When it comes to ethics there are definitely more than 50 shades of grey. We face ethical questions in our personal and professional lives and we judge others based on their ethical choices. Often, though, there is tension and criticism of others because they didn’t do what we thought was “right”.
Unlike the law, ethical standards vary. They’re different for doctors, lawyers, journalists, and even bloggers and social media participants. A financial blogger may be constrained by industry standards, health and wellness bloggers may need to concern themselves with regulatory guidelines that don’t specifically apply to them but highly influence their credibility. But like the law, there is some lee-way. Just as we may go 45 mph in a posted 40 mph zone and not be cited for breaking the law, that same 5 mph variance when done in a school zone may result in a very expensive ticket.
Most of us know that operating without some basic rules often leads to significant problems. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a standard by which we all had equal footing? That’s kind of what happened in 2010 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) set forth disclosure standards and included bloggers. Since the industry wasn’t taking a lead, the FTC decided to set a minimum standard and codified it as law. It’s like when you give your kids the opportunity to “do the right thing”, and they don’t, you lay down the law in Parent Town. Even though you know you taught them right, their standard wasn’t up to what you thought was acceptable.
For bloggers and social media engagers, the murky area of ethics has become less and less clear over the past several years. Add to it the various levels of education, professional certifications, work experiences, religious and moral beliefs, and it’s no wonder there are arguments over what is right and wrong when it comes to certain aspects of blogging and social engagement.
Avoiding ethical pitfalls in blogging and social media is actually very easy. If we could agree to follow these 5 basic Tips to Avoid Ethical Pitfalls in Blogging and Social Media raising the bar for our industry shouldn’t be difficult.
Disclose relationships. If there is any business relationship that could create a sense of impropriety, be upfront about it. Once you hit publish, your reputation can be called into question in an instant. A simple disclosure could ease much of the controversy. Readers come to our sites because they trust what we have to say. Being open and above-board allows readers to determine if you’re being honest and authentic or if you’re just trying to protect your gravy train of free trinkets and trips. While the FTC now requires certain types of disclosure, there are still many relationships that are not subject to the FTC guidelines that should be shared with your readers. Many feel if they’re not earning money then disclosure is optional. Honestly, any time you’re getting something because of the relationship it should be disclosed.
Clearly distinguish between fact and opinion. Our readers trust what we write. Do not assert anything as fact that is not clearly supported by data or additional information. If something is your opinion, state it as such. If you are speculating, then say so. A lot of rumors swirl around the internet, but rumors can often be hurtful to a person or business. This is not 7th grade, even though some days it may seem like it. Blogging and social media are legitimate professions and should be treated as such. Defamation and the free-spirit of social media are beginning to clash.
Be accountable and take responsibility. Once you hit publish, it may seem easy to hit delete and take something off-line if there is controversy. We’ve all seen brands/people take down posts, tweets, status updates. Often more problem arise after the controversial posting has come down. If you pretend that your social footprint is set in stone rather than sand, you won’t be tempted to “make it go away”. Instead, add to, edit, update or follow up.
How many times have we heard someone say they were “hacked” when something controversial appears on their timeline, attempting to shift blame. If you’re willing to hit publish, be willing to handle the consequences. Furthermore, when at public events remember others can extend your digital footprint with photos or social shares. History can’t be undone, but it can be re-written.
Give Credit. This seems very simple. However, when it comes to the digital landscape many believe that if on the internet and they can see, right-click or cut/paste it then it’s free to take. While copyright infringement is illegal, taking ideas or “just a little” of what someone writes is, in lay-person’s terms, “not cool”. Just because it’s not illegal, doesn’t make it right. If you are inspired to do something by what someone else has done, just say so. You don’t always have to give a link back, but at least give credit. The same goes for other social platforms, give credit where credit is due. In blogging and social media you’ll find that it’s often easier to ask permission than it to ask forgiveness.
Tell the truth. I remember my mom telling me I’d get in more trouble if I lied about something than if I just told the truth in the first place. Our digital footprint grows weekly, and it’s getting easier and easier to follow that digital “paper trail”. Years ago it was nearly impossible to know if your friend really went to the concert. Today, they’ll have a check-in, a photo, a tweet, a status update and a blog post within 24 hours! At the same time, with all the details of an event or experience it’s easy to feel like you’re really there. Keep in mind, there are people who will “fact check” everything you write and say.
Blogging and social media are not going away any time soon. Our viability as a blogger or social media participant is closely tied to our personal and professional integrity. By remembering these 5 tips, you’re less likely to face an ethical dilemma.
Ethics, unfortunately, is not a “one size fits all” situation when it comes to blogging and social media. The competition can be fierce and it often seems like we live in our own little bubble. However, the true test of a person’s integrity is what they do when they think no one is looking.
What other ethical concerns should bloggers and social media professional be aware of?
Image Credit. Image permissibly modified by Sara Hawkins.