I had the pleasure of addressing Steve Quigley’s Public Relations class at Boston University today, and as a bonus, I asked Todd Defren to be part of the conversation as well. Steve Quigley, I have to say, is turning out quite a crop of Boston’s social media up and comers. Between him and Professor Ed Downes, BU seems to be the college to beat in Boston for PR’s next wave of rockstars.
We talked about a lot of things, from the ways in which traditional PR must thread with the new stuff, to the ways in which students will find themselves challenged in the coming months. We talked about the importance of your personal database, and how to better annotate (post coming about this on Mashable shortly).
One question that Steve raised at the very beginning that we didn’t touch on nearly enough, but that floated around in my head after we’d long since departed the campus was this: in modern public relations, there’s a stronger sense of maintaining your personality, your personal views, and a level of ethics that doesn’t square with how things got done in the old days. Sure, there were ethical practitioners in the old days, but there were plenty more people just taxed with getting a result for a client. My thoughts on this couldn’t fit into the remaining minutes. Here, Professor Quigley’s class, are my answers:
Ethics in the World of Social Media and New Marketing
First, my simple measure of what is ethical and what is not, as told to me by a professor in the late 1990s: “If you don’t want to talk about it with your family at the dinner table, and you don’t want to read about it on the front page of the Boston Globe, it’s not ethical.” Seems easy to me. (Essentially, ethics are our guideline of what we consider right and wrong.)
In public relations and marketing, the primary goal is that those acting as an agent for an organization, their professional communicators, move the needle in some way. In PR, that might be press mentions, or blog posts, or publicity through speaking at conferences. In marketing, the projects can be more complex, or more indirect, but all relate to getting some other lever or number somewhere to move. There are nuanced and personable ways to do this, and then there are heavy-handed, let’s just call them SPAMMY, ways to do this.
You could do that. You could spam 10,000 people to get 100 positive results to show your client. But, as Todd Defren pointed out in the class, in the old days, those people used to have no voice, no real recourse that mattered or could be seen. Today? Everyone can blog. Everyone can put the word out that your organization is spamming them. Not only would it be less ethical to attempt to gain customers this way; it would be bad business.
Here’s the thing: Google remembers everything. And by “Google,” technically I mean the web at large (by which, I still mean Google, don’t I?). So, by extension, pretty much ALL business you do in social media can be “remembered” by anyone interested in what you’re doing, and where you’ve been, and what comes next. This, by the way, features heavily in Trust Agents, my forthcoming book with Julien Smith, but that’s a tangent for another time.
In a world where the entire space around you “remembers” your choices and your actions, do you have much in the way of an alternative but to operate ethically?
You Can Hide it For a While
There’s an entire mechanized side to the web. If your firm gets my site onto the Digg home page, I’ll get tons more traffic than I normally get. If you orchestrate a complex way to build all kinds of links to my site, I’ll gain rank or authority or whatever system you use to measure relevance. All of this happens and can happen such that people can’t see it easily.
But people who understand these schemes can figure out if that’s what happened. There are trails back to actions. It can eventually be uncovered that your organization architected a false Digg campaign, a doctored Wikipedia entry, another stuffing of the votes in some Internet-savvy way.
We already have stories of people doing things wrong. Most of you in the space already know them.
Be Human or Else
This space will remember. That can feel a bit daunting, but please realize that there’s a world of difference between doing something out of ignorance, or in a weird situation, versus gaining a reputation as someone who performs unethically. If you’re someone on the rise and learning and you twinge someone the wrong way, that’s one thing. If it turns out you’re “that guy” habitually, it just won’t really fly well this time around.
I’m grateful to Steve Quigley for turning over his classroom to Todd and me. I had lots of fun, and I look forward to the opportunity learn from the rising stars of PR and Marketing, and to share what little I know in return. And besides, Steve bought us noodles for lunch afterwards.
And, for further reading, check out Steve Rubel’s post on ethics in social media marketing. Seems it was in the air today.