The Ever-Evolving Ethics of Social Media

September 1, 2015


“I don’t see how it could do any good for anybody,” said University of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier, when he banned his players from using Twitter. “A couple of guys put some sort of nasty stuff on there in the summer,” he added, referring to a former player’s erroneous post about a teammate being involved in a bar fight.

As an information source, social media can be disruptive (especially if unfiltered), and lead to inaccurate material with potentially harmful consequences. Technology has also made the world smaller, allowing people to connect quickly and process information from a variety of sources. It’s now common to see social media users blamed for spreading inaccurate, misleading or even tragically wrong information.

For PR professionals, social media has radically changed the way we think, plan and work. Back in 2007, Deirdre Breakenridge, CEO of Pure Performance Communications, used the term “PR 2.0” in her blog to define “the democratization of communications.” Thanks to social media, we can reach audiences directly, bypassing the filters of journalists and other traditional gatekeepers. However, this powerful tool also forces us to acknowledge and confront the potential perils and pitfalls of what Forbes contributor David Vinjamuri termed “the Five Deadly Sins of Social Media,” in an article from November 2011.

In short, social media channels are a defining characteristic of the times. But the tools change quickly, and staying ethically current is an ever-evolving challenge for the PR professional.

There is a good chance that somebody, somewhere, is using social media to talk about your organization right now. No matter how much money and effort your organization has spent to strengthen its reputation and brand, PR professionals and companies are not the only ones who can bypass those traditional filters. Our customers, prospects, employees, former employees, applicants we didn’t hire, even our competitors, can use social media to affect — and maybe even ruin — our brands.

Authentic engagements based on verified, honest content that creates value for its audiences are what develop meaningful, trusted relationships.

Fortunately, PRSA members pledge to abide by the most inclusive Code of Ethics in the communications profession. The PRSA Code of Ethics already contains the key principles you need to navigate the swift currents of social media: openness, transparency, truthfulness, honesty and full disclosure. 

George L. Johnson, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an adjunct professor in the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina. He spent more than 40 years in corporate PR management and is Chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS).

Nance Larsen, APR, Fellow PRSA, is director of communications and marketing for Carlile, a leading transportation company in Alaska. Her 25-year career spans several industries including mining, travel/tourism, consumer products and sporting goods, with special emphasis in crisis communication and issues management. Larsen is the secretary of BEPS.


Social Media Status Update: ESA-20

To supplement and enhance the standard Code, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) has developed a new Ethical Standards Advisory (ESA-20) connecting the relevant sections of the PRSA Code of Ethics with recommended best practices for navigating the established and emerging social media world, as well as practices to avoid.

The list of more than 20 links to articles, case studies and other useful resources will be updated annually. Consider sharing and discussing this document with your staff, organizational management team and PRSA Chapter.

PRSA’s Ethics Month is a great time to get acquainted with this new advisory.  As you use the power of social media, make ESA-20 a basic part of your renewed commitment to “Ethics Every Day.”


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