Where is the line? - the ethics of social media content creation.

September 7, 2016

I was approached by a young intern for some advice. He had been asked by a manager in his company to research a topic and write a blog for the manager so that the manager could post it to their LinkedIn profile as their own work, with no accreditation to the intern as the author. I was being asked my opinion of the ethics of this and whether he should do it.

I was appalled, felt this crossed an ethical line and was inappropriate for the manager to use the work of another to promote oneself. Unfortunately, this won’t be the first workplace example of someone taking credit for someone elses’ work but with today’s heightened sensitivities towards plagiarism, I wonder if expropriating someone elses’ written work now fits into a different category than past cases of stealing workplace credit?

The consequences of plagiarism can be serious. You don’t have to look farther than the cases of German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who resigned over accusations of plagiarism on their PhD thesis as did German Education Minister Annette Schavan and Toronto & District School Board Director Chris Spence.

But, as in many ethics questions, where is the line and does having an intern ghost-write a blog for your LinkedIn profile cross that line?

At the other end of the scale, on a daily basis, we hear our politicians deliver a speech. We are conscious that the speech likely was not written by the politician but by a professional speech writer yet the politician usurps the words as if they were their own. How is that different?

Is it different because the professional speech writer is paid or commissioned to write the speech and has freely relinquished their rights to the intellectual property as part of the business deal that they have with the speech giver? If so, this is no different than any other “work-for-hire” clause in a professional services or employment contract that transfers ownership to the company.

What about the grey zone between these two examples? What if I am hired into a marketing department as a social media person. My job description is to create content and keep the company’s social media channels fresh and engaging. I write many pieces of unattributed content on behalf of the company because that is my job that I am being paid for. One day my boss asks me to write a piece so that the CEO can publish on the company website as the CEO’s own work. Is this wrong, or in this context, ethically ok, because it is the “role of CEO”, not the “CEO the person”, that is publishing the content? Would it be a different case if it was the CEO who is publishing my piece as their own on their personal Linkedin profile versus the company’s LinkedIn page? Would it be different if it were published on their Facebook instead of their LinkedIn page? Would it be different if it weren’t the CEO publishing it, but rather my boss using it for their own LinkedIn post?

On this slippery slope, where is the line? Because if you are the person in a position of power and you cross it, even inadvertently, the consequences may be that you lose your job.

My personal opinion is that line exists around the terms of an employee contract. If my job is to create content for the company in their name, then that is what I signed up for. If that means publishing it under other people’s names for the benefit of the company, then that is likely part of the deal. Where I believe the line is crossed is when the motive is not for the benefit of the company. When a person in a position of power uses that position to require another to create content and then usurps that for their own personal gain, then the ethical line has been crossed. I can reason that position from the vantage point of over thirty-five years of business experience, but how does the inexperienced intern at the beginning of this story reach that same conclusion and how do they defend their position.

To the CEO’s and executives reading this, do you have a written corporate social media policy that guides your employees and managers? If you don’t, you may want to prioritize creating one because you never want to endure the public stink if one of these situations comes to light in a negative way for your company


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