The Implications of a New Kind of “Social”

Social media is the new generation’s way of communicating. Long gone are the days of landlines and snail mail. Today, the Millennials are communicating through Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. But what are the ethical responsibilities of social media users?

Over the past several years, celebrities like Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres and Rick Mercer have addressed rising online issues such as cyber-bullying. Are people so socially disconnected and more tuned into their online connection that words come easier? Is it easier to communicate from behind the screen?

The positives and negatives of the ease of communicating and posting opinions to social media platforms have employers questioning whether there should be training on the ethical use of social networking sites.

“From an employer’s perspective, it’s clear that organizations need enhanced training and communication relative to social networking,” says Ainar D. Aijala, global managing partner of Deloitte Touche. “This is particularly the case when more than half of the future talent pool feels so strongly about social networking that their abilities to access those sites would play into the decision to take a job.”

Is it ethically correct that an employer can search your social profile? This is happening – jobs have been lost and applications have been denied. So what can we do to protect ourselves and our future position?

Consider the impact of your post. More importantly, consider your audience. Professional social media users take into account the perceptions and expectations of others.

— Erin Jones

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Chick-Fil-A’s Anti-Gay Scandal

The popular American fast food restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A caused controversy in June 2012, when chief operating officer Dan Cathy made comments opposing same sex marriage. This was later followed by reports that the company was making donations to anti-gay charities, such as Exodus International and the Family Research Council.

Corporations often choose to donate to charities based on how the charities’ values mirror the company’s key messages. Chick-Fil-A has stated on their website: “The Chick-Fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

It is highly unethical for a company to outline in their key messages that they believe that all individuals are allowed to have the right to their own sexual orientation, whilst giving monetary donations to anti-gay organizations, whose main purposes are to ignore the choices or rights of their customers and employees.

Other articles have highlighted that the company been giving money to anti-gay organizations. They also stated that many gay employees who have been working for the company for years and have constantly heard inappropriate gay slurs or derogatory terms used in their facilities.

Kellie, a 23-year-old former employee who was interviewed by Huffington Post, said that she has encountered both situations. She worked in a Chick-Fil-A where all the managers were professional and courteous to their employees’ lifestyle choices, but also working at another location where managers would often make homophobic jokes. She felt she would be fired immediately if she were to come out as gay.  Eventually, after only working for the company for a short while longer, she quit for the reasons mentioned above.

From an ethical standpoint, Chick-Fil-A has failed its customers, as well as its employees.  A company’s success hinges on the values that it communicates to its publics, as well as whom they choose to be affiliated with.

Although they have stated that they believe that everybody has the right to choose their own sexual orientation, giving money to multiple anti-gay charities, while also allowing employees to talk negatively about gay people in its facilities, is completely unethical because it is leading everyone astray.

Customers believed they were supporting a company with a business model that met their ethical standards, and employees believed that they where working for a well-rounded and fair company.

— Becca Page

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Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal

Every public relations organization has a code of ethics that their employees must adhere to. However, it is naive to think that this principle prevents unethical communication to reach the public. It is very troubling to consider that ethical codes are constantly violated in this industry.

One must look no further than Health Management Associates’ Arkansas prison blood scandal. HMA’s program was designed in 1960s as a way for both the prison system and the prisoners to make money. The idea was to harvest plasma from prisoners to provide blood to blood-brokering companies, as well as a pharmaceutical product to haemophiliacs that would allow their blood to clot. Users of the product paid $50 per prescription refill.

This program was rife with problems, and they stemmed from the fact that HMA’s protocol was to utilize prisoners as employees in the program, who worked as administrative staff and phlebotomists. Because they were paid, corruption enveloped the program through the prisoners who worked within it.  They sold the right to bleed, they paid those who bled in drugs, and diseased prisoners were allowed to bleed because the adequate screening processes were neglected, and even doctored by the prisoner-employees themselves.

Between 1964 and 1983, products that were contaminated with AIDS, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C were shipped to Canada, Japan, South Korea, and many European nations. In 1983, the first international recall of the product’s history occurred, and the issue went public, which, in turn, caused a public relations nightmare. Most of the companies who bought the raw product from HMA had no idea that it was coming from infested prisoners in Arkansas.

HMA was implicated in unethical international communication on their part, because they had openly covered up the contamination issues for years. The plasma was exported outside the U.S. until 1983, but its sale within U.S. borders had been banned for years prior to the international recall. HMA openly lied about the contamination, and funded misinformation campaigns to promote their own shoddy merchandise, which resulted in global AIDS and Hepatitis infections in the hundreds of thousands. 

For example, in 1983, HMA president Leonard Dunn successfully lobbied for the company to retain its contract until 1986, despite the fact that he knew that nearly 40 per cent of their product was contaminated in 1983 with AIDS and Hepatitis C. He only cared about profit, and not the public.

After examining a case like this, it’s hard to avoid cynicism. Questions like, “Do ethics even matter?” run rampant. How many other companies treat communication this way? It always helps to look at messages in terms of profit. Also, how do they stimulate financial growth? What are the problems with the products they promote?

For all ethical practitioners, this is something to consider, because, in some instances, innocent lives are at stake.

