Controlling the Message: Social Media Communication and Ethics

by Dayna Bell

[This is the fifth article in a series of guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of  their graduate programs.]

abstract background @ & internetThe age of social media is here, and its popularity does not seem to be slowing down. With the rapid proliferation of social media, public relations practitioners and their respective organizations have thoroughly adopted the platforms, and committed to communicating using social media, using them to receive virtual feedback from their stakeholders. However, not all of the feedback received is positive, and it is now almost impossible for a public relations practitioner to control an organization’s message.

Social media communication involves both proactive and reactive two-way communication.  The proactive approach is based on frequent dialogue with stakeholders—sensemaking and sensegiving—while reactive communication invites communication with stakeholders through feedback, without forming messages through relationship-building dialogue— sensemaking will lead to sensegiving[1]. Both types of communication are seen in social media depending on the organizational type, but reactive communication is the most common. Either way, feedback from the public is visible to everyone regardless of communication type, and there is no control over what they will post, leaving your organization’s image and message now out of your hands, and in the hands of your followers. As a public relations practitioner (and often the face of your organization), this can be very frightening because losing control of your overall message could result in permanent damage to the image of your organization.

For example, in 2012, the Susan G. Komen Foundation was accused of deleting various comments from their Facebook page in response to the breast cancer foundation not supporting Planned Parenthood. They were also targeted as having inconsistent postings on their beliefs regarding the subject. The foundation claimed they were only profanity-laden comments that were deleted, but followers argued otherwise. In turn, their control of the message was in danger as a result of the preliminary negative comments, but was completely lost when the comments were deleted. The foundation ended up taking a large hit on the PR front, their ethics were challenged, and they are still trying to recover (for more information, check out this article from the Washington Post).

According to the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Public Relations Society (to which their social media guidelines are attached), their second guideline clearly states:

 “A member shall deal fairly and honestly with the communications media and the public[2].

With that in mind and applying it to the above situation, the Susan G. Komen Foundation should not have deleted comments that may have negatively impacted the organization, as it is not ethical or fair to shut out the opinions of others; thus, resulting in their stakeholders revolting, and losing their message control and any form of two-way communication.

Multiple public relations websites, such as the CPRS, the CIPR, and the PRSA implement ethical guidelines to help PR professionals communicate via social media. Although it is not always possible to control the message, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) promotes The Three R’s as part of their advice in ethically communicating in social media to achieve positive public responses[3]:

The Three R’s include:

1)      Representation: Identify yourself and your role within the company when commenting;

2)      Responsibility: You have the responsibility to post accurate, honest, and clear information; and

3)      Respect: Be polite and respectful to the opinions of others even if you do not agree with them, or when the comments get heated.

Taking advice such as The Three R’s, and educating yourself on the multiple ethical guidelines available will help increase your two-way communication, boost your knowledge in handling difficult social media situations, and in turn, help keep control of your message. At the end of the day, you can never control the comments received, their impact on your organization, and the control of your message, but if you post ethically, chances are the public will respect your honesty and transparency and your social media presence will be regarded in an overall positive light.

For more information on ethical social media guidelines and policy statements, visit these webpages by the Canadian Public Relations Society, the Public Relations Society of America, and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

Dayna Bell is a Master of Arts (Communication) student at Mount Saint Vincent University. She is interested in ethics, social media, and health communication.


[1] Morsing, M., & Schultz, M. (2006). Corporate social responsibility communication: Stakeholder information, response and involvement strategies. Business Ethics: A European Review, 15(4), 323-338.

[2] Canadian Public Relations Society. (2007). CPRS Code of Ethics [Webpage]. Retrieved from online website http://www.cprs.ca/aboutus/code_ethic.aspx

[3] Public Relations Society of America. (2011). Social Media Policy [PDF Document]. Retrieved from online website http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/GuidelinesLogos/ SocialMediaPolicy/secured/ PRSASocialMediaPolicy.pdf

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1 thought on “Controlling the Message: Social Media Communication and Ethics”

  1. I have always found that when you are open to comments, both positive and negative, they tend to police themselves. And, if a commenter posts something that may be something an organization is hoping to keep quiet…perhaps it’s time to take a look at the reasons. Great article!

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