Ethical social media dilemmas: What would you do?

If there’s one topic we don’t talk enough about online it’s social media and ethics. Actually, it really doesn’t surprise me. We don’t talk about PR and ethics as much as we should either. And, as we all know, social media is really just an extension of PR (and marketing, among other disciplines).

Nevertheless, ethical situations come up and impact our working lives virtually every week. I wanted to highlight a few that I’ve bumped into lately below–and the way in which I’ve handled these situations (for right or wrong). I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you have, or would, react to these scenarios:

Situation: Local agency or organization asks you to share your blogger lists, but doesn’t make any indication of paying you for the lists.

Ethical dilemma: Maybe not a true ethical dilemma, but it certainly comes close. Do you share lists? What if the person asking is a friend (which was the case in both situations I’ve run into lately)? Does that change the situation? I think this is a legitimate question across the industry right now because I’ve heard from others it’s coming up.

How I handled: Two situations recently. In one scenario, it was a former client and we worked out an arrangement where I provided them my list in exchange for payment–completely above board and no issues. The other, however, was a bit different. A representative from a local agency asked me if I’d be open to sharing a blogger list I’d built. I responded politely that if we’re talking about sharing a list that my company has spent time and money researching, we should probably talk about a working relationship–not “free” access to my list.


Situation: Your client saw huge success as a result of a blogger outreach program you put together for them. The campaign was so successful, you’d like to write a blog post promoting the win.

Ethical dilemma: Might not seem like an ethical dilemma, but in many cases I believe it is. By writing a post about your client, you’re adding content to the Web’s searchable database for customers–and, this post could be significantly more “influential”, depending on the agency/consultant.

How I handled: Last month, I wrote a post about the success my client, Feed My Starving Children, has experienced as a result of using Facebook Groups as an internal communication vehicle. I considered the fact that by writing a post about FMSC, it would probably pop up fairly high in search (it pops up as the ninth item on page one in a Google search for “Feed My Starving Children”). And, the implications of a post written by a consultant FMSC works with showing up that high (could be construed as astro-turfing a bit). I decided to go ahead with the post, but I still struggle with this decision. For agencies, I don’t think there’s an issue here. But, for some reason, when I think about myself, it feels a bit different (even though I’m essentially an agency of one). Very curious to know what you think about this one.


Situation: You tweet regularly about one of your clients on your personal account. However, you don’t include the standard disclosure signifying you’re a consultant to the firm in every tweet.

The ethical dilemma: Should you include a disclosure in every tweet, update and post? According to Richie Escovedo and Gini Dietrich, the answer is a resounding yes, according to this post from a year-and-a-half ago.

How I handled: I don’t have any clients that I regularly refer to in tweets/updates. But, let’s say I was working with Caribou. I go to Caribou an awful lot. If I were to share tweets about my day-to-day routine at Target (or check-ins on Foursquare for that matter), I would definitely include a standard disclosure in every tweet. Why? Because they’re a client. And, regardless of how many times I tweet, there’s a paid relationship there that may or may not “cloud” my thinking–and people have a right to know that. Bottom line: I think you should include client disclaimers on every tweet, update or post (and PRSA and its Code of Ethics agrees).

What thoughts do you have on the ethical dilemmas above?

Note: Photo courtesy of Michael Castillejos via FlickR Creative Commons.

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8 comments on “Ethical social media dilemmas: What would you do?

  1. megmroberts says:

    Hi Arik,

    Thanks for raising these important ethical issues. I’d love to see more of these conversations taking place!

    The last situation you mentioned strikes me as one of the most interesting. I tend to agree that there should be full disclosure when mentioning a client publicly, but I also wonder about the context. A while back, my friend shared on Twitter an article about a fantastic and award-winning social media campaign that a company did. The company happens to be a client of hers, which she disclosed in the tweet. When I asked how her colleagues enjoyed working on the project, she said that her agency doesn’t do social media for that client but she still felt compelled to disclose her association.

    In this case, the disclosure remark was almost misleading. So, given the limited amount of characters one has to disclose and clarify, was it necessary for my friend to mention that the company is a client even though her agency was not associated with the specific topic covered in the article?


  2. AubreyLWardIII says:

    First of all, let me just say that it’s great to see fellow professionals talking about ethics. I think that the term is quite often a missing link in today’s business world, unfortunately.

    At any rate, I’d like to focus on situation number two. The most relevant comment that comes to my mind is to point out the option of keeping the client anonymous. This route eliminates the possibility of the post being misinterpreted as “astro-turfing”, yet still provides the oppurtunity to promote the win. Alternatively, why not have a discussion with the client regarding the situation, and ask them how they feel about being used as an example. Most likely, they will be happy to help, considering the fact that superb services have been rendered. Keep in mind that we, as business owners or employees, have no control over what every person may think about our motives. If the client recognizes this and would rather not be mentioned, then we can respect that decision, for two reasons: 1) The client has paid us for our services; and 2) The success of whatever work we may have done with the client is great – we can pat ourselves on the back – BUT, ultimately we must put the client first. We delivered what we offered, and there is no need to compromise that by bragging (not that I think Arik was bragging, for the record).

    I certainly hope that these thoughts help. I’m very glad that I saw this link on Twitter (tweeted by @SocialFresh), and that I had the time to contribute to this discussion. Thanks a lot!

    -Aubrey Ward


  3. arikhanson says:

    @AubreyLWardIII I actually did talk this one through with the client–I usually err on the side of taking too much caution. Great points though–and there’s definitely a benefit to keeping the client anonymous. And, putting the client first is what we ALL should be doing. After all, they are the CLIENT. They are paying for services–and we need to honor their wishes, whatever those may be in situations like this.

  4. arikhanson says:

    @megmroberts I always err on the side of over-disclosing. In this case, I would have definitely disclosed–what’s the harm? It was misleading a bit, sure. But, you’re never going to get in trouble for disclosing *too* much 😉 When in doubt, disclose. Rule to live by, in my view.

  5. ScottHepburn says:

    As usual, here I am showing up late to the party…

    I’m with you on two, and agin’ ya (I think) on the other.

    * On sharing lists, I believe absolutely that a list you’ve created is YOUR property. The hard work you put into researching, building, and curating lists is valuable. Even if you don’t maintain active relationships with the bloggers on those lists, the simple act of identifying them and assessing their influence is worth a small ransom. Protect what you’ve built.

    * I’m okay with blogging about a client, provided you clearly disclose that relationship. Could your post pop to the top of search results? Absolutely. Does that benefit the client? Of course. Your now a blogger/influencer, not just a service provider. And I believe that’ll be true of all of us in the near future. Your influence may be more valuable than your consulting advice. That oughtta be reflected in the relationship between you.

    I think of it like this: Is sports agent Drew Rosenhaus an effective negotiator? Yes. Can he give good strategic advice? Yes. But he’s also valuable to his clients in his ability to generate a media spectacle. His ability to attract cameras ultimately helps (usually) his clients.

    It’s a brave new world.

    * Yes, disclose your clients. In blogs, of course. On Facebook and Twitter as much as possible. Tools like help. And I believe we’ll soon find ways to disclose on Foursquare and other new platforms. It’s not always practical, but we have to do our best to find ways to be forthcoming with all audiences.

    I argued with local copywriter Jim Mitchem about this. I explained that we don’t disclose for the sake of those who know us intimately thanks to long-time relationships and many years of Twitter following…we do it for those less familiar with our businesses and those who butter our bread.