Lesson 1: Why Digital Ethics?
Today, nearly every organization has some type of online or digital presence. This includes corporate websites, social media accounts, online networks and databases, message forums, and email listservs where the company can communicate with the public. These communication strategies engage internal employees, members of the media, shareholders, and customers. In short, successful modern organizations must use digital media to their advantage.
This requires the help of public relations and strategic communication experts who can use new technologies legally and ethically to help their clients.
Using digital media ethically in public relations is easier said than done. One of the immediate challenges is the newness of digital technologies. There are some digital practices which are so new, it is unclear to the public, organizations, and even public relations experts if they are ethical or unethical. The newness of technologies and strategies means that many have not been tested or analyzed using public opinion research. That is why it takes students who are trained in digital media ethics to assess proposed strategies before a crisis emerges in the aftermath.Next Page: Yelp and Data Scrubbing
Yelp and Data Scrubbing
Popular online review site Yelp found this out the hard way. In 2015, Yelp faced an ethics crisis after users learned that the company accepted money from companies in exchange for “scrubbing” or removing bad reviews from their profile. Although the practice was legal, public trust was violated and many users deleted their accounts and publicly criticized the site. Scrubbing as a public relations practice was legal in digital media, however, the public’s reaction and crisis deemed it unethical. Just months later, Yelp announced it would eliminate scrubbing on its site and created a variety of initiatives aimed to make the site and its revenue sources more transparent.
The digital practice of scrubbing is one example where the public’s reaction deemed it unusable and unethical. Prior to the crisis, public relations experts were unclear if scrubbing was a good or bad use of digital technologies. However, after seeing and measuring the public’s negative opinion of the behavior, experts advised Yelp to stop “scrubbing.” Those experts have now labeled it as an unethical use of digital technology because of its violation of the public trust. Even though a later court case ruled that companies are allowed to “scrub,” today’s public relations experts warn against the practice.
Defining Digital Media
In module one, you read about the challenges of defining ethics. There are many theories and processes that are related to ethics in the public relations profession that inform campaigns, messages and strategies. Ultimately, ethics involves looking at any situation from multiple-angles and determining the best course of action by evaluation options against an ethical code of conduct.
Like ethics, “digital media” is also challenging to conceptually define. Many scholars have struggled and debated the scope of digital media. Some scholars define digital media by platforms, such as Google, Facebook or Amazon. Platforms are the online spaces where users can engage (purchase, share, or communicate) with created content. Other scholarship defines digital media by the technology that supports it. This includes digital video, imagery, games, web pages, social media, databases, mp3s and audio.
In public relations, it is easier to use a definition that integrates both the platforms as well as technology. In our field, digital media are platforms, sites or spaces of multi-directional, instantaneous communication.
Multi-directional refers to the ability of users to communicate with other users, including members of the organization. For example, on Facebook, you can comment on a friend’s status, and your friend or other users can comment back. The multi-directional capabilities of digital media are an advantage for public relations practitioners. Digital media allow a public relations team to directly engage users even if they are separated by great physical distances. In addition, a team can respond directly to users who have complaints or concerns, thus managing the brand’s reputation.
Instantaneous communication refers to the ability of digital media to share content quickly or rapidly through its platform. For example, you can post a picture on Instagram to your profile in a matter of seconds. This speed allows for the rapid dissemination of information, which has both positive and negative implications for public relations. It means that untrue rumors can spread quickly about a brand through digital media, making it difficult for a public relations team to manage or stop false information. However, the instantaneous nature of digital media also allows the same team to post a correction or address the rumors quickly. The instantaneous nature of digital media requires that public relations practitioners are constantly monitoring and managing their organization’s digital reputation.
