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Social media ethics: Avoiding 'OMG' moments

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In his recent blog entry “The Ethics of Social Media – Part I: Adjusting to a 24/7 World,” retired Wall Street Journal reporter and editor James Hyatt writes that since the social media explosion, once-resolved issues are having to be rehashed and new predicaments have been born, needing solutions.

In today’s social media-frenzied world, “Businesses have less and less control over how they communicate with the public, while 24/7 bloggers feel free to snipe away,” writes Hyatt. “Job seekers find their private lives may no longer be private and employees worry that the boss is electronically looking over their shoulders,” he adds.

Also, consumers must worry if their online account information is safe and secure, and have no way to know if favorable online reviews about products and businesses are legitimate.

Hyatt says professionals of all kinds, even NFL players, are learning how to live with new social media rules. One customer’s fuming blog entry can ruin a corporate image that has taken months or even years to perfect. A slipshod e-mail can harm contract talks or negotiations. Not protecting customer information online can cost you time and money in litigation. Hitting send without thinking can torpedo an executive’s career.

In just one week, various businesses have come under fire for social media-related gaffes:

  • An e-mail rating headshots of the “top 10″ new female employees at the PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin circulated among male employees, went viral and drew widespread criticism.
  • A Pacific Gas & Electric executive in California was put on paid leave after joining an online discussion group that criticized the company’s plans to install “smart meters.”
  • Attempting to tackle insider trading. Britain’s financial regulator ordered financial services firm to keep records of employee calls made on their cell phones.

Companies as well as individuals are now rethinking their laid-back attitude about putting personal information on the Web. And in Washington, government agencies are adopting new guidelines defining acceptable social media behavior.

In a survey of different organization’s social media issues last year, 24 percent said an employee had been disciplined for activities on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. But half of the respondents for these organizations said they had no policy regarding employee online activity outside of work.

What is your social media policy?

Large, well-known companies have begun to draw up specific rules for social media behavior. While most encourage employee efforts to put companies in a positive light, they also spell out what’s acceptable. Here are some company policies:

Wells Fargo: “By posting content on this Blog, you expressly grant Wells Fargo (and its affiliates) the right to use or distribute the posted content in any form, worldwide, and in perpetuity.”

Kaiser Permanente: “Be mindful of the world’s longer memory – Everything you say is likely to be indexed and stored forever, either via search engines or through bloggers that reference your posts.”

FedEx: If posting to the FedEx Citizenship Blog “you agree not to post or transmit anything unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, inflammatory or pornographic, or anything that infringes upon the copyright, trademark, publicity rights or other rights of a third party.”

Microsoft: “As a general rule, Microsoft does not review, edit, censor, or, obviously, endorse individual posts. You should ‘be smart’ and, as an employee of the company, you should not only think about how your blog reflects on you as an individual, but also about how your blog affects Microsoft as a whole.”

Rules and concerns can even move into legal territory. Hyatt says, “FINRA stresses that social media postings can violate industry rules about promoting investments and soliciting customers. FINRA says securities firms should take steps to be sure that employees using social media sites for business are ‘appropriately supervised’ and ‘do not present undue risks to investors.’”

Businesses and individuals can download the Social Media Business Council’s free disclosure practices guide online, which provides checklists to help companies and employees learn how to interact online appropriately and transparently.

Hyatt says it also “makes recommendations on how to deal with bloggers, on how employees should handle personal and unofficial blogging, on how to be transparent in providing rewards or incentives to bloggers, on best practices for third parties acting on behalf of a company, and on best practices.”

To find the guide, go to


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