ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
November 12, 2009

What Does Ethics Have To Do With Social Media Anyway?


Emmanuel Tchividjian

Emmanuel Tchividjian

Moderator: Emmanuel Tchividjian, senior vice president and chief ethics officer, Ruder Finn

Panelists:

  1. Bill Sailer, senior vice president, legal counsel, Qualcomm, Inc.
  2. Andrea Kates, founder, Business Genome.
  3. Tom Chernaik, principal, DigComm, Cmp.ly

Of all the sessions I attended at the PRSA 2009 International Conference, this was the most conversational and engaging in terms of audience participation and unscripted dialogue. Emmanuel Tchividjian did a great job moderating the diverse perspectives from three very different professionals, and incorporated the spirit of the topic into his conversational format and open dialogue between the audience and the panelists. Further, his role as senior vice president and chief ethics officer for Ruder Finn lent a perspective of scholarly, almost Socratic moderation of a rather rhetorical discussion, as ethics can often be.
[ADD PICTURE: http://business-genome.com/images/andrea-small.jpg]
[ADD PICTURE: http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/81890156/TomChernaik600k_bigger.jpg]

ill Sailer

Bill Sailer

Bill Sailer represented the perspective of corporate legal counsel. Andrea Kates is a strategy consultant who has worked with many companies who have been faced with ethical dilemmas and choices. Tom Chernaik offered an interesting perspective on the implications of the recent FTC blogger disclosure requirements.

The session’s audience was made up of generally senior, experienced professionals, most of whom reported having significant experience using social media, whether for personal or professional purposes. As a result, the questions and insights into the ethical implications of certain social media applications were rich and enlightened by experience from both the audience and the panelists.

Transparency and Disclosure

Andrea Kates

Andrea Kates

Mr. Tchividjian began the discussion on the topic of the recent FTC guidelines for blogger disclosure. The move by the FTC represents an early attempt by the government to take steps in the direction of monitoring and controlling a previously unregulated population of emerging influencers. One of the most interesting insights from the panel on this particular topic included the emerging potential for predatory trolling of the blogosphere for potential class action lawsuits, based on blogger violations of FTC guidelines. Also of interest is the indication that the FTC intends to focus its early efforts on enforcing the blogger guidelines from the side of the companies who provide the product/monetary compensation for blog coverage of their products and services.

Several resources were cited as good places to gather information on how companies are defining their online guidelines: WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) and several companies were named as having strong blogging policies in place: IBM, Cisco and Intel.

Tom Chernaik

Tom Chernaik

There appeared to be general agreement from the panelists and audience members on the idea that transparency and disclosure clears the way — or at least provides context — for the online actions that follow. If a brand or a person discloses that they received product or payment in return for their perspectives, then the audience is considered duly informed to weigh the merits of the opinion. Not sure I agree entirely, but the argument didn’t have the time to play itself out. The problem I see with that argument is an example somewhat akin to the outrageous spoken disclaimers at the end of car dealership commercials.

Is a written disclaimer/disclosure somewhere in three-point font (or speaking in a low tone and at an extremely rapid pace) enough to declare that the audience is duly informed?

As if an imaginary checkbox has been ticked and what follows is then cleared as being transparent?

The argument seems a bit thin to me. But it’s a start. And the dialogue will need to continue as the platform continues to evolve.

Intent

Another area of agreement surrounded the concept that the ethicality of an action can often be determined by intent, although not absolutely. For example, well-intentioned actions are not always ethical, offering a further example that ethics are not black and white. Instead, ethics often play out in shades of grey, and perspectives change as circumstances change.

Ethicality of Behaviors

A third recurring theme was that the ethicality of an action is somewhat determined by one’s expectations for acceptable behavior from a certain subset of a population. Therefore, in the absence of an accepted set of behavioral expectations for bloggers, the ethicality of the group’s behaviors is somewhat difficult to ascertain, except from a position of arbitrary subjective opinion. And aren’t ethics somewhat subjective anyway? Should they be absolute?

Because the topic of ethics is weighty and complicated, the time allotted for the discussion did not even come close to sufficient to exhaustively cover the topic, nor was it intended to. However, among the possible areas of discussion that did not play out as far as I would have liked to have seen are:

  • The role of relative influence (followers, RSS subscribers, friends, etc.) in the level of ethical responsibility expected.
  • Are ethical practices judged based on a set of societal expectations of individuals or are ethics measured by behavior against a set of published and agreed practices? Who is the arbiter of ethicality?
  • The role of law in the determination of what is or is not ethical. Does law deem an action ethical or is it that law creates a set of expectations, which then sets the bar for compliant behavior? So are all laws ethical?
  • Are the new FTC rules placing undue burden on individuals, many of whom are simply a person with a computer and an opinion?

Sara Meaney, partner and left brain, Comet Branding + PR, held several marketing and communications leadership positions before partnering up with Al Krueger at Comet in early 2009, including as vice president of a communications agency, firm-wide head of marketing for a leading national accounting firm, managing director of marketing and communications for a private equity and turnaround investment company, and marketing director for a startup biotech company, among others. She led national and international teams on both sides of the client/agency fence to launch and grow a myriad of business-to-business and consumer brands across diverse industries. Sara holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and has completed executive education programs at both Harvard Business School and Kellogg School of Management. Sara is co-founder of Social Media Club Milwaukee and co-chair of the Social Media Committee for the PRSA Milwaukee Chapter.

For coverage of the PRSA 2009 International Conference: Delivering Value, visit our Conference blog or follow the conversation on Twitter at hashtag #prsa09.

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