Guess Who's Talking: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

IStock_000010828645XSmallContinuing our series on Social Media Ethical Dilemmas, this post is about the guidelines related to agencies who help client contacts to identify and engage, via commenting, on industry/influencer blogs.

The goal is to insert our clients’ executives and perspectives into industry conversations; to help them build up their credibility, and ultimately to create valuable relationships with influencers.

How do you do this?  How can you effectively inform and educate busy clients while also cultivating the bloggers’ goodwill in an authentic way?

Here’s the general process…

The Agency is tasked with monitoring a series of influential blogs.

The Agency staff read the blogs every day, and sometimes comment — with full transparency, i.e., they comment as themselves, since it is not only in the client’s best interest but also in the PR pro’s interest to be engaged with the blogger.

On occasion, the blogger writes about something — a trend, a client competitor, etc. — that truly impacts the client.

At that point, the PR agency pro alerts the client, with a note that describes the blog post, its relevance to the client, and a brief description of the key points that the client might want to use in their own response, should they choose to engage.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say we have a client in the Search industry.  An influential blogger drafts a post about the evolution of SEO.  Our team reads it, drafts a synopsis, and immediately sends it to our client with a recommendation…

“We recommend inserting yourself into this conversation from a broader standpoint in terms of how many technologies, not just SEO, are changing in response to innovations in Search… Helping consumers move beyond the limits of traditional search is a more important end-goal than focusing on tweaking SEO.” (etc.)

AngeldevilEthical dilemma #1: is this an unethical engagement strategy??  On the one hand, as I just noted, our PR team is taking an inordinate amount of time to read and really think about each of these blog commenting opportunities, on behalf of our clients.  The resulting comments (ultimately written by clients personally) come across as lucid and engaged.  BUT, yea, there’s no denying it: many of our clients need us to tell them when, where, why and how to engage — and that engagement is often a cursory exercise.  The Agency often does the heavy lifting in terms of monitoring, identification, analysis, and recommendation.

Why?  Because the clients are busy running their companies and working with customers. Because there are now hundreds of blogs to monitor.  And because, over time, it tends to happen that genuine relationships are cultivated, e.g., when the blogger reaches out to the client contact directly, as a result of their interesting comment. What started out as a 1–level-deep commitment can convert into a true relationship; the Agency just helped plant the first few seeds.

In other words: it’s a gray area that I am comfortable living in.

This is not about misrepresenting the client; it’s actually about a) making sure the client is well informed about the trends and opinions of the blogosphere, b) saving time for the client and, c) making sure the influential bloggers are justifiably made aware of the fact that our clients do care about their content (even if they can’t keep track on a daily basis).

Ethical dilemma #2: it happens that sometimes the Agency’s suggestions can be pretty easily cut&pasted as the actual comment… the busy client might not take the time to put their own touches on it.  Worse, they sometimes say, “Yea, that sounds good.  Just use that language, and assign my name to that comment: you post it.”

While we are chagrined when our suggestions are used whole-cloth, there’s not much we can do.  When asked to post a comment on a client’s behalf, we always decline — both because our IP address could be traced back, and because, well, we don’t think it is ethical… though some clients are left scratching their heads.  After all, we will sometimes “ghostblog!?”  What’s the difference?  I don’t have a good answer.  My gut says “don’t go there.”

You can see how, as this series progresses, the dilemmas get trickier, stickier, harder.  All I can assure you, Dear Readers, is that we grapple with these ethical issues mightily, and often.  We take nothing for granted.  We harbor no cynicism nor deviousness.  We operate with every intention of maintaining the highest degrees of integrity…but we also live and work in a gray and uncharted land.

Your thoughts appreciated.

Posted on: February 8, 2010 at 9:00 am By Todd Defren
21 Responses to “Guess Who's Talking: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas”


  • LISA hOESEL says:

    The “net-net” to me is Siobhan’s response re transparency. I believe that in traditional marketing practices we have an expectation that it is not always the organization itself, but its agency that is providing the messaging. Today’s social media and networking etiquette demand, however, that if we claim association with an organization, that that is, in fact the case, but as long as we provide information about how we are associated, our audience is okay. The key message is that our true identities are so easily revealed and the rapidity with which our unmasking is repeated across the twitterverse, for one, demands that we are open and honest about our relationships, our compensation, and our identities.

    In the spirit of this comment :) :

    Lisa M. Hoesel
    Director of Social Networking
    Cubed Consulting

  • Lisa Rizzio says:

    This is definitely interesting stuff. If I were reading a post, I would expect the comments to be the thoughts, feelings and expertise of the author. And I would also expect the owner of the company, not their p/r people, to posess the knowledge and interest in engaging. I am not in the p/r business so admittedly I may be naive but I can’t see hiring someone to think for me. I CAN see employing people to monitor the blogosphere and alert me to posts I may find relevant but……… to tell me what to say and how to say it? I don’t know. That is just business. Where’s the passion?

