Disclosure: A Question of Ethics

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.

What a Dilemma! Ethics in the Modern Age

50s style, modern tools

I’d argue that we all face ethical dilemmas every day, particularly in and with social media channels. They may be small (should I say this or that on Facebook) or they might be bigger (no, I can’t pepper the web with positive reviews of that client’s product or service).

As you probably know, I’m working on a book with my friend and colleague, Michelle Honald. We’re focusing on the ethics of social media in one of the chapters. I’d love to hear your stories and examples of ethical dilemmas that you’ve faced working in public relations (or any type of communications).

You can leave actual or hypothetical examples in the comments or email me.

I’m not (necessarily) looking for case studies, I just want to make sure I cover the reality of ethical decision making for those of you working in social media.

photo by yewenyi

Basic Ethics of Media Relations

Picture 1Public relations professionals are, I would argue, faced with ethical decisions every day. They might be small or they might be life or death. In this business, the “product” we have is our integrity and credibility. Doing things that breech either can damage your reputation and your ability to be effective and just do your job.

My best all-purpose advice is to develop a decision making process for yourself and to think through in advance, how you’ll handle difficult situations.

One of the trickiest areas of practice for PR professionals is dealing with the media. Spin, control and manipulation can not be part of your repertoire. Period. Some specific (and basic) tips for behaving ethically in a media relations function.

  • Don’t lie. People will find out. And in this day-and-age, they will find out more quickly and the backlash will be broader and more far reaching than ever before. You’d think that case after case of people who have been caught should teach others a lesson.
  • Be upfront with how much you can share. If you’re not able to share certain information about a situation, be upfront about how much you can share. Legal or privacy regulations (such as HIPPA in the healthcare communications arena) will keep you from being able to share everything all the time.
  • Be a resource, even if you don’t benefit directly. This might be more of a best practice than a tip for good ethics, but it all ties in together. If you have a relationship with the media, foster it by being a good resource and ensuring the reporters, editors or producers know that you understand what they need to do a good job.
  • You cannot control content (even if you don’t like it, or you think it’s wrong). The key benefit to getting media coverage (vs. buying an ad) is the third party credibility that it offers. The media gatekeepers get to decide how the story is covered and that doesn’t always mean that you get the exact quotes or even specific information that you wanted. Get over it. Do not demand information be changed, do not throw a fit if you don’t get the coverage you want. (If there’s a genuine error of fact, you can request a correction, but do this only when absolutely necessary.)
  • Don’t lie. This is important enough to mention twice. Don’t do it. People will find out and they will never forgive you.
  • Be fair. Reporters and editors and producers and people, too. And sometimes they aren’t very nice people. But it’s important that you be fair and give equal access to a story. If you’re holding a press conference or issuing a statement, don’t leave someone out of the announcement because you don’t like them. Be professional and do your job.
  • Disclose, disclose, disclose! Disclose who you represent and what the organization’s interest are. Don’t be manipulative or less than transparent on this. Again… people will find out and you will damage your reputation.
  • Let the media do its job. Don’t undercut or sabotage a story.

What do you think? I know there are tips you’d add to this list and I know you have some examples. Let’s hear them!

Blog Clearly & Purposefully: Transparency for Newbies

We talk about transparency a lot in social media (in public relations, too, for that matter). But what does that mean if you’re a blogger? And particulary, if you’re a new blogger.

According to Paul Gillin‘s book The New Influencers, “transparency is about a lot more than just not lying. It’s about opening yourself up to inspection, analysis, judgement, praise and ridicule.”


That sounds a little frightening. But the blogging community has, over time, worked out some standards and guidelines that are not that difficult to follow and understand.

When you get down to the nuts and bolts, transparency in the blogosphere means adhering to these community standards. Some basic rules:

  • Be familiar with the basics of copyright and fair use limitations. It’s important that you don’t plagiarize content (just link to the source!) or present others ideas as your own.
  • Your posts should be well researched and complete, try to avoid sweeping generalizations and jumping to hasty conclusions. Honestly, this is the biggest mistake I see new bloggers, and students in general, make in their writing. You can have opinions, even strong ones (please do!), but make sure your opinions are well-founded and you build a foundation on which to stake your claims.
  • Once you’ve pushed “publish,” don’t edit your post. If you need to make a change, do a strikethough the old information and insert the new. It is worth noting, however, that a strikethough doesn’t always mean that the author has made a change, sometimes it’s done humorously. (exception: you can correct typos if you need to, but don’t change anything that alters the post’s content)
  • If you need to make major revisions to your original, leave a comment on your post as a way of public correction.
  • Deleting a post is considered a major no-no. The only time this might be an option is if you think the post might result in harm to someone or could be seriously misleading.

Consider adopting a codes of ethics for your blog (either formally included on your site, or informally for you to know and abide by – I recommend the former). This example from Charlene Li has laid the groundwork for many ethics policies including the GM Fastlane blog.

  • I will tell the truth.
  • I will write deliberately and with accuracy.
  • I will acknowledge and correct mistakes promptly.
  • I will preserve the original post, using notations to show where I have made changes so as to maintain the integrity of my publishing.
  • I will never delete a post.
  • I will not delete comments unless they are spam or off-topic.
  • I will reply to emails and comments when appropriate, and do so promptly.
  • I will strive for high quality with every post – including basic spellchecking.
  • I will stay on topic.
  • I will disagree with other opinions respectfully.
  • I will link to online references and original source materials directly.
  • I will disclose conflicts of interest.
  • I will keep private issues and topics private, since discussing private issues would jeopardize my personal and work relationships.

What guidelines or standards have you seen, or do you recommend for bloggers? I know I’ve missed some of the deeper/more nuanced aspects of transparency and ethics, but anything I’ve missed here on the basics?

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