Online Public Relations and Ethics

The internet has changed the dynamics of public relations; today’s public is more informed and can within a click of a mouse, compare what one company has to offer to another no matter where they are in the world. 

The internet, and in particular social media – facebook, twitter, blogs, amongst others have, and are continuing to allow people to communicate and send messages no matter wherever they are in the world.  While social media has been around for quite a few years now, over the last year we have saw a real outburst of its use in countries which were once classified as conservative.  Social media such as twitter has empowered people in the Middle East, giving them a voice to be heard beyond their borders – around the world.


Social media such as facebook, twitter youtube are also being widely used by a number of professionals to reach their target audiences/markets – from politicians to companies.  While this presents a very interesting, cheap and dynamic way of communicating to one’s audiences – public relations professionals must ensure that they adhere to the same ethics that they would respect, were they to be using more traditional methods of communication. 

There have been many unethical ways in which companies/people have used social media to get their message out to their publics and there will be many more.  One of them that comes to mind is the unethical use of twitter by Fashion Designer, Kenneth Cole when he used the # Cairo hashtag that had been chosen by Twitter users for discussions on the day-to-day events in Egypt during the uprise, to promote his spring collection.  The PR stunt, if one may call it so, was met with a huge wave of criticism, forcing him to remove the tweet and issue an apology.  Gini Dietrich’s blog from  ‘spinsucks’ offers some interesting comments on Cole’s ‘faux pas’!

Perhaps then, it would be helpful and could save some embarrassment, say the least – that PR practitioners revisit their own values as well as those of their organisations before they engage in communication campaigns using social media.  Seib and Fitzpatrick (1995) cited in Gregory (2009, pp. 280 – 282) identity four categories of duty for a practitioner.

1. ‘Duty to self’

Here practitioners are expected to look at their ‘own value system and personal ethic codes’.

2.  ‘Duty to client or organisation’

Many practitioners believe that their ‘primary duty’ is to their clients. We could compare this to the duty of a lawyer or doctor.  Most importantly though, the practitioner should also ensure that they do not ‘violate their wider duty to society’ by working with a client or organisation who is clearly harming others i.e. using child labour.  

3.  ‘Duty to profession’

Duty to support the profession and professional colleagues

4.  ‘Duty to society’

Professionals have a duty to society that they should maintain and respect.

In today’s world then, while PR practitioners need to ensure that they do not give in to unethical practices, they should according to Mark Brooks, Founder of Online Personals Watch ( and a social networking consultant, ensure that their brands are able to ‘better connect with consumers and  are pushed out to more people through social media connections. He suggests blogs as a great way to go and supports this belief by arguing that ‘You ARE your company these days.’ 

Social media therefore offers excellent communication tools for PR practitioners, but should always be used in an ethical way because one bad action done today using social media is picked up by critics around the world immediately and could have disastrous effects.


(Gregory, A 2009, ‘ethics and professionalism in public relations’ in R Tench & L Yeomans (eds), Exploring public relations, 2nd edn, FT/Prentice Hall, UK

4 Responses to “Online Public Relations and Ethics”

  1.   Mr WordPress Says:

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  2.   Gini Dietrich Says:

    Really great outlay of “duty” as it relates to our profession. Spin truly does such and maybe one of these days we’ll change the perception! Keep blogging and spreading the word!

  3.   yasminahosanoo Says:

    Thanks Gini for your encouraging comments. I am studying for a Masters in Communication and I have chosen to create a blogas part of one of my assignments. Will keep up the blogging.

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