How to Avoid Ethical Pitfalls of Social Media

Ethics rules and regulations are one of the biggest reasons many businesses choose not to engage in social media.

Although it’s incredibly important for businesses in highly regulated industries (such as healthcare, finance and legal) to follow the applicable rules and laws, they shouldn’t let that be an insurmountable hurdle to using social media.

The challenge is that many laws and regulations don’t offer bright lines to follow when it comes to social media. There are a lot of gray areas out there that leave many professionals scratching their heads about what is appropriate (and legal).

Last week, I talked to a group of lawyers about social media ethics and offered some insight into how you can use social media without crossing ethical lines.

Although some of these points will vary depending on your industry, here are some general guidelines to help you steer clear of ethical pitfalls on social channels:

Be honest.

Don’t lie, cheat or do anything to misrepresent yourself online. This goes without saying, but it’s amazing the number of people who do this. Don’t let that be you.

Give proper credit.

Never pass off someone else’s work as your own. This is perhaps one of the most common ways people get into trouble online.

For instance, this company got into hot water for swiping a copyrighted photo from Google image search without paying for it or giving proper credit. They ended up paying $4,000 for their transgression when they could have just purchased the image for $10 to begin with.

If you include photos, videos, papers and research on your website or blog, make sure to provide proper attribution to the author or owner of the content. That means, including links to relevant articles and paying for photos or giving credit when using images with Creative Commons licensing (i.e Flickr).

Do not solicit clients.

Although many states don’t have specific ethics rules for attorney use of social media, many address the solicitation of clients. For example, Tennessee’s Supreme Court Rule 7.3 states that, “A lawyer shall not by in-person, live telephone, or real-time electronic contact solicit professional employment from a potential client when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s pecuniary gain.”

Although you can use social media to build relationships with people, attorneys cannot actively use social media to solicit potential clients.

Don’t give specific advice.

Social media is a great tool to educate people and provide general about what you do. However, many industries need to steer clear of giving specific advice. Not only is that hard to do in 140 characters, it can lead to ethical issues.

For instance, attorneys must be careful not to give legal advice on specific cases as this could trigger an attorney-client relationship. And doctors shouldn’t give specific medical advice online to avoid issues with HIPAA.

Be careful about who you friend.

Always take care when connecting with co-workers, employers, employees and clients on social media. Although it’s fine to do so, just keep that in mind when you share information online.

Attorneys, in particular, need must pay special attention to who they friend. In Florida, for instance, it’s an ethical violation for attorneys to friend judges. Attorneys should be mindful of the ethics rules in their state so they don’t cross the line.

Don’t share confidential information.

Although the applications vary by industry, as a general rule of thumb, you need to be careful about sharing confidential information on social media channels. That means don’t share confidential information about your clients, patients, employees or your company.

Disclose your relationships.

If you ever receive free products or services to review on your blog or if you receive payment to endorse a company on your blog, the FTC requires that you disclose that information. It’s also important to disclose client and investor relationships. All of this is meant to give consumers better information about when an endorsement or recommendation might be biased.

The FTC has a disclosure policy generator you can use for your website and, a short URL service, can help you with disclosures on your blog and in social media channels. Social Media Examiner also has an excellent overview of disclosure rules here.

Use discretion.

To avoid an Anthony Weiner moment, don’t post anything online that you’re not comfortable with the whole world seeing. Even with privacy settings, there’s still the possibility that content or photos will spread. Google never forgets. So, when in doubt, leave it out.

What CAN you do?

With the long laundry list above, it may seem there is not much left you can do. But, that’s not the case. Here are a few ways you can use social media without crossing ethical lines:

  • Educate. Social media offers an excellent opportunity to share information about industry trends, best practices and relevant news articles. Not only does this establish yourself as an expert, but it is a great way to educate potential about your customers about your line of work without overselling.
  • Build relationships. Business is all about relationships, so why not use social media to grow your network? Ask questions and strike up a conversation with someone you want to get to know. And don’t be afraid to jump into the conversations of others. This helps people get to know you as a person and can even lead to wonderful business relationships down the line.
  • Provide customer service. Responding and interacting with customers can go a long way toward building loyalty. Social media is just another way to offer excellent customer service by answering questions, solving problems and offering help when they need it. By doing these things, you’ll keep your customers coming back.
You can find more tips in my presentation from last week. Check it out below.

What questions do you have about social media ethics? Are you holding back on social media because of ethical concerns?


Image credit: Rhys Asplundh

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Laura Click

Laura Click is brand strategist, speaker, podcaster and the founder of Blue Kite. Learn more about Laura and her work at Blue Kite.

4 replies on “How to Avoid Ethical Pitfalls of Social Media”

Great post, Laura.

When it comes to laws, I only worry about copyright of images; I am glad that it’s the only thing I have to worry about (I don’t use image that often, but when I do, I just say credit to original author as many of these images can be found on several websites and they don’t address an original author).

Where do you get your images from Laura? Do you buy them?

Thanks for stopping by, Jeevan! I appreciate it.

As for images, on the blog I mostly use Creative Commons images from Flickr and give credit to the source. When it comes to other uses, like in the presentation for example, I typically buy the photos from a site like

Hope this helps!

Glad you found this helpful, Nancy! I know a lot of folks have questions about this and it’s often the reason they steer clear of social. If you know the guidelines and rules, you CAN do it ethically! 🙂

Hope you are well!

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