The Ethics of Social Media

By: Monica Helms, Ad2OKC/AAF Oklahoma City Ad Club

“Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.” — David Ogilvy

At last year’s ADMERICA!, I wrote about ethics and social media. For my first post this year, I was asked to write about both. Given that this is a rather complicated and sometimes sensitive issue, I decided to look to various resources for guidance on how I should frame this. More specifically, I looked at Mashable, Forbes, and even NPR’s Social Media Ethics Handbook. There were probably a few others as well, but let’s face it, I don’t exactly have the best attention span.

The one that caught my attention the most was the Forbes article, which listed five “deadly sins” of social media:

  • unreported endorsements,
  • improper anonymity,
  • compromising consumer privacy,
  • overly enthusiastic employees, and
  • using the online community to get free work.

I don’t know if you’re seeing what I’m seeing, but I think for me, at least four out of the five points in this article could be summed up in the following phrase: Honesty is the best policy. Nobody likes feeling deceived. But what constitutes deception in social media? Is running a contest or sweepstakes to get people to “like” or follow your brand in exchange for some kind of prize unethical? Is outsourcing your social media to a third-party agency or consultant unethical? Is tweeting a vote of optimism in the face of a tragedy unethical?

The answer is that no, it’s not necessarily unethical to do these things. But it can be. As Ogilvy stated above, it’s important to treat your customers the way you would want to be treated. Would you appreciate watching your friends become zombies for a brand if it came with the promise of prizes or giveaways? Would you appreciate it if it was happening to you–especially from a brand you wouldn’t normally care about? Probably not, right

What about outsourcing your social media? I vote that it can be–specifically if you’re not transparent about who the voice is behind the brand. In the social media world, your transparency and honesty is your credibility. The internet is not a place one should tread lightly–nothing you say can be considered private upon posting or gone once erased. I’m sure you can think of plenty of politicians and celebrities who has learned that lesson the hard way.

What about the last one? I’m not going to name any names, but more than one brand took heat for posting insensitively during the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. What about the brands who didn’t simultaneously promote their product with their condolences, or some other faux pas? By that I mean the brands who simply posted thanks to the first responders, or that their hearts were with the city. Was that unethical? I think some of you know exactly how you feel on this one. There’s no grey area for you, and regardless of which side you’re on, I admire that. But if you’re like me, this last one has you squirming in your seat a bit. Is it possible for a brand to send out heartfelt thanks or condolences in the face of a tragedy without necessarily being opportunistic? I don’t know if I have an answer for that.

Follow Monica @mkhelms

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