Revisiting the Chick-fil-A and Chapstick Incidents: The Ethics of Transparency and Authenticity in Social Media
After eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team were found guilty of throwing the 1919 World Series, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned them from professional baseball for life. Landis went further and exacted the same punishment for two other players only implicated in the scandal. It was Landis’s mission to clean-up baseball – to renew the public’s confidence and trust in America’s favorite game. He was repairing the image of the game.
Judge Landis had his own problems with perception. While receiving a paycheck as the first baseball commissioner he continued to draw his salary as a federal judge. While not counter to any laws, the issue helped to promote the adoption of the 1924 Canons of Judicial Ethics in which judges were repeatedly exhorted to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
It’s believed that the inspiration for this edict is to be found in St. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, “abstain from the appearance of evil.” Some scholars argue that the appropriate translation is form of evil, which would mean something altogether different – but nevertheless, the notion that judges should avoid “the appearance of impropriety” is still a strong component of judiciary ethics. In fact, it was cited as a principal reason that judges and lawyers should not be Facebook friends in a 2009 judicial ethics guidelines in the state of Florida (it is, however, permissible for judges and lawyers to be Facebook pals in Ohio and some other states).
How did social media become ethical?
The ethic of authenticity and transparency has become a mainstay of the social media mantra. In the book, the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was published in 2000, addressed the necessity for authenticity:
But how can a business be authentic? Authenticity describes whether someone truly owns up to what she or he actually is. Since corporations and business aren’t individuals, ultimately their authenticity is rooted in the employees. If the company is posing, then the people who are the company will have to pose as well.
The earliest social media platforms did not begin as exemplifications of transparency and authenticity. The 1993 New York cartoon exemplified common sentiment when it stated, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” If anything, it was common at the time for individuals to use the anonymity of the web to play out alternative personas.
In the decades following the Vietnam War, a mistrust of both government and big business took hold. Politicians weren’t the only perpetrators of cover-ups: automobile manufactures, pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, and other large business sectors made headlines. In the age following Enron, Sarbanes-Oxley, and astronomic bailouts of banks and insurance companies, the growing distrust of big business overlapped with the rise of the Internet and participative media.
The influence of blogs
When we look back at the history of social media it becomes apparent that this ethos took hold in the early 2000’s in the world of blogging. It was recognized that for blogs to become a credible source of news, that bloggers needed to practice a real transparency of sources. Also, the fact that the inherent medium presented a problem – it could be easy for people to edit their words after others have responded. The very notion of participatory media would be undermined if what you just responded to could be changed tomorrow. YOUR words could look ridiculous. YOU could lose credibility.
In a 2007 review of Paul Gillin’s book, “The New Influencers,” Kay Corry Aubrey wrote, “… the new social media are far from being a free-for-all. Gillin describes their emerging social structure and code of ethics: honesty, openness and willingness to credit sources and avoid plagiarism. The transparency ethic of new social media dictates that a post can never be deleted but may be modified.” [Source here.]
In discussing her own book “The Weblog Handbook,” author Rebecca Blood wrote, “I deliberately reject the journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy in favor of transparency as the touchstone for ethical blogging. As media participants, we are stronger and more valuable working outside mainstream media, rather than attempting to mirror the purposes of the institution we should seek to analyze and supplement.” [Source here.]
Brands as individuals
The concept that a corporation is a legal entity with the rights of a person are embedded in law. With the rise of social media, brands have the opportunity to assume that role of an individual with a brand voice and personality, and have one-on-one conversations. On a political level, this may not be a popular notion – but on an emotional level, people consistently show a willingness to participate in the conceit.
For the brand-as-person illusion to exist, consumers “suspend their disbelief,” as we often say of movies. At the first whiff of duplicity, the illusion dissipates in the air like the proverbial magician’s rabbit.
The recent Chick-Fil-A and Chapstick incidents provide illustrations of the type of response a brand can receive. Is there significant damage to a brand’s reputation? At the large corporate level, those small social media grumblings can flow into national press, and in this age of sentiment analysis, can have real impact on stock prices.
If the brand marketer is working to become a voice in the communities around the brand, there can be a real setback in trust. Yes, a lot of value can be at stake. The world’s leading marketers such as Marc Pritchard of P&G and Jonathon Mildenhall at the Coca-Cola Company have acknowledged social media as the greatest opportunity in their organizations’ growth.
The ethics of authenticity and transparency have come about from historic imperative. Success in the social media revolution will require the adoption of these ethics.