What Would You Do? Debating the Ethical Disclosure of Online Content

The situation: You are the public relations intern for Cisco Company. As the new intern, your boss has explained to you the reasons why his products are the best in the area. Your first assignment is to write an anonymous blog post praising Cisco.

Is this ethical?

The above situation imposes serious stress on the public relations profession. As new technologies evolve, attention to ethics is sometimes forgotten. However, if we wish to maintain the profession’s integrity and credibility, we must prepare for ethical issues that could arise.

A recent Advertising Age article, written by PRSA Chair and CEO Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, provides an example of this ethical discrepancy. McCormick discusses Forbes.com’s new blog, AdVoice, on which marketers and advertisers pay to post. Critics are concerned that readers won’t be aware that they are viewing paid content because the format of AdVoice is nearly identical to Forbes.com’s journalistic and editorial blogs.

“We should be as transparent and supportive of readers’ rights to know the motivations and biases behind content in the digital world as we are in print,” writes McCormick. “Paid blogging platforms such as AdVoice no doubt present intriguing opportunities for marketers…But the model still has a long way to go in addressing numerous ethical dilemmas before fully delivering on its promise.”

As professionals, we want to encourage public debate, the free flow of information and transparency. The public must be given the information needed to make educated decisions about their lives. Our job is to provide the public with this information necessary for their decision making.

Now let’s refer back to the original “situation.” As the Cisco Company intern, would it be ethical to write the requested blog post? If you are posting on a company blog, the content of your post maybe of little concern. The concern is that readers may be unsure as to whether or not you represent the company, and problems can arise when you do not disclose your relationship to the organization. Since we aim to inform our publics of all biases and motivations behind messaging, insist on informing your publics that you are a Cisco representative. This will allow the public to make educated decisions about the messaging they receive.

In the developing new media world, disclosure is important. Online consumers have the right to know who is sending them messages, and what motivations might be behind those messages. Simply put, full disclosure of your relationship to the company will build trust, credibility and honor not just in the profession, but also you as a professional.

If you were the public relations intern for Cisco, what would you do?  Would you follow your boss’ instruction?

This is a guest post from Vice President of Advocacy, Adam Aisner.

1 thought on “What Would You Do? Debating the Ethical Disclosure of Online Content

    • Author gravatar

      ‘Biased writing’ in any way in the medium that doesn’t explicitly explain it as advertisement/paid for is unethical by journalistic standard. Any company may choose to ask interns or employees to write such stories for their corporate blog, but writing such content that way (boss asking) even in the intern’s personal blog without indicating that the writer is an intern or employee undermines the person’s moral standard.

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