Examples of Digital Media
Some of the most common examples of digital media include social media platforms, mobile media applications (apps) and electronic email. Consider “McDonald’s” as an example. McDonald’s has its own website, a Facebook corporate profile, an Instagram account, many Twitter handles (for different languages and countries), an online message board, Snapchat, a mobile rewards application, profiles on review sites like Yelp, daily emails to subscribed customers, digital coupons and a virtual reality game. McDonald’s is not alone in this impressive amount of digital content. Most other successful companies must use the same digital spaces to interact with their public in an instantaneous and multi-directional manner. As a result, the challenge for public relations practitioners is to constantly update, manage and monitor each of these digital spaces for their client.
1-800-Flowers and Ethical Use of Digital Media
Although the earlier Yelp example demonstrated an unethical approach to digital public relations, companies have used the spaces of digital media to act in an ethical manner. One successful and ethical use of digital media prevented a crisis for 1-800-Flowers, the website where customers can send flowers to friends and family.
In 2014, a large snowstorm system moved close to New York City on Valentine's Day, jeopardizing flower deliveries on the biggest holiday of the year for 1-800-Flowers. Although the retailer’s terms and conditions clearly stated it was not legally responsible for delayed deliveries because of the weather, its leaders decided to shut-down all new orders for Valentine’s Day and tweet hourly updates regarding the snow and possible deliveries. Customers could also tweet the retailer and ask questions about their individual orders, refunds and rain checks. By using the instantaneous and multi-directional parts of digital media, the retailer demonstrated its care for customer satisfaction over profits. The company's digital ethical guidelines prevented a major crisis, particularly on an emotional topic, such as flowers for Valentine's Day.
Public relations practitioners must be well-versed in the management of digital media in order to avoid a crisis and behave ethically like 1-800-Flowers. Although the retailer was legally protected by its terms of service agreement and therefore did not have to do anything, its leaders instead chose to use digital media to prevent an ethics crisis and reinforce a positive reputation of the company. So how can public relations practitioners know if their strategy is ethical like 1-800-Flowers, or unethical like Yelp? Fortunately, researchers have identified 15 ethical guidelines that can inform these choices.
15 Ethical Guidelines for Digital Public Relations
After years of observing companies make the same unethical mistakes in digital media over and over, Shannon Bowen of the University of South Carolina decided to create a comprehensive list of guidelines practitioners could use to determine if a strategy or practice was ethical or unethical. Her 15 guidelines (below and on the following pages) can help avoid crises like the one faced by Yelp and promote behaviors like 1-800-Flowers' Twitter updates.
Be fair and prudent: Bowen defines this as “consider fairness, justice, access.” This guideline suggests that public relations practitioners must think about the benefits of a strategy from both the organization and public side. In the Yelp example, scrubbing benefited the company’s bank account, but failed to benefit the public’s ability to learn from honest reviews of companies and products. In fact, the scrubbing practice harmed the public’s awareness of a company's or product's quality.
This first guideline can be expanded to consider what the public has a right to know. In part, the public’s negative reaction to Yelp’s scrubbing was the result of its secrecy. Being forthcoming with these practices can help prevent the public from feeling tricked or betrayed.
Avoid deception: The second principle tells practitioners that if it involves deception, then it is unethical and should be avoided. Like the first principle, deception violates the trust between an organization and its public. Users like to feel knowledgeable and in control of their digital media experiences. Deception by an organization can jeopardize the confidence a user has in their relationship with the organization.
Deception can involve more than just lying about a practice, it can simply come from not disclosing important details. 1-800-Flowers was successful in the Valentine’s Day storm because it adopted a policy of full-disclosure. By answering clients tweets, providing instant updates, and sharing its own plans to distribute flowers, the organization avoided an ethical and public opinion crisis.
Maintain dignity and respect: Ethical practices must also ensure that employees demonstrate respect for their public and users. This can be accomplished by avoiding deception and being fair, but can also be conveyed through engaging users. Requests for organizational feedback from customers are one way an organization can show that it respects the opinions and insights of its public. Providing discounts or rewards for loyal clients also demonstrates respect and appreciation.
