizes endorsement, which can have implications if that person’s clients have a vested interest in the source of that content.

Philip Tate,  APR, Fellow PRSA: I remember the story of an agency person who was flying to FedEx for a meeting and tweeted about how he disliked Memphis, Tenn., and going to see this client. Some of his clients at FedEx followed him on Twitter and saw the tweets before he arrived, which created an embarrassing situation. Making a snarky comment that might sound funny could have serious consequences once it’s landed in the Twitterverse.

Lukaszewski: Consequences that last forever…

Janelle Guthrie,  APR: We had a situation like that on the campaign trail for one of our gubernatorial candidates. One of his policy staffers joined the team just out of college. In publicizing the campaign’s social media efforts, the team encouraged reporters to follow all the members of the campaign staff on Twitter.

An enterprising reporter dug through all the feeds and found some unflattering tweets this young staffer had published while still in school. The entire issue blew up and the staffer had to resign. It was a good lesson in the consequences of social media.

Lukaszewski: A student from Hampton University in Virginia drowned while attending a pool party on campus. Many students began tweeting about it. Because of those tweets, there were conflicting reports in the news. Unable to sort out what happened, the family requested a criminal investigation to give them the answers they needed.

The New York Police Department issued social media guidelines in April for police personnel. They are not allowed to post a picture of themselves or other officers in uniform. Police officers have to be circumspect about what they say and do. The police hierarchy is concerned about not undermining the credibility of the department.

Lukaszewski: Is anybody working on a social media policy for a client because of a previous ethical issue? Is this something that, as practitioners and as advisors, we might begin advising clients to do?

Simmons: We should think about recommending that our clients issue at least some guidelines.

Larsen: Advising and helping establish social media policies for clients or organizations is part of the PR professional’s evolving role. Social media can be a powerful and interesting communication tool, with nuances that other mediums don’t offer. Understanding these aspects and leveraging their application, whether in day-to-day operations or in times of crisis, is becoming a critical part of strategic communications.

Willets: Most large companies have policies in place. However, there is a tremendous opportunity for us to provide counsel to mid-sized and smaller companies that may be struggling with the issue.

Lucido: Governance in social media is an area where PR professionals need a seat at the table.

Silverman: There’s ample evidence that employers are keen on examining the social media backgrounds of prospective employees. Some believe résumés are about to become obsolete because your résumé will be the sum total of what is out there in the blogosphere. Young people need to be warned and be careful.

Willets: It’s not just young people who need to be careful.

Simmons: The problem lies in the fact that we may not have personal, direct involvement in issues of unethical use of social media that have been detrimental to a client or an organization. False rumors in the marketplace that severely and undeservedly damage the sales and reputation of a company are the same yesterday as they are today, but with social media, fighting them is different in both timing and technique.

Lukaszewski: Is that an indication that maybe this is not as serious a problem as we make it out to be?

Johnson: Social media policy may not be as simple as telling employees not to say bad things to the news media about the company, or not to say anything to the news media at all because it is a more personal form of communication. Most large companies have rules for employees on how to communicate about the company.

Willets: It’s not just communicating to media that we have to worry about. The filter is gone and any negative post can go viral. You might have to accept the consequence of losing a job, but you can still say what you want to say. So any policy that’s in place about negative company comments is only as good as the paper it’s written on.

Graybill: Don’t the same policies apply to social media that companies adopt for communication with mainstream media — only authorized spokespersons can speak on behalf of the company?

Nancy C. Syzdek,  APR: While corporate PR departments of the past had designated spokespeople, we never controlled that conversation. Employees talked to family and neighbors. Salespeople directed consumers toward the products they endorsed. Social media amplified those conversations. PR professionals would be wise to direct their energy into joining the conversation, rather than trying to stop it.

We must remain vigilant in our support of honest and accurate reporting. Social media is a powerful, and sometimes scary, tool. We must help our clients and companies outline clear expectations about professional behavior in social media environments through a reasonable policy. Our companies are best served when they engage with stakeholders with openness, transparency and the public’s best interest.

