Legal and Ethical Dimensions: Using Online Data for PR Strategies

Each September, PRSA celebrates Ethics Month, featuring programs presented by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). This year’s theme is “Ethics Every Day.” Please join the discussion via #PRethics, and follow along with our ethics-related blog posts, webinars and Twitter Chats throughout the month.

On Sept. 18, BEPS hosted a Twitter chat to discuss the legal and ethical issues surrounding online data use in the PR practice. Since online data is a growing area in the PR practice, it was important to examine this research tool in context with the Code of Ethics and current laws and regulations.

Through a series of seven questions the Twitter chat addressed issues ranging from choosing vendors to applying the PRSA Code of Ethics to online data research. Here is the list of questions and a summary of responses:

What are some primary ethical considerations with using data for PR strategies?

Privacy is the major issue in ethical use of data within public relations. The discussion emphasized that privacy isn’t just about gathering data. It includes how data is going to be used, and the level of disclosure provided to users.

An organization’s reputation is tied to how it treats its publics, and users are a public. The Data Science Code of Professional Conduct and the Digital Analytics Association offer some specific insight about the ethical use, management and analysis of data.

What are the legal considerations for PR strategies?

Legal issues arise with data collections, storage, use and disclosure. In global public relations, not all countries’ privacy and data laws work the same. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a new reality that PR practitioners working internationally have to be aware of. Another critical point is data laws can be specific to industries (HIPPA for health care public relations, for example) as well as U.S. states.

When should PR pros inform audiences about the collection and use of data?

At every stage. Organizations have a legal and ethical duty to users providing content. Being transparent with users is a non-negotiable part of data use.

What are potential missteps when it comes to using — or misusing — consumer data?

Data misuse occurs in two main areas. The first area is when the data is made to support a pre-determined outcome. Consumer data may tell only one side of a story, so it’s vital for PR practitioners to recognize that while consumer data is valuable it has explanatory limitations. 

Second, many users may not be aware how their information is going to be used. Be upfront and honest about that. There is a difference between users being aware that their data is being used and understanding how it is being used. Transparency is essential to maintain organizational integrity.

How does the PRSA Code of Ethics relate to the use of data?

The Code of Ethics is not written in the abstract, nor does it apply to only specific situations. Its relevance and power come from its universal application to all areas of PR practice. Data use is no different. How PR practitioners gather, use and store data represents the profession. Ethical decision-making is essential because it reflects on how we enhance our profession.

How do you evaluate vendors and tools to ensure ethical storing and sharing of data?

Be upfront about what your organization needs, and ask what experience the vendor has with this type of work. Make sure the vendors are providing data services in accordance with the law, and, if necessary, have data experts evaluate the vendor’s work.

Data should be used in the way it was explained to the user. A vendor risk assessment was recommended to ensure vendors and partners are committed to ethical data management.

How can PR practitioners use legal standards to advocate for ethical use of data?

The law and ethics frequently go hand-in-hand. PR practitioners should know the law isn’t just for legal departments and lawyers; PR practitioners need to have a legal awareness about issues of practice. Data use is an area of communications that has legal regulations and PR pros should stay up-to-date on legal trends in the field. 

Use of online data and consumer information is a growing area of PR practice. What our Twitter chat showed is that even though data use is an increasingly sophisticated practice, the PRSA Code of Ethics still provides insights on how practitioners should work. Ethical use of consumer data in the PR practice is key because it impacts our clients, organizations, and, most important, our profession.

The full conversation can be found by searching #EthicsMonth on Twitter.

About the author

Cayce Myers, Ph.D., APR

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