#Ethics in an Age of Social Media & Public Conversations

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In an age of public conversations, ethical decision making and accurate communications are top of mind for the PR professional. With the public accessing social media for their news and information, the topic of ethics is even more prominent.  The major professional associations provide a Code of Ethics to educate and guide PR professionals on the subject. However, with the shifting media landscape and technology advancing rapidly, communications ethics are challenged.

With an eye on ethics, I was really pleased to review a research paper written by Dr. Shannon Bowen, who is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Bowen’s paper, Using Classic Social Media Cases to Distill Ethical Guidelines for Digital Engagement, identifies 15 ethical guidelines for using social media.

Here’s my Q&A interview with Dr. Bowen, which discusses the important highlights of  her research project:

1.  Why is there the need to revisit ethics in an age of social media and public conversations?

The old cliché is that social media is like the “Wild West” where anything goes; however I do not think that is true. Social media increases both the speed and frequency of communication, thereby introducing new room for error or ill-conceived strategy. It also introduces an egalitarian new concept in communication in which there are few gatekeepers. One does not have to go through an editor to have a story used, but can immediately reach thousands or more readers through a blog, post, or Tweet. Therefore, the responsibility for ethical communication is heightened at the level of the individual communicator, who is now often the only gatekeeper. More responsibility means more pressure, more critique; therefore, greater acumen is needed to successfully navigate communicating in the social media environment.

2.  Discuss the model you used for your ethics research and why?

As you know, public relations professionals are responsible for maintaining the relationships between organizations and publics, and those relationships rely on understanding values. Interpreting and defining shared values is an ethical exercise. Understanding organizational values and the many and varied values of publics takes research and ethical insight. Using a model from moral philosophy that is based on duty allows a thorough analysis of the values held by publics, so that we can advise organizations in a well-considered way. The duty-based form of ethics asks the decision maker to consider three angles: responsibility to moral principle, maintaining the dignity and respect of all publics, and proceeding with good intentions. By considering potential actions in the social environment through this triangle, more rigor is introduced through multiple perspectives and better decisions result.

3.  What are some of the best examples of companies that are using social media ethically?

In the article (Bowen, 2013 Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 28(2), I refer to Starbucks as one of the foremost ethical companies using social media. They were among the first to create a truly dialogue-based feedback program in which publics could have a true say in the organization, based on the merits of their idea, complaint, request, innovation, etc. Some people have critiqued the “my Starbucks idea” website as not being altruistic, but altruism is not a requirement of ethics. The program is ethical because it genuinely asked for feedback, maintains dignity and respect, and proceeds with good intention. It is true that ideas on the site are used to improve a competitive business– that does not disqualify it as ethical behavior because it is upholding the responsibility to maintain the organization itself. As long the comments are made of people’s own free will and not used in exploitative manner, improving the competitive nature of the business is an ethical advantage to all the employees and stockholders, and often to consumers.

4.  With respect to the 15 Ethical Guidelines for Social Media, has our ethical approach changed, or is this the same type of approach we’ve used in the past expanded to include social media communications?

Good ethics, based on rigorous moral philosophy, holds to the same general principles across various situations. However, they have been tailored here for ease-of-use in the rapidly changing social media environment. Because the forms of communication used across social platforms have gotten incredibly complex, specific and direct to targeted publics, and very rapid it is easy for communicators to make mistakes. Taking the time to think through seemingly simple decisions is worth the investment in avoiding mistakes or outright ethical transgressions.

5.  What guidelines, if any, do you think will be the most challenging for brands?
Undoubtedly, the most difficult guideline is always conducting a rational analysis before acting. It is easy for managers to assume that they know what is best based on prior experience and jump to action. However, experience is only one variable among hundreds or potentially thousands, and without conducting a rational analysis many valuable perspectives can be overlooked. Conducting a rational analysis also requires a learned skill of analyzing data gained from multiple perspectives and evaluating it objectively, rather than from the perspective of self-interest alone. It is challenging to bring rational objectivity to all these decisions, but becomes second nature with a little practice.

You can review Dr. Bowen’s research paper here:


A little more about Dr. Shannon Bowen:

Dr  Bowen Portrait 1Dr. Shannon A. Bowen is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina where her research focuses on ethical decision making within the highest levels of organizations. Dr. Bowen teaches and researches ethics across corporations, pharmaceutical firms, governmental entities, and the public relations industry. Bowen is one of three joint-editors for the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics.

Dr. Bowen sits on the Board of Trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Board of Directors of the non-profit International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC), serves several journal editorial boards including the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and is a Contributing Editor of Media Ethics magazine. She has published in numerous journals and won several awards, including top paper awards, an ethics grant from the International Association of Business Communicators, and the Jackson Jackson & Wagner Behavioral Science Research Prize.


6 Responses to " #Ethics in an Age of Social Media & Public Conversations "

  1. I think that this is such an important topic to research and discuss about in our age and time. Being part of generation Y, I am often curious about the future of the businesses we will be involved in because we are the ones that will have to help adapt and evolve the businesses into a social media realm. Though this is already being done the nature of the ethics of the social media in business are still being figured out. The biggest thing that will need to be figured out is the anonymity comes with social media in business. In Digital Media Ethics by Charles Ess he states, “Anonymity encourages less attractive forms of communication, including flaming, trolling, cyber-stalking, and cyber-bullying” (pg 5)Though this may not be a huge issue in the social media of business, anonymity has the potential to harm businesses a lot. I think that businesses should take this into consideration when developing their business into the social media world.


    Ess, C. (2010). Digital media ethics. Polity Pr.

  2. Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D. says:

    An excellent insight, Sisilia. Anonymity gives people a certain shield to be much more critical and engage in hyperbole than we would find if full disclosure (e.g., name and contact information) were required. It does give people a chance to “vent” however, so perhaps organizations could gauge the potential severity of issues by the snarkiness of the anonymous trolls? Just an idea for issues managers to consider. Those with legitimate grievances usually won’t venture into this territory, because they lose credibility. Still — It is well worth considering an any ethical response strategy. Thank you for the idea!!

    I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment upon my work!

  3. […] Breakenridge in her weekly blog post talks about Ethics in an Age of Social Media, interviewing Dr. Bowen – Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass […]

  4. […] Breakenridge in her weekly blog post talks about Ethics in an Age of Social Media, interviewing Dr. Bowen – Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass […]

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