“Twethics”: A Brief Analysis of Twitter Ethics in Public RelationsBy Angela Dwyer
Public relations practitioners, celebrities and employees use Twitter to promote causes, issues, products and ideas. While codes of ethics address the use of traditional forms of media, few resources specifically provide guidance for public relations ethics with social media platforms such as Twitter. In my opinion, public relations tweeters can be classified into four groups that face ethical challenges: the paid tweeter, the company tweeter, the out-of-context tweeter and the ghost-tweeter.
The Paid Tweeter
Celebrities who are being paid by companies in order to tweet as a form of advertisement are not disclosing whether or not they are receiving money for these tweets. According to the FTC, celebrities in particular have a duty to disclose their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside of traditional ads, which includes social media platforms such as Twitter. It is hard for this regulation to be enforced on a case-by-case basis (Poblete, 2010). “To say that it’s ‘difficult’ to crack down on every celebrity—or nonentity turned quasi-celebrity by dint of notoriety online—who gushes about a product, would be an understatement” (Poblete, 2010). At the root of paid Tweeter ethicality is the concept of trust. “If people endorse a product without revealing that it’s been paid for, there is a danger it will undermine the trust fans have in them” (Harlow, 2010).
The Company Tweeter
Has your boss or marketing director ever asked you to tweet about your company? The company tweeter writes reviews or tweets about promotional offers for their own company. If a restaurant’s employees wrote all the positive reviews online, would they really be as valid to someone seeking a reputable opinion? Sometimes an employee is passionate about their company and wants to tweet about it—ethics does not rob this person of a voice—it simply asks to identify the relationship.
The Out-of-Context Tweeter
As Twitter is a form of micro-blogging that only requires self-editing before publishing, certain issues with unverified or false information inevitably exist. Live-tweeting from events poses an issue as these “tweets are only real-time sound bites that do not necessarily provide the big picture” (Heydary, 2009). As “such updates can be taken out of context,” there is a fine line between ethical and unethical Twitter usage (Heydary, 2009). Just as a lack of context can cause consumers to misinterpret messages, a tweet that lacks all of the information necessary surrounding the idea can also misinform Twitter users. In only 140 characters, sometimes condensing can actually distort the message completely. These unverified bits of information might be shared or re-tweeted before being corrected.
In the case of Twitter, a ghostwriter is someone who is paid to write tweets on behalf of another person. With the advance of technology and the reliance on the Internet, ghostwriting is becoming an increasingly prevalent practice. Twitter offers stars and politician the opportunity to control, create and maintain their image. As a result, publicists usually step in to properly express the persona of the star for whom they work. This poses an ethical dilemma as users never actually know if a star is responsible for what they tweet. Stars may allocate the task of tweeting to their publicist as they may better communicate to the fan base. However, should it be required for verified Twitter users to disclose if a ghostwriter is responsible for their Tweets? Politicians, executives and the like are able to use ghostwriters without the act being labeled as plagiarism. According to the United States legal code, “In the case of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered the author” (Brandt, 2007). Therefore, publicists are allowed to tweet on behalf of their employer—or star—but the act can still be viewed as unethical. Who do you think is tweeting for Obama and Romney in this presidential campaign?
Almost all of the potentially ethical issues encountered on Twitter can be summed up into two ethical practices that will prevent any breach of trust: 1) Disclosure of information and 2) Transparency.
Disclosure of Information
PRSA’s Code Provisions includes disclosure of information. This is a simple way to avoid the potential unethical ghost writing, or tweeting with some type of incentive (for company or pay). Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society. It also builds trust by revealing all information that people need to make responsible decisions. “Revealing sponsors for causes and interests represented” (prsa.org) is an ethical action endorsed on the PRSA website. Disclosing any necessary information also includes disclosing anything necessary to tell the full story, avoiding out-of-context communication.
As an equal partner and result of disclosing information, transparency leads to ethical communication—especially on a platform such as Twitter. To increase trust, organizations must be more open and transparent in communication (Rawlins, 2008). Transparency is mentioned several times in the 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer. Richard Edelman said that continuous, transparent—and even passionate—communications is central to business success in today’s new environment. Trust is often a collective judgment of a group that another group will be honest and not take advantage of others. The results of a trust and transparency survey showed that integrity and goodwill were strongly correlated (Rawlins, 2008). By increasing transparency in tweeting, companies will actually improve relationships with publics by increasing trust. Johnson confirms the point that trust is best developed in an ambient of transparency. “Trust is difficult to develop in an environment in which one cannot be sure of the identities of the people with whom one is communicating” (Johnson, p. 61). Despite the increasing regulations in the blogosphere and even twittersphere, in the end, ethics is an individual issue—each Tweeter must choose to act ethically. “Public relations and communication never will be more ethical than the level of basic morality of the people who are in public relations” (Wright, 1996, p. 532). As individual communicators, or tweeters, increase transparency by disclose all information necessary, they will be contributing to an overall ethical increase in social communication—you make the choice when you tweet.
Angela Dwyer is a Project Manager at PRIME Research in New York City.
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