Social media and ethics, who’s in charge?

Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important issues facing the public relations profession. This is the first post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

Can behavior in social media be policed? Who’s in charge if you can? Can there be an ethics code in such a wild and woolly atmosphere? Are there any ethical expectations in social media beyond those already described in the PRSA Code of Ethics, Professional Standards Advisory PS-8,”Deceptive Online Practices and Misrepresentation of Organizations and Visuals.”

To the phrase “wild and woolly,” we have to add the word, “deadly,” following the social media video inspired violent demonstrations in the Middle East and elsewhere. This talk, essentially outside the United States, is about adding some restrictions to access and content in social media. Clearly such actions will not happen in the United States, and probably not with any significant affect anywhere else.

Social media has taken personal expression to an extraordinary and often powerful level. Perhaps the ubiquity of social media has forever changed the old bromide, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We can probably all agree that words can really hurt, sometimes even more than sticks and stones.

So the questions remain, “what about ethics and social media, and who is responsible for enforcement?”

Perhaps the most elaborate attempt at establishing some ethical frameworks in social media can be found in the Code of Ethics of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, (WOMMA),

The WOMMA approach looks, sounds, and feels, a lot like the pre-2000 PRSA Code. The avowed goal of this organization is to, “create an environment of trust between consumers and marketers.” While the code focuses primarily on marketing activities, its standards of conduct cover disclosure of identity, disclosure of compensation, disclosure of relationships, compliance with FTC guidelines, genuine honesty in communication, Respect for Venue, marketing cautions with children and adolescents, observing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act when marketing to children and adolescents, compliance with media specific rules.

Reminiscent of the pre-2000 PRSA enforcement structure, which never truly worked, WOMMA has established a very complicated and largely secret disciplinary process.

There is a lot to learn from the WOMMA code. But like all codes, the behaviors they suggest or require come down to the individual integrity of the practitioner. Perhaps the most that can be said for, “who is in charge in social media?” is that there are organizations like the PRSA and its Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) whose work is to guide, inspire, educate and motivate ethical behavior. But, as we’re seeing time and time again, when it comes to controlling anyone’s speech, that expectation has been a foolish notion for a long,  long time. And those who try often wind up becoming victims of their own delusions.

Perhaps the greatest lesson democracy teaches is the power of talking, founded on the simple but incredibly powerful notion of, “freedom of speech.”  Ironically, all codes of conduct, and even ethical structures, are much about limiting speech and behavior. And this is probably the fundamental reality why, aside from preventing, detecting, deterring and prosecuting criminal behavior, each of us is, individually, in charge of our own social media. When you venture into social media territory you immediately experience the YOYO effect: you are on your own. Like it or not, that is the way it’s going to be.

Jim Lukaszewski, APR, ABC, Fellow PRSA, President of the Lukaszewski Group Division of Risdall Public Relations, and member of the  PRSA national Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

Dr. Mike Porter, APR,Director of the Master of Business Communication Program at the University of St. Thomas, and Ethics Officer for the Minnesota chapter of PRSA

About the author

James Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA

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