Navigating social media ethically can be especially challenging since the tools keep changing and companies are constantly faced with staying current, entertaining, and engaged. These challenges were what led Denise Bortree and I to edit the book Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations.
Our goal was to work with scholars to provide research into ethics and social media to provide insight, explanation and/or guidance for public relations students, scholars, and professionals.
The book features a foreword by Brian Solis, digital analyst, anthropologist and futurist, who studies the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing and culture. He focused on how social media is lost without a compass. He delves into how his Social Compass was created to help define strategies, initiatives and engagement.
The 15 chapters in the book utilize research to dig into ethics and social media to provide guidance. One highlight from the book includes research into ghost blogging by Tiffany Derville Gallicano, Thomas H. Bivins and Yoon Y. Choo, who conducted surveys with blog readers and found that 60% of corporate blog readers expect a CEO blog post to be written by someone else, but only 40% agreed that this practice was okay. Their advice: Don’t ghost blog – identify when someone other than the blog owner is providing content.
When it comes to how to handle negative comments, I identified that Bank of America received more when their Facebook posts were about Bank of America. Similarly, Tina McCorkindale’s chapter found that determining how to respond to comments, especially negative comments, was one of the biggest ethical challenges with social media. Also, Marcus Messner found that only 36% of the nonprofits he surveyed had social media policies. Our advice: Have a social media policy and remember the ethic of care to do what is right for your stakeholders – do not simply remove negative comments. Social media works best when you spend the time and utilize the skills and experience from departments across the company.
Some of the chapters were about corporate social responsibility (CSR). Kati Tusinski Berg and Kim Bartel Sheehan found that few Facebook posts were about CSR, but those that were often were about social and community causes. In an analysis of BP’s YouTube videos, Denise Bortree found that videos with a CSR message were more disliked than other videos. Their advice: CSR is not a magic cure. Promoting CSR during or immediately following a crisis can be very dangerous because it calls to question the motivation for CSR. Make sure the public perceives the crisis has passed before communicating about CSR efforts.
In his chapter, Richard D. Waters conducted interviews and found that we are seeing a divergence of openness and disclosure in social media. Looking at Facebook and Twitter, in a content analysis, Angela M. Lee, Homero Gil de Zuñiga, Renita Coleman, and Thomas J. Johnson found that Fortune companies were more truthful, respectful, and socially responsible on Twitter but that Facebook content was more authentic and equitable. Their advice: Have accounts set up for the public to post and reply when they do.
In dealing with a crisis, W. Timothy Coombs looked at the Nestlé and Greenpeace battle for ethical palm oil sourcing while Hilary Fussell Sisco examined Kashi’s viral photo crisis. Their advice: Companies should not repress responses because any hint of censorship will raise ethical alarms that ring loud and far on social media. Plus, companies can minimize reputational damage by providing assurance and accurate information in a timely manner.
Social media should be treated like any other public relations tools. In their chapter Kirsten A. Johnson and Tamara L. Gillis discuss what journalists expect and want from companies on corporate blogs. Kaye D. Sweetser looked at two governmental case studies and found that ethical practice is really no different in social media than in other forms of communications. Their advice: Be sure to provide branded pages to help boost credibility. Do not get overwhelmed by the technology and rely on your code of ethics and your public’s expectations.
Some of the authors indicated how to best handle social media. Nneka Logan and Natalie T. J. Tindall suggest the best public relations practitioners are those who have multicultural understanding. In their chapter, Päivi Tirkkonen and Vilma Luoma-aho found that effective social media requires a long-term commitment. Furthermore, Don W. Stacks and Shannon A. Bowen caution against action without research. Their advice: Include research in each step of social media. This is because research can help prevent ethical missteps and ethics training is critical for responsible social media use.
This book was supported by the Arthur W. Page Center and many of the research studies from the chapters were supported by Page Center Legacy Scholar Grants. Denise and I are both Senior Research Fellows of the Page Center that is dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication.
Marcia DiStaso, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, a Research Editor for the IPR Social Science of Social Media Research Center, and a Senior Research Fellow for the Arthur W. Page Center. Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations is available through the publisher Routledge or on Amazon.