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Does Digital Communication Foster More Ethical Business Behavior?

I’ve been accused in the past of being an optimist. Perhaps I’m about to add fuel to that fire with this proclamation: I believe that social media makes corporate America more ethical.

Ethical Twitter

I’ve been accused in the past of being an optimist. Perhaps I’m about to add fuel to that fire with this proclamation: I believe that social media makes corporate America more ethical.

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Now, while I believe a healthy dose of optimism does us all some good, I by no means consider myself utopian. “Web 2.0” excitement about social connectivity too often emphasizes benefits of these technologies–how they enable autonomy and create a more level playing field–in ways that make it seem as if there’s some inherent “good” in these technologies themselves. However, such proclamations run the risk of glossing over concerning issues: debates about business models built on the labor of the audience without offering sufficient rights/benefits to those users; these spaces becoming a new outlet for spam, schemes, identity theft, or for the spread of vicious rumors or private information; child safety concerns; and both continued gaps in who has access to the Internet and who has the support, the tools, the understanding, and/or the social environment to participate equally in these virtual spaces. Utopianism glosses over these issues, to be sure.

Meanwhile, there is equal danger in glossing over the many benefits and social potentials of these technologies because of these challenges. Which brings me back to where I started: I believe that social media makes corporate America more ethical.

My optimism hasn’t blinded me to the point that I think there’s hope for reforming the personal scruples of boardrooms across the world. I believe that the corporate world will continue to be filled by a spectrum of professional ethics on an individual level, and our business schools (and, I would argue, all institutes for professional training) should include discussions of ethics as a core component of their training. But I believe there are inherent safeguards against poor business ethics built into the ways in which human beings have adapted Internet communication platforms.

While many–including me–have lamented the deterioration of journalism, we’ve seen that the collective intelligence of an online community can often uncover glaring issues that teams of journalists could only uncover with massive capital and months of investigation, if at all. It’s a shame that publications can’t afford the Woodward-and-Bernstein dream teams of years past, and we need to find new ways to ensure that pivotal role of professional journalism remains intact.

In the meantime, we can see the many ways communities have come together to uncover irresponsible corporate or political behavior: astroturfing marketing campaigns that purport to be from unaffiliated individuals but, in reality, turn out to be a front for the company; communities who bring their knowledge together to dispel political rumors through research; and audience research to fact-check the statements of public figures and corporate spokespeople on a daily basis. These sorts of behaviors have prompted journalists like Dan Gillmor to celebrate the fact that his readers are smarter than he is, to embrace collective intelligence as a way to make journalism “better.”

When I think about this issue, I’m reminded of the deep sense of ethical behavior one of the most principled newspaper publishers who lived, Barry Bingham, Jr., demonstrated. Bingham would publish his own traffic violations visibly in his papers, in hopes of deterring any potential accusations that he’d ever use his press to attack others while covering up his mistakes. As Bingham looked upon the many changes digital journalism has brought about, I hope he took comfort in the fact that these social platforms create an environment that put more emphasis on deterring unethical behavior than ever before.

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In this environment where it’s easier than ever to “be caught” conducting unethical business behavior and even easier for news to spread once a company has been caught, marketers and corporate communicators have a new reason to concern themselves with professional collective ethics, no matter where the state of their personal business ethics stand: the risk of crisis. Crisis is something C-suite executives understand; it’s something they spend massive budgets to safeguard against (ideally) and that they are forced to spend massive budgets for if they hit.

For marketers, corporate communicators, customer service managers, and others who are in control of their brand’s social media presence, this new social reality provides a new reason to be ethical: the dangers of getting caught behaving irresponsibly. If you don’t want your company getting caught doing something the public wouldn’t like, my advice is pretty simple: if you don’t want people to find out about it, don’t do it. If you must do it, be prepared to justify it.

Professionals in marketing and public relations–industries often associated with puffery and obfuscation–who care about professional ethics should embrace this change. It gives us greater leverage than ever to counsel the companies we work for and the clients we represent to “do the right thing.” And, when one of our marketing brethren are caught being less than responsible, we should absolutely dive critically into their worst practices to serve as a warning to ourselves and those we work with. But we have to resist being too self-righteous, lest we perhaps unintentionally find ourselves in the same situation down the road.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled “From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn” in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee.

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