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Social Media Ethics: Why You Should Have a Policy

As we all know too well, most interactions and communication is done online using a wide variety of social networks. What may not be taken into consideration is the role ethics plays with online sharing and communication, or that there needs to be a place for ethics in social media.

There has been a transformation in communication because of social media.  Here are some changes that have taken place:

  • People have now become both the producer and consumer of information.
  • News can be shared instantly online before it even reaches the television.
  • The judgment of communication is both positively and negatively affected.
    • It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the information is true and credible. The reader must look at the context, channel, and author of the information.
  • Because more people communicate online, the value of face-to-face communication is lost. This has multiple affects on the way a message is received and interpreted.
  • People have the ability to filter out and choose the types of messages they want to receive and those they want nothing to do with.

Why do ethical principles need to be applied to social media?

Social media allows anyone to share basically anything online.  Within a business, it is their responsibility to build a positive identity for their brand. If policies are not put into place, employees could be free to share anything to anyone. The business needs to find the audience with whom they want to share information. Here are some guidelines a business should follow when communicating online:

  • Share information that will give your brand a positive image.
    • People want credible information, so give them that. This will build trust for your business, which can help increase leads and customers.
  • When sharing, be aware of others’ perspectives and opinions. Be open to what others have to say.
    • When you respond, be fair in what you say to create a social wellbeing for your business and customer relationships.
  • Be aware of who can see your information, what is being shared, and what is being said and shared about your business.
    • If something negative is being shared, analyze it for credibility. If it is credible, respond to it in a positive fashion to show that you care about what is said concerning your business, and that some type of action is being taken to improve.
  • Overall, a business should create a positive, credible online presence for both their own benefit and for the benefit of their customers. Think about the business brand and identity that you want to share and build upon.

What should be included in a social media policy?

The action of an employee’s online presence reflects on the business. When creating a policy, the behavior expectation of the employees needs to be addressed. What is expected of a business online, and even offline, should be mentioned to create an identity. Here are some other elements to include in a social media policy:

  • The purpose for social media in the business
  • Provide evidence of responsibility with sharing
  • Provide some business information for credibility and authenticity
  • Understand the audience with whom you are communicating
  • Provide credit to the right people or businesses
  • Protect confidentiality of the business
  • Provide value for the consumers and the business
  • Find a balance between social media and other work

Social media should be a part of a business and business should not entirely be social media. Communicating online is different from communicating in person or printed messages. Be aware of all the different aspects of social media – who sees your message, who is sharing messages and what are they sharing. Take responsibility for any online behaviors – positive and negative – and understand the logic behind having an online presence.

Do you have a social media code of ethics at your business? Have is proven effective and useful?


Join The Conversation

  • PennyPR's picture
    Apr 30 Posted 5 years ago PennyPR

    Nice clear piece. Wondered about including the word 'honesty' in the ethical policy, or is that viewed as taboo in case it encourages posting things the company would rather employees did not say? 

    Certainly think its worth highlighting the importance of managing customer expectations - for example when a company puts up a social media page on a site to prevent anyone else posting under their name, but doesn't intend to actively engage with that audience on that site. 


    Penny Haywood Calder

  • Apr 4 Posted 5 years ago Amy Grabowski

    Steve - Thank you for sharing your thoughts on media ethics and the benefits of having a company policy for social media use.  I took a social media class at Drury University last summer, and it was incredible to see all that can be done via social media.  Unfortunately, many people do not know how to use it appropriately and ethically.

    While reading your blog post I was reminded of Chapter 13 - Ethical dimensions of new technology/media - by Charles Ess in The handbook of communication ethics (Cheney, May, & Munshi, 2011) this week.  You reference confidentiality which reminded me of what Ess (2011) has to say about privacy:

    Modern Western societies - meaning specifically, liberal democratic states whose primary function and justification is to protect the basic rights of the free and autonomous individual - have gradually developed distinctive and foundational notions of individual privacy.  Briefly, such privacy is justified as protecting a core space in which the indivdiual can freely and critically reflect upon possible choices. (p. 205)

    In your opinion, how are confidentiality and privacy both similar and different?  I look forward to reading your response.

    Amy Grabowski

    Graduate Student

    Drury University

    Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D. (Eds.) (2010).  The handbook of communication ethics.  New York: Routledge.

  • Apr 2 Posted 5 years ago peter.crysdale

    There are some pretty dodgy examples of unethical socila media out there.  For example, when Sony created a fake blog, purportedly a Sony PSP fansite, and tried to convince people to buy PSPs for Christmas.  L'Oreal did something along similar lines and it's now illegal for comapnies to create fake accounts in europe.

    Thank you to Steve James for writing this piece.


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