— Jamal Nath

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Social Media Ethics

The rise of social media over the past decade has been the fastest change in communication in history. Businesses and corporations need to address how social media is changing the way we communicate. Of course, there are policies, rules, and ethical laws behind social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. However, if users don’t read these policies and simply click ‘I Agree’ when setting up their account, there isn’t a way or a reason for people to read them or care.


Employees must realize that there is no such thing as privacy or personal property. Thousands of users can access conversations, posts, and pictures. Whether employees use social media on a personal or professional level, it is important to differentiate opinions to facts, as well as the ethically correct use of these social platforms.


Employers need to set a standard for their employees. A corporation or business as a whole should come together as an entity to decide their goals, motives, and interests. They should establish a tone, and how much they want to be visible on social media. Employees should then be sensitive to these standards, and post within their guidelines.


It sounds simple, but it only takes one tweet or one post to go viral for an entire business or brand to deal with the aftermath.


–Stephanie Larocque

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Ethically Challenged

P.T. Barnum was the master at taking advantage of a situation.  Some people believe he was a liar and a huckster, while others believed he was a genius and a trailblazer.  But, one thing is certain, he was a pioneer in advertising and public relations.  He understood the value of publicity, good or bad.

Barnum knew how to take advantage of situations to get a desired result.  Is that unethical?  He falsified situations to generate interest, but he also offered certain legitimacy.  He told the truth often enough that he was hard not to believe.    For every FeeJee mermaid he presented, he followed up with a Jenny Lynch.

When his endeavors were questioned, he stood behind them. Take the case of Josephine Cloufuilla, Barnum’s first bearded lady.  Barnum was taken to court about the legitimacy of her beard.  He won the case and counter-sued; though it was speculated later that he staged the court cases to generate interest in his show.

For all of his attractions, P.T. Barnum only ever admitted to four hoaxes; Joyce Heath, George Washington’s alleged former nurse, the FeeJee mermaid, the Grand Buffalo Hunt, and Tom Thumb’s Baby.

Barnum is often remembered for the controversy he contributed to advertising, leaving his positive contributions overlooked.  His actions laid the foundation for the ethics used in today’s society.

In hindsight, we see Barnum’s tactics as unethical. But, when advertising and public relations were in its infancy he had no rules, he made the rules.

 –Troy Baker

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International Association of Business Communicators — Code of Ethics

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) developed a code of ethics for professional communicators. IABC’s members use this code of ethics to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining an ethical practice in all aspects of their profession.


The code contains several standards that help determine right from wrong. It takes into consideration human rights, and the rule of law. Keeping cultural norms in mind, the code can also be used by countries all over the world. It is even accessible in different languages, at no cost.


The code consists of three main principles, and twelve articles. The three principles ensure that professional communication must be “legal, ethical, and in good taste.” The articles explain that communicators need to be honest by providing accurate information and correcting any mistakes. Additionally, communicators should give credit where credit is due. Sources should be clearly identified and reported.


What happens if an IABC member defies the code? Any member whose professional activities violate the code face the possibility of having their membership terminated. When one’s job involves providing information to thousands, or even millions of people, one has a significant responsibility to communicate ethically, and with integrity. What you say and how you say it can truly affect the lives of people. Following these principles will guarantee integrity and commitment to your word, and earn you credibility for your work.


Professional communications is a large, fast-paced world that constantly faces change. This is why IABC is continuously doing research to remain up-to-date with current events, and offers its best to the public and its members.


Visit IABC’s website for more information:


–Samantha Liacos

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Crisis Management Case Study: BP Oil Spill

As public relations students, we learn different crisis management strategies. We are taught accountability and forward public honesty to correct critical actions.


Learning what not to do in a crisis is as important as learning what to do. One of the best case studies of bad crisis management is BP’s actions after the April 20, 2010 oil spill off the coast of Texas. A deadly mixture of natural gas, mud, oil and concrete exploded from approximately 5,000 feet below sea level onto the deck of an oilrig stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Due to a malfunction, the well was unable to be sealed for three months causing the equivalent of 5,000 barrels of crude oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico each day. It was deemed the worst oil spill in American history.


BP’s immediate response was to defect blame by sending out a news release placing the blame on the owner of the oil rig, Transocean.  BP did not apologize and had little success sending out clear messages through the media and their executives. Reports indicated that BP had ordered its employees not to talk to media. These efforts tainted BP’s usually trustworthy public image.


The public used creative tactics to voice their negativity toward BP. There were fake BP Twitter handles that gained more followers than the real one. Greenpeace had a campaign to rebrand BP, stating that their crisp green sun logo didn’t accurately depict the company’s values. These, and many more examples, deeply influenced BP’s strategy going forward.


BP then created three key messages:

  • They accept full responsibility for the spill
  • They are deeply concerned for the harm that been caused and the commitment to rebuilding the local economies and environment
  • They are working to enact safety measures, and ethic environmental responsibility into all aspects of the company


They used different social media strategies, expanding beyond Twitter by purchasing search engine keywords to ensure people were seeing their message.


Watching BP’s reaction reiterates the importance of a company being transparent during crisis management.


–Elizabeth McCarthy

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