Social Media Ethical Guidelines: For Every Corporate Communicator

Ethical issues resulting in organizational use of social media have arisen in every function of corporate communications.  Ethics are inherently ambiguous and constituencies’ ideas and beliefs about what constitutes ethical online communication varies depending on your industry, audience and communication objectives.

Developing guidelines for the use of social media within your organization can be an effective way to manage online communications in all company functions.  Several companies have developed policies for dealing with social media, but it remains a controversial and sometimes confusing option for an organization to consider.  Other organizations strive for a standardized and all-encompassing code of ethics for disclosing information online.

No matter what approach you take to dealing with social media ethics there are several  characteristics of best practice communications that should play a significant role in your social media policies.

Transparency

Some corporate communications and social media experts believe that this new age of communications means the end of privacy for institutions. Whether or not this is true is uncertain, but one thing that will greatly aid your communication strategy for social media use is honest, genuine transparent messages.

Consistency

Although some companies are wary of restricting social media use through the implementation of ethical policies or guidelines, it can be a valuable tool for both monitoring and maintaining your reputation online.  When forming social media ethics guidelines, communicators should keep their organization’s identity and image in mind as well as tie the new policies to the overall business strategy and bottom line.

 

Credibility

Flogging (fake blogging), Astroturfing, and comment spamming are just a few of the issues that can result from irresponsible use of social media by organizations.  In order to be successful in your use of these new communications platforms, you must make sure that all your messages are genuine attempts to better audiences’ understanding of your brand as well as improving the company’s overall success and performance.

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Monitoring Internal Social Media Use: For the Employee Relations Practitioner

Implementing social media strategies within your company can be an effective and rewarding way to communicate with employees. But, like any other communication strategy involving social media, it comes with risks.  The use of social media platforms in employee relations has created ethical issues of privacy, accountability and reputation management.  When developing a strategy for using social media internally it’s important to keep these risks in mind.

Social media, in particular social networking sites like Facebook, are blurring the lines between employees’ personal and professional lives and making it difficult for organizations to determine how to deal with information posted by its employees online.

Your employees collectively are the face of your brand and in some cases act as public relations practitioners in their interactions with consumers.  So, it’s important that their online identities don’t seriously contradict your corporate strategy.  The question is: how should organizations ethically manage employee communications on the Web?

One issue that comes up with this question is how to regulate non-work-related use of social media at the office. Some studies have proven that social media use by employees at work inhibits their productivity, but you must determine if it is ethical (and in your employees’ best interests) to monitor or restrict their access to social media websites.

Another issue that stems from social media regulation is privacy.  Regulating online communications internally to avoid information leaks or reputation damage is one thing, but the consequences for inappropriate social media use should be determined carefully, because for some employees it could cost them their job.

New social media is changing not only the distinction between employees’ private and professional lives, but also the boundaries of how far an organization should investigate and monitor employees’ online activity.

Transparency & Disclosure: For the Media Relations Communicator

The relationship between your company and the news media is one that is essential to successful communications of any sort.  Just as an organization needs the media to spread its message and build a solid reputation, the news media needs organizations to provide them with info to cover in their stories.  It’s no secret that corporate communicators value this kind of mutually beneficial relationship with the media, but organizational use of social media is drastically changing the way businesses communicate with their audiences and forced a change in what constitutes ethical communication in the media.

 

Social media has also changed exactly who this important stakeholder group is. Because new social media allows anyone to be a journalist by posting and sharing information online, it’s essential to understand the varying interests and viewpoints of your online audience.  It is also essential to keep your online communications honest and transparent, because, as was mentioned in my previous post, there are plenty of bloggers and online news readers with their eye on your corporation.

 

Transparency

There are plenty of ways an organization can use the media to share news that presents itself in a positive light—A carefully crafted news release, blogger promotions, or a company online newsroom to name a few.  Ethical issues arise however, when companies use social media in a deceptive or manipulative manner.

 

One recent example of this is a video released by Chevron in response to a several billion dollar lawsuit brought against them for environmental damages resulting from a large oil spill in Ecuador.  When the company learned of a revealing 60 Minutes episode in the works about the lawsuit they hired an ex-journalist to create a similar video reflecting their version of the story.  Presented as if it were an actual news video, Chevron’s attempts to downplay their responsibility in the spill is a misleading and arguably unethical approach to media communications that has further damaged their reputation.

 

Disclosure

Although it is acceptable to communicate with the media in ways that show your organization in a positive light, it is essential to do so honestly and with the best interests of your constituents in mind.  Although ideas about what constitutes ethical use of social media vary, a general rule of thumb when releasing information on your company’s behalf should be to inform online audiences of the true nature and credibility of its source.

 

According to Jan Leach, transparency and education are key elements of ethical online news reporting, and those elements are also invaluable to a corporate communicator working with the media.

Protecting Public Interest: for the Social Media Marketer

An integral and obvious key element of marketing is audience analysis.  This is no different in the world of social media. In order for an organization to determine how to ethically market and provide services and support to its publics online, it must first understand the needs and concerns of its target audiences.

Understanding Your Audience

Because most people have varying ideas about what constitutes truly ethical communication, it can be beneficial to encourage employees, customers or any and all types of audiences to participate in a conversation regarding the kind of ethical communication they wish to see from your organization.

