Rules of Engagement for Social Media

Many of us laughed, or felt horribly betrayed (or eventually both) when we discovered the truth about such social media mistakes as the Wal-Mart fake blogs or Sony’s failed attempt at a "viral" campaign on YouTube. We would have winced if we had made those kinds of mistakes on behalf of one of our own sites. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some rules for social media?

As it turns out, social media have now been around long enough that professional organizations are taking notice. I don’t mean just companies like Wal-Mart and Sony whose PR firms fumbled the ball. I mean public relations organizations. It looks like they’re finally getting enough of a clue to realize that their members need some guidance.

I was glad to see that the Chartered Institute for Public Relations has put out a document detailing best practices in social media. The CIPR says it is the largest public relations institute in Europe, with 9,000 members for all sectors of the industry. With any luck, these guidelines will be widely disseminated, and we’ll see fewer gaffes like the ones I noted earlier.

As a site owner and/or an SEO professional, your focus may be on getting to the top of the SERPs, but you can’t ignore the public relations aspect of your job. The two are almost inseparable, when you stop to think about it. You may already be using social media to help promote your site. Or maybe you have clients that are thinking about dipping their toes into the web 2.0 free-for-all. Even if you aren’t a PR professional, you will probably find these guidelines helpful as well. At the very least, they’ll tell you what to avoid – and if you get a particularly pushy client, you can point to them and explain to your client why his or her approach won’t work.

Colin Farrington, director general of the CIPR, said that the guidelines were created to help the organization’s members “more fully understand these new communication tools and the implications they have for our industry and business generally. We already know about planned EU legislation which will oblige businesses not to mislead consumers in any way in their use of social media.” Even in countries not bound by the laws of the EU, these guidelines can help PR (and perhaps SEO) professionals “to better serve their organizations by ensuring they are operating ethically and legally…”

Dealing with social media is different from dealing with run-of-the-mill media. Those of you who have been engaged with it for a while know this, though you might now be so immersed in it that you follow its rules without being conscious of doing so. The CIPR makes this point explicit when it says in its guidelines that “Organizations that apply the usual methods of dealing with the media can get into deep trouble, but that doesn’t mean that the ‘rule book’ can be completely disregarded.”

So what can you count on to work? Well, being honest and real is often valued in social media. Though it’s easy to hide on the Internet, people tend to get suspicious if they find out something about you later that could color what you have said before. Even though it’s not outright lying (as happened not too long ago with a now-former Wikipedia editor who pretended he was a theology professor), hiding what you are can leave a very bad taste. That’s why the CIPR suggests that “In general, members should err on the side of disclosure, even where there might not seem an overriding professional obligation to do so.” It suggests mentioning your occupation in your personal blog, for example, even if your blog is not about what you do for a living.

This feeds into another good point that CIPR makes in these guidelines, one that any business that already has a reputation should keep in mind with its online attempts at promotion. Remember that “reputation is holistic – it is not possible to sustain one image created through conventional media alongside a completely different one created through social media.” The two media interact with and inform each other.

The CIPR mentions that the three pillars in its code of conduct are integrity, competence, and confidentiality. That’s not a bad place to start in general when working with clients. It then takes up the discussion of how these three pillars apply to social media. To some extent, I think you can already see where they’re going, but let’s take a closer look.

The first pillar, integrity, fits well with being honest and transparent. CIPR advises its members to “be accurate when disseminating information…never use social media knowingly to mislead clients, employees, employers, colleagues or fellow professionals.” It’s probably also not a good idea to mislead potential customers of your clients! Users of social media have finely honed BS detectors, and will call you out if they go off.

Competence, quite simply, means knowing how to use social media in a way that won’t get you in trouble. One example the CIPR gives is remembering to disclose any financial interest you or your client have when, for instance, you contribute to a blog that recommends a particular supplier. There’s also the little matter of “ghosting” a blog, which is not quite the same thing as the fake blog committed by the PR firm working for Wal-Mart. (I’ll talk more about that in a bit).

