This week I thought I’d do something a bit different and reach out to existing PR practitioners to find out if they had experienced any ethical roadblocks when it comes to managing social media, how they overcame them and if they had any advice for businesses to remain ethical in a digital age.
I had an overwhelming response, and got some great insights into challenges that face social media managers on an ethical level. As I’m still receiving responses from contributors, I thought I would split this post into two halves to fully do it justice. Look out for the full list of responses next week.
Alongside the ever-growing list of contributors, I was lucky enough to speak to Ella Minty (author, public speaker, university lecturer & Chair CIPR Foresight Panel, reputation management and strategic comms adviser), who provided me with some great examples of when social media managers and PR practitioners need to make tough decisions.
Everything we do and say as PR practitioners has an ethical component to it. Ethics in the Public Relations practice is still a taboo subject and it shouldn’t be – being honest, speaking truth to power and refusing to do what we believe is wrong shouldn’t be difficult at all. But, in reality, they are.
Can our ethical views trump our livelihood? The majority would say yes. The truth is they seldom do.
Ella then went on to outline some scenarios that PR practitioners, or anyone managing social media for an organisation may come across. How would you react in the following situations?
You disagree with your boss’ decision and his/her approach to a social media campaign. You know what he/she is doing is wrong and has a high chance of negatively impacting the business. You tried, unsuccessfully, to put your views across to your boss but he/she still wants to proceed as planned. If you report him/her to the Board, which is the ethical thing to do from a professional perspective, you are likely to be the first person out through the door in the next redundancy batch or, even more likely, you will be made to resign. You are also the single breadwinner of your family and, if you get fired, this can have a significant negative impact on your short to mid-term finances. Can ethics trump livelihood? Probably not
Even though reporting your boss would be the right thing to do, how far are you willing to go to be ethical if it means you lose your job? I would like to think that if I was put in this situation I would do the right thing, but when you’re the sole earner providing for your family, you can’t afford to lose your job. On the other hand, negative impacts to the business could mean loss of profits and see more redundancies further down the line. Would you do the right thing if it meant you lost your job, but your coworkers got to keep theirs?
You are the social media manager of your company and you have been informed that a certain product you provide is faulty. A significant budget has already been spent on creating a social media advertising campaign which has been scheduled to go live in the next couple of days. Ethically, since you are responsible for the social media messaging and engagement, you should not proceed with the campaign launch until a ‘clean bill of health’ is provided to you by the colleagues in charge with fixing the product problem. However, the Marketing Director won’t even hear about such a thing because ‘this can be fixed before the first order is placed’. If you refuse to do it and press ‘send’, you will be causing a severe internal scandal and, also, you will be considered as swimming against the current. However, it’s unethical for you to lie to your customer base and, should anyone order the new product and encounter faults with it, can you lie and say ‘we didn’t know’ when, actually, you did?
This situation is slightly more black and white for me. If I knew that a product was experiencing faults, I would not feel right about releasing an ad campaign to promote it until I had confirmation that the problem was resolved. Yet, it’s understandable that people would have to think about the consequences of their actions before coming to a decision, especially in these instances when it involves your livelihood.
You belong to a community of practice where a variety of issues are constantly debated online. One of your peers, someone who has a certain notoriety in the PR industry, has made some serious errors in their interpretation of some PR theoretical concepts and how these apply to a current situation. Your ethical duty is to correct (in private) that peer and provide him/her with clear arguments and evidence of where they went wrong and why they should change their position, especially since they have a significant pool of industry new comers looking up to them. However, you’re wondering what the impact of that will be with regard to your own person and whether it will come back and hurt you at a later date. Do you let their error pass or do you correct it?
In this case the right thing is to correct the practitioner, while again it is difficult to decide whether or not to do this based on how it will impact your own reputation and standing in the community of practice. I would like to think that if you present someone with a well constructed and reasonable argument that they would take your points onboard, yet it is so easy to take things personally, especially from behind a keyboard instead of face to face. I also think the decision would be based on your length of time in the industry, if you are already an established practitioner with a good reputation for your insight and knowledge it would be a lot easier to correct them than if you were relatively new to the communications industry.
In all cases, coming to a decision on which course of action to take when faced with an ethical dilemma is difficult. For anyone practising PR or managing social media that might be facing a situation they’re uncomfortable with morally, I would recommend using the CIPR Ethical Decision Tree to help you decide on the best course of action. There are also some great tools on the CIPR website to help guide you towards making the right choice.
Choosing the most ethical response isn’t always black and white, it can depend on many different factors including personal morals and prior experience.
How would you react in the above situations?