Book examines ethical public relations practices in social media

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A new book edited by two Penn State faculty members offers insights for pubic relations practitioners, scholars and students on issues such as transparency, company social media policies, corporate social responsibility and ethical frameworks for social media communication.

The book “Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations” (2014, Routledge) has 15 chapters -- all written by communications scholars from around the world. The editors are Marcia W. DiStaso, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations, and Denise Sevick Bortree, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations. Both are senior research fellows in the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, a research unit housed in the College of Communications that provided support for the project.

The book features a foreword by Brian Solis, digital analyst, anthropologist and futurist, who studies the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing and culture. It is titled “Social Media is Lost Without a Social Compass.”

Chapters in the first section of the book, which is devoted to transparency, include looks at issues such as openness and disclosure in social media efforts, ghost blogging and ghost commenting. Separate chapters explore case studies featuring social media use by Bank of America and Kashi’s viral photo crisis.

The second section, on social media policies, examines ethical guidelines in the use of Twitter and how organizations are strategically monitoring conversations and engaging stakeholders on social media sites.

In part three, current practices are reviewed in the use of social media as a channel for corporate social responsibility. Case studies include BP’s use of YouTube during the Deepwater Horizon crisis and Coca-Cola’s efforts to build trust and brand relevance with social media. The battle in social media between Nestle and Greenpeace for ethical palm oil sourcing is also presented.

Part four of the book covers ethical frameworks for communication. One chapter looks at the ethical and research implications of social media. Another identifies “markers of credibility” in corporate blogs. A third attempts to assess the ethical reasoning of companies’ public relations efforts with Facebook and Twitter. Another in this section focuses on government use of social media. There is also a case study involving use of social media in swine flu prevention that examines authority crisis communications versus discussion forums.

“Effective strategic use of social media requires ethical considerations,” wrote DiStaso and Bortree. “Ulterior motives in social media are easily discovered and organizations have a responsibility to be open with their social media stakeholders. Social media should be managed with the ethic of care in mind to ensure that actions reflect a concern for others and value for the relationship.”

The book provides a snapshot of how organizations are succeeding, and sometimes struggling, in that task and offers insights into best practices.

Last Updated May 20, 2014