Confidentiality as applied to social media means never revealing privileged information. As CIPR explains, “Confidential information should not be disclosed unless specific permission has been granted by the parties concerned; or unless it is in the public interest; or unless required to do so by law.” It’s wise to keep in mind that anything released on the Internet can travel around the world in seconds, and is extremely difficult if not impossible to recall. Think about that before you go live with anything.

I’ve quickly covered ethics; what about the law? The CIPR points out that a lot of the same considerations that apply to print and broadcast also apply to social media (hence the earlier reference to not throwing out the rulebook). The areas that you must consider include intellectual property, disclosure/confidentiality, defamation, and invasion of privacy.

Here is where it gets a little tricky, since your country might have different laws from those of the UK, which is where the CIPR is based – and again, those are different from the U.S. laws on those issues. But there are certain similarities and "common sense" things to keep in mind. Take copyright, for example. If you use music in a podcast, you need to make sure you have permission. Nowadays there are web sites where you can find music for use under a Creative Commons license, which spells out explicitly how the music can be used. Generally, Creative Commons licenses are less restrictive than what we think of as full-fledged copyright, but more restrictive than the use you would be permitted to make of a work that is in the public domain. Covering the legal aspects of promotion in social media is almost worth an article in its own right; the reader is advised to do his research, with the CIPR’s guidelines as a starting point to understanding which areas deserve the most attention.

Social media has made it easier to engage in some practices that would be considered questionable or even reprehensible. Very few of these are new. Take the practice of “astroturfing,” for example. CIPR defines it as “falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support by means of an orchestrated and disguised public relations exercise.” In short, it’s engineering the appearance of grassroots support – by posting to blogs, posting videos on YouTube, or using other social media to “spread the word” or show “spontaneous” support for something. The CIPR condemns it, and you shouldn’t practice it; just think about those silly guys in the Sony PSP YouTube video – and the PR hit that Sony took for that afterward — and you’ll understand.

Another practice CIPR addressed was “ghost writing.” Books can be ghost written – and so can blogs. Again, the CIPR advocates transparency, and points out that there are serious ethical concerns when the blog’s actual “face” does not provide detailed oversight. That’s easy when the blog is supposedly written by a real person – and I’d think that, for a blog “written” by an obviously fictional character (like Mickey Mouse), any reader would know the blog is intended as a public relations tactic.

But what about a blog created to look as if it were written by a real person – but is really fictional? Consider the YouTube videos by LonelyGirl15. She garnered quite an audience before viewers discovered that she wasn’t really an angsty teen-age girl, but the creation of Ramish Flinders and Miles Beckett – and there was a storm of outrage afterwards. These are areas in which you should tread very carefully.

Another practice the CIPR mentioned is very near to my heart: pitching bloggers. SEO Chat has been mistaken at times for a blog (it isn’t, despite the ability to comment on particular articles), and PR professionals who sometimes pitch ideas to me have called me a blogger. I’m not, but it’s worth keeping in mind that you should approach bloggers as if they are journalists: get familiar with their material and the types of topics they cover so that you can be sure what you send them will be relevant. I’m much more likely to review a new search engine, for example, than a new CAD program.

You should also make sure the story you’re pitching really is newsworthy. Don’t forget to disclose your own connection either (there’s that transparency issue again). The CIPR spells out what can happen if you get this wrong: “Unlike mainstream media, the risk is not simply that they [your pitches] will be ignored – they may instead be held up as an example of poor public relations practice.” In other words, the blogger may make fun of you in his or her blog for sending PR spam. As they warn in the medieval re-enactment group I used to spend time with, “A fighter can only kill you, but a bard can make you immortal.” You really don’t want bad press in social media.

Social media offers you a great opportunity to communicate your message to a wide audience. But it carries with it certain risks and responsibilities. Tread carefully, and make sure you know the rules. Your sites will reward you, and your clients will thank you.

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