Yelp struggled to maintain this ethical principle by deleting or demoting customer’s reviews on scrubbed profiles. This conveyed that the website did not respect the opinions of its users and instead valued financial gain from the paying companies.
Eschew secrecy: In most instances, Bowen advises avoiding secrecy in digital campaigns. Keeping the public informed, or giving fair notice of changes to a campaign, message or strategy can help avoid public backlash. In addition, by publicizing a campaign early, feedback from users can be gained that may alter or confirm the messaging or approach. For example, 1-800-Flowers publicized the details of the storm early, thus allowing customers to make changes or revisions to its plans appropriately.
This fourth guideline is challenging because some campaigns and strategies require the use of surprise. In addition, trade or competition secrets may also need to be kept hidden from the public or competitors. Knowing what can and cannot be shared can be a difficult decision.
Is it reversible?: The multi-directional aspect of digital media means that public relations practitioners must think about how a campaign or practice looks to a variety of groups. While many strategies are tailored to customers, these same messages are often observed by journalists, competitors and even people who protest or dislike the organization. Practitioners must be able to “reverse” a strategy and consider how it looks from the perspective of another public.
Yelp failed to “reverse” the optics of scrubbing and did not consider how its users would feel about the policy. Had it considered how scrubbing would appear to users, it is likely the organization would have known the practice was unethical.
Guidelines 6 through 10
- Be transparent: Similar to the earlier principles of “avoid deception,” this guideline directly encourages practitioners to acknowledge paid speech in digital campaigns. In television commercials, advertisers are required to acknowledge a paid spokesperson; Bowen recommends a similar approach to digital campaigns. When a quote appears in a digital publication, practitioners should identify if the speaker was paid to promote or speak. This helps prevent deception and encourages transparency in promotional strategies.
Clearly identify: Like paid speech, Bowen recommends that messages are differentiated between personal speech or opinions and statements as an official representative of the organization. Informing the public when an individual speaks on behalf of the organization versus just shares their opinion can help delineate authentic expressions of thoughts from tailored and crafted messages. This can aid the believability of the speech.
Yelp could accomplish this by telling users when a review is posted by a customer versus a paid representative of the company. Other users are likely to believe more the authentic review from a customer than a paid or representative review from someone within the organization. It is unethical to try to deceive the public by posting a paid review on Yelp that pretends it is from a customer.
- Rational analysis: The eighth guideline suggests that messages should be evaluated for potential misinterpretation. Digital media transcends national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. As a result, considering how different global cultures from around the world may interpret the message is one way to avoid a crisis. Further, acknowledging the global reach of a message is also ethical because it understands the potential to impact a variety of publics (not just the target of a strategy). McDonald’s’ many Twitter accounts in a variety of languages uses the ethical principle of rational analysis because it understands the global potential of a campaign or message.
- Emphasize clarity: This guideline suggests that practitioners work to make a source or sponsorship of online content clear in multiple ways. In addition to noting the sponsorship or paid-speech within the message, hyperlinking (providing a web address) to the source adds additional transparency and clarity. Further, it demonstrates to the public that the organization aims to be honest in its communication and is not trying to hide anything.
- Disclose: Bowen suggests that practitioners reveal facts/data collected from users that form the basis for campaign and message development. Organizations can collect or buy big datasets that contain sensitive customer information such as gender, age, income and location. By revealing what data is collected and how it used, organizations can avoid customers feeling deceived or monitored.
Guidelines 11 through 15
- Verify sources and data: When using collected data about users or customers, ensuring that it is accurate helps avoid confusion and frustration from the public when messages are not relevant to their lives or interests.
- Establish responsibility: As noted in the definition of ethics, this guideline asks practitioners to consider if a campaign “does the right thing?” Is it ethically helping a cause or organization? Who does it benefit? Bowen suggests that campaigns should benefit the public.
