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Ethics and Social Media

July 20, 2009

I have asked Tyler Pennock, our Director of Social Media to summarize a recent discussion we had at Ruder Finn on Ethics in Social Media. His text is below:

Maintaining ethics in the hyper-networked world of social media

A couple of weeks ago, Ruder Finn convened a group of approximately 40 employees from all levels of the organization to participate in a lunch discussion on “Ethics in Social Media.” We heard perspectives from our Chairman, David Finn, our summer interns, and everyone in between. While individual use of social media varies from person to person, one thing was clear from our conversation - there is a great deal of uncertainty about the long term implications of the enormous amount of personal information that we’re sharing online. Even for those who have yet to join a social network, their friends, families, and colleagues have already “tagged” them in photos, videos, and other digital content. So does this mean that privacy no longer exists for any of us? What about for companies, institutions, and government agencies?

The quick answer - privacy is gone. While we may not all be hounded by paparazzi like A-list celebrities, our every activity and every word (spoken or written) can easily be documented and posted online for all the web to see. In my own life, I’m now seeing that my social media identity is an amalgamation of content that I’ve created, content uploaded by friends, and coverage I’ve received across various outlets. Certainly, this is what our PR clients have been experiencing for some time now. Their online reputations are being shaped by a world of content and coverage largely created by consumers, mainstream media, and even competitors.

With privacy disappearing, and our online identities now being crowd-sourced, ethical guidelines in social media are crucial for keeping us safe while keeping the internet open for both communication and commerce. Our lunch group settled on six key points that lay the foundation for those guidelines: honesty, transparency, respect, privacy, relevance, and responsibility. These hold true for individuals as well as organizations.

  1. Honesty: State only what you know to be true - and be clear about opinion or conjecture vs. fact.
  2. Transparency: Be straightforward about who you are - and who you’re representing online.
  3. Respect: Respect for yourself, your peers, and even your adversaries.
  4. Privacy: Treat the intimate details of others as you would your own personal information.
  5. Relevance: Ensure that the content you’re posting is relevant to the audience and the venue where it’s being posted.
  6. Responsibility: Take ownership of your online activities, the content you’ve created, and any missteps you’ve made along the way.

Already, companies ranging from Facebook to J&J to Comcast have learned some important lessons about how to apply these ethical guidelines to their own social media activities. At Ruder Finn, we’re creating our own social media policies that will govern our online participation as individuals, as employees, and as agents of our clients. Many of our clients are currently doing the same. Are you following your own set of ethical guidelines when it comes to engaging in social media? Do you have some additional points that haven’t been addressed above? If so, we’d love to hear your perspective.

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