Managing Director and a member of the faculty of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg FL, Butch Ward is a seasoned journalist, having spent 27 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow him on Twitter @butchward.

Case Study #1: Let’s Be Friends
Are you representing a client on social media? There’s an expectation that if a public figure sets up a Facebook friend page, you are communicating with the actual person. The word “expectations” is important because people have different expectations for different types of social media interactions. You might be in someway deceiving your audience with a friend page run by proxy, but the same expecations of a site run by the actual person is not inherent in a Facebook fan page.

Consider the Values: How do you make ethical decisions
A few of the values listed by the group as part of their ethics “policy” apply to social media: accuracy, honesty, transparency, clarity and accountability.

Listen to your gut, but don’t stop there. Then…

  • Name the issue. Is it a conflict of interest? Is it a misrepresentation of the truth?
  • List your ethical concerns. When you talk something out, you begin to see solutions.
  • Identify the stakeholders.
  • Find at least three alternatives. We usually ask only one question: what should we do, asked in an either/or format. There are almost always more alternatives, but we’re not trained to go there. The issues are generally simplified to an either/or.

Case study 2: Yelp Reviews for Advertisers
Should you review a product on a public site without disclosing you are involved with the company? What if you are a paid advertiser? Should you expect an enhanced presence with more postitve reviews posted to the top? There was a recent story that positive reviews are rising to the top for site advertisers (versus non advertising customers) as a result of Yelp’s algorithm. How can Yelp address this accusation? Use fine print for a disclaimer? Be bold and upfront about it? What ethical dillemmas arise when you consider that Yelp is not presenting itself as an advertiser-driven site.

Be transparent. This means:

  • Be accurate
  • Be clear
  • Include a working link (and test it!) – a dead link casts disparity on the legitimacy of the story

One word to remember – choice.We may start out wanting to be true to the values we hold dear (see above for some examples). But what happens is that we are challenged to make value-driven, ethical, angel-on-the-shoulder decisions in the face of very compelling reasons to chose the other path. Many people like to say in these circumstances that they “didn’t have a choice.” As we face these pressure points, rather than rationalize, we need to remember and uphold our values.

What if we’re wrong?
Have you ever posted incorrect information on your social media networks? Perhaps you shared info that was a hoax, wrote the wrong date, or just made a mistake in general.  What do you do? Do you laugh or make a joke about it? Delete it? ‘Fess up? Make excuses? Deny it? Point the finger at someone else?

This goes back to realizing who your stakeholders are, and what you are really trying to do for them. For example, if you are setting out to treat your audiences with dignity and respect, wouldn’t you want them to have the facts straight. It’s important to correct misleading information, particularly when you examine your decision in the light of this value.

As more people are getting on board with Social Media and using it both for personal and professional activities, we should be having discussions about policies and ethical guidelines before a crisis situation arises. Be proactive and  have these conversations about social media ethics with your employees and partners now.

You now have access to the public discourse in this country in a way you have never had before. But with that comes responsibility. There is a bigger reason that ever before to think about the ethics that guide you. This is a tremendous opportunity to communicate effectively.