- Examine intention: Similar to the responsibility guideline, Bowen encourages practitioners to be reflexive in their intentions to create a campaign or message. By reflecting on the development process as well as the motivations behind a public relations initiative, practitioners can consider the benefits and harms of their actions.
- Encourage the good: Specifically, Bowen considers campaigns that build “connectedness, engagement and community” as ethical ones because of their larger attempt to include a diverse public group. These connections are considered “pro-social” because they foster communication and inclusivity within the public.
- Consistency builds trust: Finally, although all messages, strategies and practices can be evaluated individually, being consistent in the ethical nature of each message helps build trust and a positive public opinion. Demonstrating ethics across many digital campaigns can help an organization’s reputation flourish.
Today, many companies now include a “statement on digital ethics” or “cyberethics statement” that supplements their overall code and specifically applies to digital practices. These statements tell the public the organization’s intentions and perhaps even specific goals and objectives. Cyberethics statements also help unify the many employees and practices behind a global organization. Global companies often have employees from around the world with different cultural definitions of ethics. By creating one statement that unifies all employees, differences between what is ethical in one culture and not in another can be avoided.
From a public relations perspective, cyberethics statements also demonstrate a commitment to public well-being. This is a type of organizational transparency where the public knows the standards of behavior they can expect. The public is then encouraged to hold the organization to their own articulated standards, demonstrating trust between the organization and its public.
Types of Cyberethics Statements
Like other digital media practices, cyberethics statements are relatively new. There are seemingly two approaches to the statement: long statements with examples, legal clauses, and links for more information; or short statements with a vague guiding principle that is open to interpretation.
Microsoft offers the first approach and an extensive “Cyberethics Statement” that tells the public the types of tracking software they use while visitors search their site. In addition, they recommend the public is mindful of the personal data shared while online. The detailed “Cyberethics Statement” from Microsoft is very different than the vague, two-sentence statement from Facebook, which encourages Facebook personnel to practice “extreme sensitivity and caution” when accessing personal information of users.
Cyberethics statements can be evaluated for their use and integration of the 15 ethical guidelines. The more detailed a statement (like Microsoft’s) the more likely they specifically address and integrate the ethical guidelines. The vaguer they are (like Facebook), the less likely they are to specifically include the guidelines. As digital media continues to be a part of the public relations profession, we will be able to assess if the more exhaustive or vague cyberethics statements are better at encouraging ethical practices.
Case Study: 1-800-Flowers “Operation Love Storm”
In February 2014, a winter storm threatened the delivery of thousands of flowers on Valentine’s Day in New York City. In the days leading up to the holiday, forecasters predicted a foot of snow and nearly insurmountable road covering. For one of the busiest delivery days of the year, companies like 1-800-Flowers, Amazon and food retailers grew concerned that they may not able to meet the large demand. Despite these pressures, New York-based 1-800-Flowers was able to address the challenge ethically by using social media. Its handling of the eminent crisis reinforced customer loyalty and satisfaction, and demonstrated the organization’s commitment to consumer experience.
Although 1-800-Flowers has a clause in each sales agreement that does not hold it responsible for delays due to weather, the company decided to launch a pre-crisis campaign that aimed to address growing public and consumer concern. The organization knew how emotional Valentine’s Day flowers can be for customers, thus it wanted to find a way to communicate its investment in consumer satisfaction and well-being. However, because Valentine’s Day flowers are often a surprise for recipients, the company had to communicate in a way that would not alert recipients to a potential surprise.
However, this left out the many customers who expected flowers, but did not purchase them. The company sought a way to communicate broadly with residents who expected to receive flowers through the delivery service without spoiling a surprise gift.
In this case, 1-800-Flowers had a choice: either take charge ethically by communicating frequently with customers, taking responsibility and risk losing money or ignore the impending storm and hide behind the terms and service agreement. Fortunately, the organization made the right choice by using social media to interact with customers and take on the challenge.
