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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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Comments (3)

March 15th, 2013 at 9:17 am Posted by Joe Kissee

I came across your blog entry while doing research for my Communication and Ethics class. You make some great points on how organizations and individuals should handle social media. Your post reminded me of this passage from our text. “Controversies surrounding computer communication on the Internet illustrate not only the tension between freedom and responsibility but also pressures for legalistic approaches to ethics and for the formation of formal codes of ethics.” (Johannesen, p. 179)

Organizations of course need to follow a certain code of ethics when dealing with social media. Nothing is more harmful than a post that is in bad taste. We have seen several examples of this as employees of different organizations have accidentally and sometimes purposefully posted things that offended the public. Fortunately with the Internet you can quickly respond in such situations but it’s best to have a concrete plan for how you will interact with your following on social media. This way there is no mistaking how your company should be represented.

Thanks for your well written blog!

Joe Kissee
Drury University
Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S. & Whedbee, K.E. (2007). Ethics in Human Communication (6th ed.). Prospect Heights: Waveland Press. (EHC)


June 14th, 2013 at 6:59 am Posted by Chris Lock

Your identification of the six key points to govern ethical interaction are right on point. It amazes me how transparency lacks in the virtual world specifically. Situations such as the Manti Te’o incident, where an online identity was misrepresented for the sole sake of emotional distress is beyond belief, but it happens.

I feel that online privacy needs to be monitored from a personal standpoint and that should fall under responsibility. The information we put out there and allow others to put out there should be governed on a personal level. At least on most social media sites I aware of the opportunity to receive notifications is available for about everything.

Even our email accounts are linked to personal information and we can be pinpointed with an IP address. In Charles Ess’ book, Digital Media Ethics, he identifies ‘informational privacy’ as one of the three basic types of privacy. This is having the ability to control information about us we consider to be personal. He gives a great example with stating “he wouldn’t minding singing badly for a group of friends, but would mind very much if his performance was replayed for the masses” (Ess, pg57-58). I think this coincides with your identification of respect and privacy. We really ought to consider how the impacted people will feel should something post before it happens.

Good topic for discussion!


Ess, Charles. (2009). Digital Media Ethics. Malden, MA. Polity Press.


February 7th, 2014 at 12:34 pm Posted by N. Butler

I enjoyed reading your article. The guidelines you presented reminded me of B.J. Digg’s perspective regarding ethical communication. Your first two points: “1. Honesty: State only what you know to be true - and be clear about opinion or conjecture vs. fact” and “2. Transparency: Be straightforward about who you are - and who you’re representing online” can be equated to Digg’s first principle of ethical communication: the communicator must have “[the] right to communicate on the subject.” Meaning, that in order to have the right to communicate about any subject and do so honestly, one must first possess adequate knowledge of the subject and of audience needs and responsibilities. (Johannesen, Valde, Whedbee, 2008). Below are all five of Digg’s considerations for the communicator, as outlined in chapter 5 of Ethics in Human Communication:

1. Has a right to communicate on the subject (has adequate knowledge of the subject and of audience needs and responsibilities)
2. Has an obligation to communicate on the subject (perhaps due to role or possession of virally needed information)
3 .Uses morally right communicative means
4. Urges the wise and right course
5. And demonstrates good reasons for adopting the view advocated
(Johannesen, Valde, Whedbee, 2008).

While Diggs originally intended these principles to be applied to persuasive public communication, our increasing use of social media technology has transformed our society into a global audience, and therefore put the audience in the position to be swayed by whatever information is shared online. Because of this, it is now the responsibility of both content creators and the average Facebook user to employ ethical guidelines when posting.

N. Butler
Undergraduate Student
Drury University

Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Situational Perspectives. Ethics in Human Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.


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