From an ethics standpoint, it is our role to encourage proper disclosures, and make sure confidential information is protected and facts prevail. When done well, social media can facilitate meaningful civil discourse and support a democratic society.

Emmanuel Tchividjian: Social media is permeating all aspects of our lives; we can only expect the trend to continue both in marketing and in public relations.

There is no doubt that social media presents ethical challenges. Ethical principles have not changed with time and are universal. The values of honesty, fairness, truthfulness, respect, transparency and accountability are still current. However, with any societal progress, applying long-lasting ethical principles to a new environment does require careful and innovative thinking. 

Lukaszewski: Social media only contributed additional confusion to the Boston [Marathon] killings. With the media fabricating its coverage, for which it continuously apologized but kept on fabricating, the only believable source was the policeman in uniform, wearing a gun and using a microphone.

Willets: I’m not sure that social media added confusion, as much as [it was] bad reporting and the rush to fill airtime. Some misleading info came from “confidential police sources,” so in the midst of the media mayhem, every source was suspect.

Simmons: We get into ethical situations when people are purposely promulgating falsehoods. I would love to see some examples of companies that have had to deal with damaging, false rumors and what they have been able to do about it.

Lukaszewski: Maybe our role is to differentiate between ethical and unethical behavior, and to provide examples that might offer helpful advice to employees when they are using social media platforms. We might want to replace the word ‘guideline’ with ‘advisory.’

Mary Beth West,  APR: Employees need to understand that posting information and comments on social media platforms may have serious consequences. This is probably an HR issue and HR needs to make sure that these policies are communicated to employees at the beginning.

Neill: We need to be educating employees about the company’s values and principles. Be proactive — not just looking at it from the enforcement side, but by educating people about the policies and why they’re in place.

Graybill: A member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) went undercover at a meat-processing plant in California and captured the cruel treatment of cattle. The video was posted on YouTube. This provoked a huge scandal and the plant had to close. Any damaging video posted on YouTube, viewed by thousands, will have a negative impact on a business.

Worden: Procter and Gamble did some Facebook posts about bacon-flavored Scope mouthwash as an April Fool’s joke. And some people were upset at Procter and Gamble because the bacon-flavored mouthwash did not exist. It was a joke. What are the ethical implications of telling a joke if you don’t disclose that it’s a joke?

Graybill: It would be sad if people could no longer have a sense of humor.

Johnson: There are a lot of people who don’t have a sense of humor anymore. [There’s an] over-sensitization of concern about social   media, brought on especially by the 2012 election. I don’t know if there’s ever been an election year in America where there were more outright lies, distortions and total fabrication. A lot of it was on Facebook, and some took place on Twitter.

Silverman: We might be over-sensitized to it. It’s the newest tool in our communication toolbox. Social media is here to stay and we’re eager to find a way to utilize it in our PR practice.

Lukaszewski: We’re still ahead of business leaders. Despite all the hyped survey statistics, there’s great resistance among the clients we serve to embrace social media.

The nature of leadership in corporations has changed in the last 25-30 years, mostly because of changes in communication strategies and techniques. Senior management are much less exposed to social media and are spending more time in this unfamiliar territory — Harvard Business Review did their first major piece on social media just a year ago. They now devote at least one issue per year to the subject.

Silverman: A couple of things are clear. First, social media is here to stay. And, second, it’s going to cause a lot of ongoing conversation and, perhaps, confusion. BEPS is developing some new ethics case studies — including some with social media issues — that we will have available on the PRSA website later this year.

The following BEPS members and ex-officio members participated in this discussion:

  • Mary Graybill,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Janelle Guthrie,  APR
  • George Johnson,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Nance Larsen,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Nick Lucido
  • James E. Lukaszewski,  ABC,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D.,  APR
  • Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D.,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Bobbi Simmons,  APR
  • Nancy C. Syzdek,  APR
  • Philip Tate,  APR, Fellow PRSA
  • Emmanuel Tchividjian
  • Mary Beth West,  APR
  • Ann Willets
  • Brooke Worden,  APR



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