  • Thanks for sharing your adventures in the gray area. It’s a big deal. It must get extremely challenging when clients place full trust in your agency to run their entire social media programs (normally this is a good thing). I think you are doing a great job with having to go back to them with your gut feelings when a transparency line is crossed. Since this is a gray area, some things are going be learned on the spot. happen.

    Thanks for sharing. I enjoy this series because it’s real “in the trenches” stuff. Thanks!

  • lisahickey says:

    This is a great conversation to have, but it makes me sigh. I’m trying to figure out not just “how do we behave ethically in this space” but “can ethical behavior scale?” I think about two industries — financial and pharmaceutical — where the amount of disclosure information that needs to be included with every communication is insane. And then I think about how hard it is to continuously disclose *all* my relationships.
    It’s only going to get more complicated. And then I sigh.

    With regards to your specific examples, Todd, in the first case you are simply acting as a filter. Filters are going to be more and more important as we move forward, whether they are technology driven or human-powered. It seems fine for a client to pay a human to filter what’s important for them to respond to.
    The second example seems more questionable. What’s interesting is that brands are trying to become more individual — by engaging in these conversations one on one. But then they find that it’s simply not scaleable, so they resort to mechanicalizing the process by having others engage in those conversations for them. If the commenter used their corporate name and logo as their avatar, it wouldn’t matter who wrote the comment, it would be seen as coming from the brand. But because you are putting an individuals name and face to it, I think whoever owns that name and face has a responsibility to have it be their words.

  • Nick Vehr says:

    I am really enjoying (read: learning from and appreciating) the “dilemma” series. #1 is pretty clear and I agree. #2 is also clear and I agree, but it is understandably complicated by a client who, while busy and appreciative of the advice you provide, crosses the line – probably unknowingly.

    What I haven’t read yet in your “dilemma” posts is your interaction with internal communications professionals who support the CEO – can they be intermediaries with the CEO to ensure he/she doesn’t cross the ethical line?

    Again, thanks for these posts. Keep ‘em comin’.

  • dominiq says:

    Very interesting debate.

    We’ve many agency clients executing the exact same process and they have to balance efficiency, productivity , responsiveness and level of control from the client.

    I don’t see ethical issues if the agency is contractually empowered to speak like an employee and discloses its identity.

    The 3 main questions for us are:

    - how far can the agency go answering in the name of the client.

    What most of our agency customers do is answer in the name of their clients with transparency when it’s “obvious” and use a review/refer process when it’s either too complex or goes beyond what’s been contracted.

    - how to balance level of control and speed of execution

    if you end up only spotting opportunities then, unless your client is VERY responsive you may miss the opportunity. Sometimes the first comment drives the conversation and it’s important for the client to bring the discussion on its own turf. A few minutes/hours in the process may be detrimental.

    - how to enforce scope / perimeter

    Instead of engaging “blindly”, we recommend that agency and client build an engagement strategy and map their target community (usually 1000′s of people) upfront.
    The engagement strategy is built for each target community.
    To take a fake example, Visa may be OK for an agency to engage in Mommy bloggers community on Credit Card discussion but not on investment/politics blogs.

    In this example they could set rules like: target mommy blogger community; engage on every conversation mentioning credit card, debt with neutral advices but a link back signature that brings readers to the Visa site.

    In other situations, the client may want to exclude analysts blogs from the scope of the engagement.

    So to make a long story short, we recommend (and build our application so that):
    - agency and client map target communities and define engagement strategies for each community. Then define rules and limitations.
    - agency AND their client work collaboratively on the same Listening and Engagement platform. This build mandatory trust in the process.
    - agency and client build and fine tune an engagement process that includes both “direct response in the name of the client” and referral/approval process.

    Hope this helps

  • Adam Sherk says:

    To me part one just sounds like good opportunity monitoring and blogger relations. But I agree on part two, it doesn’t feel right for an agency to comment “as” the client. If some clients choose to just run with your suggested input without applying their own thoughts or perspective, that’s their loss, as they’re ultimately likely to get less out of that interaction. But I don’t think that crosses any lines.

  • I’m ok with dilemma 1, but 2 is a bit dodgy. transparency about who the author is, is best. Good discussion.

  • Interesting post, Todd. I don’t see either scenario as particularly ethically vexing, but rather as the inevitable consequence of working with clients too busy to stay engaged. So long as the client endorses the message (and the subject matter is not archly controversial)it seems to me no different from drafting a quote for a client for use in a press release (for their approval), a practice that goes on all the time.

  • Akash Sharma says:

    Great thoughts Todd, I think there is nothing wrong in getting the right kind of engagement with influential bloggers this way as I think that is what you call a PR agency, So its a public affair and you are dealing with it because the client cannot think or monitor so much of content and information within a limited time.
    Loving the series….

  • Katie says:

    Thanks for the column, Todd. This series has been incredibly interesting and resourceful, especially since you’ve brought us real, relatable examples and not just the 10,000 foot view.

