Meeting social media’s ethical challenges

Recently, I had lunch with the editor of a marketing publication for a discussion about the state of public relations. After exchanging some pleasantries, I asked whether she felt public relations and marketing professionals were comfortable with social media, or at least getting comfortable.

Her response took me by surprise: not even close.

In my day to day life I see many innovative and successful public relations professionals. How could our professions not be comfortable with, nay, mastering social media?

It turns out we may just be fooling ourselves into a false sense of security. The reporter said that on the external business and client side, social media is still largely viewed as the “Wild West” of communications and marketing.

Simply put:  Clients don’t see us as providing clear enough explanation of the value they will derive from our social media expertise.

We see this starting to bubble to the surface in the escalating debate over who “owns” social media. As PR, marketing and advertising professionals go at each other’s throats for this elusive ownership, clients continue to be flustered with our collective inability to express what value our social media management provides.

Furthermore, as lawmakers and the media continue to investigate the inner workings of digital communications and marketing, companies are becoming increasingly concerned with how well we help them navigate the murky waters of digital ethics.

This likely shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. From Facebook to Twitter to Quora, the list of new technologies, channels and other dazzling, real-time communication vehicles goes on and on. But so do the ethical concerns each raises — if we’re not prudent in our efforts to fully understand the implications of using new channels and technologies.

Five years on with social media, it’s time we found a strong foundational sense of what social media ethics will encompass.

Below are three areas important to ensuring modern marketing and communication challenges are met with modern ethical standards.

  • Look to the past for guidance on the future. Ethical guidelines abound for public relations and marketing professionals. From PRSA’s Code of Ethics to the CIPR’s Code of Conduct to similar codes that dot the PR, marketing, advertising and allied industries, there are established benchmarks for what constitutes ethical communications and marketing. We should use these historical guideposts as standard-bearers for establishing modern ethical standards in social media.
  • Get a grip on digital disclosure. It is a must, and those who say otherwise are either delaying the inevitable or naïve. Both U.S. and UK regulatory authorities have attempted to deal with this issue in various ways (with various levels of success) in recent years. The Office of Fair Trade launched last December its “Handpicked Media” investigation in an effort to uncover the level of engagement of “handpicked media” on a commercial basis. Similarly, in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission unveiled its “blogger rules” in an effort to curtail the rampant use of promotional giveaways in exchange for positive media coverage.

In working with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association on an update to its ethics code, I made it very clear that the basic standard should be the disclosure of relationships, motivation, compensation and other pertinent factors that help consumers make informed decisions. This disclosure should come at every appropriate moment in the communications cycle, not just when it is convenient for the marketer.

  • Reign in client expectations. In order to find sustainability in digital ethical standards, we must ensure we don’t create a situation in which clients expect us to turn water into gold. Ged Carroll illustrated this point when he opined for PRWeek that Facebook ‘Likes’ have the potential to become the new AVE. Expressing proper ROI is but one of many ethical dilemmas faced by modern communicators and marketers. Establishing proper client expectations, as well as our own, will give us the time and authority to ensure our own concept of what is ethically sound in social media matches client expectations.

We can’t solve every ethical dilemma in social media. But we can institute key measures that allow for the big questions to be raised and properly considered before situations become untenable.

If we don’t, we risk losing the trust of the very business community that is keenly looking to us for guidance in an increasingly confusing and regulated digital landscape.

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America.