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Disclosure: A Question of Ethics

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I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’m on deadline for a forthcoming book on strategic social media and, as it turns out, books are hard to write! holy moly. I thought I’d give you a little sneak peak at the ethics chapter. Would love your feedback, of course.

The demand from the public that organizations behave ethically is high. These demands are often articulated as a call for transparency. Organizational transparency is largely misunderstood, however, even by the people who are charged with delivering it.

Many communicators find that the dilemmas faced in social media tend to fall under the topic of disclosure. What and how much do you disclose?

Under the umbrella of disclosure, you’ll find a bevy of dilemmas with choices that don’t sit on either side of the bright line between right or wrong (note: there is no such line). Through the stories and cases of organizations that get caught in snarled situations, we can learn valuable lessons.

Internal dilemmas related to disclosure primarily often revolve around identification of the “who” behind the voice of the social media accounts. Whose byline is on the company blog? Who is answering questions on Twitter?

The answers to questions around internal disclosure aren’t always comfortable. Communication professionals have long penned everything from guest editorials to speeches to contributed articles (and everything in between) for executives. Why, some ask, would social media be any different?

But social media is different.

Let’s look specifically at one of the hottest disclosure topics – whether ghostblogging is appropriate . Ghostblogging is when the byline on a blog reads one name and the content is written by someone else. And that someone else is anonymous to the reader. A common example of this is that the blog is ostensibly written by the CEO, but in actually written by someone in marketing or public relations.

A CEO’s opinion about his or her company, industry trends and related issues are valuable. People like to hear from CEOs. But CEOs are busy running companies, aren’t usually “writers,” and don’t always have the nuanced understanding of the online community to whom he or she is speaking.

In a 2009 post, Dave Fleet, a public relations practitioner in Toronto, Ontario, offers that ghostblogging without disclosure is a “very, very bad idea.” We would call it a ethics violation. Fleet offers some alternate ideas for maintaining a blog when the CEO can’t be the primary blogger:

  • Have a multi-author blog: reduce the workload on the executive by creating a team a bloggers cover issues across the organization.
  • Maybe it’s not the executive, but someone else who has a unique view of the organization that should be the blogger (under his or her own name). A nice example of this is Coca-Cola’s blog written by the company historian .
  • Disclose how the posts are developed. If the executive has help, reveal that. Language like, “I don’t write these posts, but I do read them and stand behind them” or “Written with Kelli Matthews.”
  • Maybe a blog isn’t the answer. An executive may be more comfortable with video or microblogging. Remember that blogs are just one tool in the toolbox. Find the digital medium that fits the “author’s” style .

Disregarding the call for transparency, organizations that behave opaquely are the ones we tend to hear about. In fact, disclosure and transparency often go hand in hand – through disclosure, an organization can achieve transparency.

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SSM: The Book,

Help PR Students Understand Scope & Scale of Social Media Cases

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You don’t have to have giant budgets or teams of people to do great social media work. For Strategic Social Media, a public relations-oriented social media text to be released next fall, Michelle Honald and I are looking for case studies of all sizes.

  • Small business: maybe a small staff and a small budget didn’t keep you from achieving meaningful results. What lessons did you learn?
  • Non-profit: social media can be used effectively for volunteer recruitment and retention, building awareness, serving clients and raising money. Has your non-profit done any of these things?
  • Pro-bono: maybe you didn’t have any budget for hard costs and volunteered your time and did great things to achieve your objectives.
  • Student work: classwork and student teams are often tapped in service learning programs to plan and implement social media – do you have a great example?
  • Experimental: many organizations have “try it out” pieces of social media efforts that have worked brilliantly.
  • Any size! Any audience!

There’s no chance that we could find every amazing example. So we’re asking for your help!

Visit the Strategic Social Media Book website and tell us about your work.

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