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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
Next Page: Guidelines 6 through 10