Course of Action
1-800-Flowers turned to social media, specifically using Twitter to communicate broadly and narrowly with its public. First, the organization tweeted hourly updates about the storm, where it was able (or unable) to make deliveries, and if it was planning on delivering early to avoid the storm. In addition, the company encouraged customers to use Twitter’s direct message (DM) feature to ask specific questions about order or delivery status.
The company monitored the Twitter account throughout the storm, coordinating inquires between customers and delivery teams. The account further shared information from other users, such as weather forecasters, city officials and company management to help citizens (even those who did not order flowers) cope with the storm.
Again, although the company was legally protected by the clause customers agreed to when making the purchase, 1-800-Flowers knew that inaction or failure to communicate would result in a public opinion crisis and loss in customer confidence. Social media gave the company the opportunity to communicate directly with its customers as well as broadcast widespread messages. Importantly, this ability to widely distribute messages helped reach recipients without spoiling a floral surprise.
As the storm intensified around New York City, local and national media outlets began to cover public reactions and looming anxiety. Because 1-800-Flowers took a proactive stance on the imminent crisis, most media coverage of the company was positive and encouraged customers to engage with the organization through social media and Twitter. Some media outlets even began recommending last-minute shopper’s purchase through the site to avoid going out in the weekend storm. This helped cement 1-800-Flowers’ reputation as dedicated to customer satisfaction and willing to take the extra steps necessary to make customers happy.
1-800-Flowers' use of social media helped portray the company as ethically dedicated to customer satisfaction. Although it was legally protected in this crisis, its proactive interactions with customers may have ultimately helped encourage positive public and media attention to their brand.
In the end, 1-800-Flowers reported a 6.3 percent loss in net profit for the winter quarter in 2014, partially resulting from the winter snowstorm. CEO Jim McCann reflected that although there was a profit loss, he believed the organization’s actions during the storm resulted in positive long term effects for the organization:
"In addition, throughout the holiday period, our dedicated customer service associates—including our home agents and our internal social media communications teams—did an exemplary job of responding to each and every customer inquiry and issue we received. As a result, we were heartened by the post-holiday accolades we received in the blogosphere for our open and transparent communications policy on Twitter and Facebook. All of these efforts reflect our many years of experience as the world's leading florist and gift shop as well as our unparalleled passion for providing great service and delivering smiles. We believe this focus positions us well to deliver solid year-over-year growth during our current fiscal fourth quarter which features the spring gifting occasions including Easter, Administrative Professionals Week, Mother's Day, graduation and wedding season and Father's Day."
Moral of the Story
The use of social and digital media may have helped 1-800-Flowers avoid a crisis during Valentine’s Day 2014. By using the continuous and immediate ability of social media to communicate with customers, the organization turned the storm into an opportunity to solidify its own reputation and relationship with customers. Other organizations may use 1-800-Flowers’ approach to digital media during a crisis for guidance in their own cases.
Future Readings and Sources
Gensler, Lauren. (2014, Sept 11). “1-800-Flowers laments winter weather, touts Harry & David buy” Forbes. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurengensler/2014/09/11/1-800-flowers-laments-winter-weather-touts-harry-david-buy/#2c1494a18889.
Pititto, Joseph D. & Yanique Woodall. (2014, April 29). “1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. reports results for continuing operations for its fiscal 2014 third quarter.” 1-800-Flowers. Retrieved from: https://investor.1800flowers.com/~/media/Files/O/One-800-Flowers/press-releases/past/flws_news_2014_4_29_general.pdf.
Porpora, Tracy (2014, February 14). “Will cupid or mother nature win?” Silive. Retrieved from http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2014/02/post_722.html.
Wong, Vanessa. (2014, February 14). “High stakes for snowbound florists on Valentines Day.” Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-02-14/1-800-flowers-and-ftd-fight-stormy-nature-to-get-flowers-delivered.