    For this particular post, I agree with the other commenters. PR firms are hired to, in short, make their clients look good (I’ll spare the objectives, strategies, and tactics jargon here). If the client agrees with the assessment you provide, it’s not misrepresentation, it’s giving them the information they need and allowing them to make a decision. If the client disagreed, you would hear about it.

    There are things that you brought up in dilemma #2 that are important to point out to the client – suggesting they finesse the language, posting from their own IP address, etc. – but monitoring conversation (of all kinds) and helping our clients respond is one of the core functions PR firms are hired to do, and should do, regardless of how the conversation landscape changes.

  • Dan Greenberg says:

    I really don’t see the ethical dilemma if you’ve essentially ghostwritten a blog comment for a client… as long as the client has read, approved, and posted it herself… even if it’s a whole cloth cut-paste.

    The dilemma I do see is in the agency-posted comments earlier in the process: “The Agency staff read the blogs every day, and sometimes comment — with full transparency, i.e., they comment as themselves” The dilemma occurs if/when the comment is client-specific. That is, if a comment is general (e.g., “SEO is good”), there is no dilemma. However, if a comment is specific (e.g., “SEO is good”), the post needs to disclose the agency relationship, even if the staff-person is posting as him/herself. You are then consistent with the new FTC rules on the blogger, as well as the long-standing disclosure rules that securities analysts follow.

    Of course, there is a gray area. If the staff person is a fan of a particular company and posts positive comments because that’s his own opinion, does he have to disclose that he works for an agency that has a relationship with that company? My opinion is that more transparency is better, especially if the person was reading the blog in the first place as part of his job. Again, the securities industry is the model: analysts disclose not only personal holdings, but also that their company may have an i-banking relationship with the client. Even a generic “I work for a company which has a relationship with , but the opinions here are my own.” is better than a possibly deceptive lack of disclosure.

    • Dan Greenberg says:

      Sorry — my previous post was mangled. It should say “SEO COMPANY is good” in the second example and it should say “…a relationship with COMPANY,…”

  • Rex Riepe says:

    Todd, sorry I don’t have any flak for you. I gotta say I agree.

    It seems like a blend of common PR practices, even from way back when: monitoring, coaching, research… I’d argue that it’s unethical NOT to help the client out with this stuff in the way you do. I mean, that’s what they’re paying for, right?

  • Hey Todd,

    Really enjoying your series…sharing it with quite a few folks.

    This post shows where “We’ll be your social media agency,” starts to bump into a wall.

    Building relationships requires a person on both ends of the line. Sooner or later, the “ghost” either has to come out from behind the curtain or ask the client to be personally involved. That’s when “I thought I paid you to do this for me?” comes up.

    The “do it for me” approach busy execs are accustomed to worked when we were ad creators, media buyers, and media relations pros. It has limitations in social media.

    It’s a slippery slope from “ghost blogger” to “ghost commenter” to “ghost tweeter” to “My avatar has a relationship with someone, but they don’t know I’m the person behind the avatar.” Without a clear Code of Ethics, it’s easy to slip into dangerous territory.

  • Chip Griffin says:

    I think you come to the right conclusions here. In the whole scheme of things, though, I think it is one of the less complicated ethical dilemmas to deal with.

    It seems to be there are much tougher calls. For instance, let’s say the Agency has been retained to rep Sony on an upcoming product release in the music area. For understandable reasons, that relationship may not be able to be disclosed.

    So can Agency staff write on their own blog about a beef they have with Amazon’s Kindle? After all, Sony has a competing product. It has nothing to do with what the Agency has been contracted to work on, but an absolutist might take issue with it.

    And with a huge company like Sony, there are countless other examples of things an Agency staffer might commonly comment on routinely, but are they then off limits based on this undisclosable client relationship even though they have nothing to do with the work the Agency is doing for the client?

  • Lori Russo says:

    Nice post, Todd. This is an area we find ourselves operating in with greater frequency, as well. We navigate the landscape the same way you do, in very close collaboration with our clients.

    With regard to “Ethical Dilemma #1” in your post, it struck me that in this paragraph…

    This is not about misrepresenting the client; it’s actually about a) making sure the client is well informed about the trends and opinions of the blogosphere, b) saving time for the client and, c) making sure the influential bloggers are justifiably made aware of the fact that our clients do care about their content (even if they can’t keep track on a daily basis).

    …you could easily replace “blogosphere” and “bloggers” with “traditional media” and “reporters” and essentially describe what PR firms have done since the dawn of time. We are simply adjusting to the changing times and doing what is necessary to ensure our clients are represented in the media – whether traditional or new – that are important to their key audiences and their businesses.

  • Kathleen says:

    A very interesting blog post. I think that if the PR professional in question were an actual employee of the company, this would not be a question of ethics as much as it would be just assumed to be a part of their job. When an agency or contractor takes on this role, I believe that they are assuming the responsibility to be in the know, to speak on behalf of the company and to empower the company to take appropriate action when it it’s relevant. When the company says, “yes, that’s good” or “I like it, let’s go with that,” isn’t it sort of the same thing as when they approve a press release? Thanks for starting this conversation!

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