Building Trust

One of the main ethical concerns of today’s consumers regarding social media is privacy. Using database technology to conduct research on consumers allows marketers to develop an improved and targeted strategy for reaching interested consumers through developing user experiences specific to different individuals.

However, many users are suspicious of such marketing, uncomfortable with being research subjects without giving their consent. Whether this marketing tactic is fair and beneficial or invasive and unethical remains a subject of debate

Disclosure

It is unavoidable in the use of social media within an organization for any purpose to collect data from users.  However, it is the choice of executives within that organization both how this data is used and whether users are informed or asked permission for this information.

Protecting Your Publics

As social media use continues to develop and spread, I imagine the need for more comprehensive legal and standardized privacy protection will emerge.  In the mean time, however, consumers can have faith that regulatory agencies and citizen watchdog groups will keep social media marketing ethics in check.

Internet privacy is an important ethical issue, that will continue to gain prominence as more and more organizations turn to social media for marketing, advertising, and other purposes. The following video, published by non-profit organization, Consumer Watchdog, in protest of Google CEO’s alleged disregard for user privacy, demonstrates the increasing awareness of ethical privacy issues.

Ethical Damage Control: For the Crisis Communicator

Since the emergence and development of ‘Web 2.0,” many companies have experienced crises as a result of misuse or disregard of new social media.  Web 2.0 technologies carry some significant risks, but they can also be invaluable tools for managing crises.  Ethics is a key element of this function of corporate communications in that it forms the guidelines for every aspect of dealing with and preventing a crisis.

Responsibility

Accountability plays a huge role in crisis communication.  It is common best practice for an organization to immediately take responsibility for any wrongdoing.  Honesty, openness, and a willingness to admit mistakes plays a crucial role in salvaging and maintaining credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of your constituents.

Transparency

In addition to taking responsibility when a crisis occurs, an organization should always make sure all the facts surrounding an issue and pertaining to stakeholders’ concerns are presented right away.  This is particularly important if the crisis puts the health or safety of consumers at risk.

Taking Initiative

As a general rule, pretty much any traditional crisis communications practices can be applied to new social media.  One of these, of course, is developing and implementing a crisis communications plan. This plan must be consistent with the ethical guidelines of the organization as a whole.

There are many recent examples of how social media not only instigates communications crises, but also how it has been utilized (whether effectively or not) to work towards repairing an organization’s reputation.  Domino’s CEO’s You Tube apology response to the pizza contamination You Tube Video that went viral demonstrates this tactic.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for an organization to predict all crises; however, putting in place a comprehensive ethical foundation for all your dealings in the world of social media will facilitate crisis and risk management as well as win stakeholders’ trust and respect.

Online Reputation Management: For the Public Relations Practitioner

The element of an organization that is arguably the most affected by social media is its reputation.  Corporate communicators in the field of public relations must be aware not only of the ability of social media to build an authentic and influential reputation online, but also of its power to destroy audiences’ opinions of your organization in a matter of seconds.  So, how can you use social media to build and manage your reputation online in an ethical way?

Accountability

The internet and social media have raised expectations for a higher level of transparency in organizations.  This increased transparency can put an organization at risk for leaks of private information, legal violations, and reputation damage.  These risks can become a reality for any company that does not consider developing ethical guidelines for social media communication or releases information that is false, biased, or intended to manipulate its audience.

Authenticity

One basic rule regarding authenticity for the PR practitioner to live by is: use social media to achieve genuine and ethical objectives.  Your communication strategy should involve improving user experience and helping your intended audience to better understand the true identity and values of your organization.

Consistency

Your social media communication strategy should also be consistent with a wider communication strategy and objectives.  Often, this means creating some sort of ethical guidelines for anyone within the company using social media.  There are plenty of ways to approach this task. Some companies have long, detailed handbooks dedicated to online policy. Others, like Best Buy’s “Don’t Be Stupid Policy” are simple, concise and can be as short as one page.

Regardless of the direction an organization decides to take in formulating these ethical guidelines, it’s a good idea to consider the interests and concerns of all stakeholder groups and even involve them in the process.

Conversation

An important and unavoidable aspect of social media is its function of two-way communication.

PR professionals must address the question of how and to what extent a company should monitor users’ public feedback on company blogs, websites, networks, etc.

Is it ethical for a company to delete comments that put their reputation at risk? There may never be a definite solution to how an organization should monitor feedback, but it is important to respect and listen to online  feedback, negative and positive.  One of the main purposes of social media in an organization is, after all, to foster open and honest conversations with constituencies online.

Social Media Ethics: For the Corporate Communicator

It’s no secret that social media is changing the way companies do business.  The new technologies of “Web 2.0” have created exciting new opportunities for organizations to communicate with their various audiences and improve their overall business strategy.

However, it has also become clear that social media has created the potential for disaster in terms of an organization’s reputation and ultimately their financial success.  Issues of privacy, credibility, and accountability (to name a few) are unavoidable in the organizational use of social media no matter the industry.

So, as a corporate communicator it’s imperative to determine ethical guidelines for the use of these media outlets. These guidelines, although necessary for any organization, will depend on the intended audience and use of your social media.  For this reason, I have chosen to differentiate between various areas of corporate communications and the relevant ethical issues that could arise in each of these functions in my individual blog posts.

Through the use of communication strategies, such as audience analysis, it will become clear what issues are important to address and how to manage them using best practices of corporate communications.