Whether we use it for personal communications, business or both, Facebook puts us at the helm of a virtual multi-media corporation that can publish words, images or sounds in a nanosecond. This capability offers unparalleled expression, but it demands some basic responsibilities with none being more pertinent that media ethics.
Media ethics: it’s a junior-level core requirement in many university communications curricula, and most traditional media outlets have some form of ethics code for their newsroom staff.
In the old days, ethical challenges were pretty simple — albeit not always easy — “do we go to press with the story and/or photos or not?”
Graphics were either drawings or photos, and the latter could only be manipulated in the dark room by a handful of processors with tools and chemicals. Things are quite different today.
Access to information and public figures has never been greater; reporters can post web stories and digital photos via cell phone from remote locations; and image-editing software can test the limits of our perception. Social networking alone has hundreds of mobile applications, and that number increases by the day.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the need for ethical behavior to guide us through our assumed role as virtual publishers. We have become “paramedia”, and consequently, much of the media’s code of ethics has direct application to adult Facebook members with even greater responsibility required of public relations professionals using it for business.
One of the best codes that I’ve seen belongs to the Society of Professional Journalists with their version being an evolution of a document that was first published in 1926. Two entries under the Act Independently section have direct transference to PR pros: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts”.
In the realm of Facebook’s casual nature, PR pros are without question free to post anything legal on personal pages that is not a conflict of interest, and they are simply doing their job when advocating for clients on clients’ pages.
When it comes to plugging clients on personal pages, however, the public has a “right to know” that the endorsements have a hidden agenda even if it is a pro bono arrangement. That is the unwritten code of ethics we are obliged to follow, and despite my soul searching, I truly can’t think of one mitigating circumstance.
This will not be very popular with some of my colleagues, but let me go on record by stating that “plugging clients sans disclosure via personal pages” violates our inherent code of ethics, and consequently, I encourage all PR pros to begin declaring such involvement.
Note: A day after putting the finishing touches to the story, I received a link to a related story showing that others are thinking along these same lines: