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Let ethics slip into cyberspace? No way!

To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is offering a monthlong series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the second in the series.

As a fellow communicator, you’ve probably worked on a top-secret project. That meant telling a single soul could invite attorneys knocking at your door and a potential pink slip in your inbox. No matter what type of public relations you practice, I’m sure you can relate. The bottom line: Maintain high ethical standards, honor trust and, above all, keep integrity front of mind.

More and more often, though, employees chronicle their work and personal lives on blogs and social networking sites, not to mention e-mail. How can you balance personal and private views from those of your employer? It’s an ongoing debate: Do you maintain separate social media accounts for your personal and professional life or dive right into the water and live your “brand” wholeheartedly, both at work and at play? Should you use company e-mail to share personal information?

It’s true that the rapid pace of technology is contributing to blurred lines — making it difficult to separate personal and professional identities. At some point, your “social media lines” will cross, regardless of any company social media policy or other procedural rules.

At the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in August, a seminar explored legal issues associated with Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media channels. According to the American Bar Association Journal, blogger Heather Armstrong, famous for her satiric commentary about her job on her blog, Dooce.com, was fired once her personal blog was discovered by her “higher-ups.”

Another pitfall is that many people surround themselves only with people who agree with them. According to About.com, in “Lessons Learned from Enron,” success means avoiding limiting yourself to individuals who are so similar to you that they can’t offer a different perspective from your own. That can lead to group-think and potential lapses, while a diverse team can help in gauging your moral compass.

Or, consider the practitioner who e-mailed confidential information from his employer on his work computer to help a small circle of friends and family. Within 24 hours, his e-mail had gone cross country, complete with his contact information, and he began getting calls in the office from people he didn’t know. Beyond the issue of violating the employer’s confidence, he found that this morning’s e-mail to a small group can become this afternoon’s national, work-stopping crisis.

While not all situations are job-threatening, they are serious nonetheless. Consider, first of all, if you should be tweeting your organization’s proprietary or competitive intelligence information from the board room using the hashtag “#coolstuff” or “#guesswhat.” It may sound harmless or common sensical — because “it’s just for your followers.” However, organizations, including the United States Tennis Association, warn members and employees about tweeting in their social media policies. Know where your organization stands. As a communicator, recommend that your organization have just such a policy in place.

But, how does the practitioner make a good judgement in the moment? My advice is to begin with the basic principle of integrity. If you’re going to jump into the deep water, at least engage ethics as a buoy. It’ll serve as your moral life preserver and keep you afloat.

The PRSA Code of Ethics offers just this kind of essential guidance for the practitioner. Making a judgment can be as simple as applying two of its core principles to any fact situation you encounter. First, protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information. And, second, protect confidential and private information.

Of course, it’s easy to become complacent when our society as a whole seems to be losing its moral compass. But we must step back and ask ourselves a few fundamental questions. Does society as a whole still have a conscious? In a faster, interconnected world filled with reality television and social media sites galore, is integrity still applicable? Can one adhere to a code of ethics in 140 characters or less? Can you still take time to vet your ethics in the condensed timeframes and expectations we’re working with today?

Not only is the answer to each of these questions “yes, you can,” but it’s also “yes, you must.”

Kathy Barbour, APR, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and communications program manager at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

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