Are PR professionals sharing too much information on social media?

Earlier this week, a late night discussion raged on at WhatsApp PR forum ‘One Source’ about whether sharing media lists, event details amounts to sharing confidential business data.

The group which has 850 members is the first PR WhatsApp group launched a year ago and has quickly become a source of information for media contacts, news briefs, events and journo movements.

At any given point, you could jump into a discussion on whether a journo should join a particular PR agency or ask for a phone number, which you would get almost instantly. It’s an active, vibrant world.

At any point in time, as many as 100 to 500 messages are streaming on my phone from across 8 WhatsApp PR groups. Welcome to the online world of PR professionals where according to estimates as many as 40,000 PR professionals’ are actively exchanging media lists, job opportunities, journo movements, details of upcoming events and pressers and news alerts.

There are WhatsApp groups such as Mad about PR, One Source, Indian PR Forum, PR warriors and Facebook groups such as the ever-popular Media Movements, which has over 26,000 members.

With the quantum of information now available at the tap of a keyboard – the issue of sharing company data is set to become a hotly debated one – with no real solution in sight at the moment.

WhatsApp vs. Facebook

While the flow of messages may not be so high on Facebook, it’s proving to be just as useful for a quick reference check.

In April this year, one of the Facebook groups that cater to corporate communication professionals in India posted a job opening for PR with a prominent Bengaluru start-up. Here’s the reaction to that post.

Nihal Shaikh, PR manager Holiday IQ, who started the FB group describes the response, “Within three minutes of the post being live I got 7 personal messages stating the company was not a good place to work due to various reasons. This was the first time a job post had evoked such an extreme reaction, and a negative one at that. So I compiled the feedback received and shared it with the founder of the company. He responded immediately stating that he was unaware the company had a bad rep in PR circles and that he would get the team to look into it immediately. “

Is it ethical to share information collected in a professional capacity?

All this does raise questions about what it means for PR consultancies that carefully guard their database and have always been reluctant to share media lists with clients. It also raises questions regarding the liability of an employer if their employee shares information online.

Sandeep Rao, who set up WhatsApp PR group, One Source last year and was the first to use IM platforms to connct PR professionals says that, “ Information is already freeflowing, whether they be numbers, profiles of journalists, or research reports. Doing it publicly rather than surreptitiously should change the dynamics, but never the ethics. If anything, sharing openly should be encouraged, as long as all parties concerned (including journalists) know that the same is happening. Every journalist in the country today knows that their number is freely available and circulated - the effort thus becomes to be overt, rather than covert about what is already happening. Why push something under the carpet, when you can embrace and better it.”

Groups such as OneSource try to monitor the flow of information by adding members via recommendations grom group members and also restricitng it to PR professionals. Very few journalists are in the groups by design to maintain privacy.

On the other hand, FB group media movements is heavily used by journalists for sourcing story talking heads.

Vikram Kharvi, founder member of Indian PR Forum says that, “It is ethically wrong to publish anyone’s personal mobile numbers or email addresses on public platforms directly. We have had instances of complaints coming from various stakeholders to remove their numbers shared on the platform and we have immediately acted upon the same. We have tried multiple numbers of times to make our members aware about privacy issues and have been more vigilant on moderation. The challenge is to have someone constantly moderate all forums for breach of privacy or allowing on relevant content to be posted on the forums. “

Rahul Rakesh, who describes himself as a student of PR and moderates several WhatsApp groups on PR including OneSource and Indian PR Forum, feels the question of sharing media information is a tricky one saying that, “I would like to take a step back and ask whose intellectual property is that piece of information? Since I worked on the idea or found the number so is it mine or my organisation by the virtue of which I got to work on that idea. But then I would have done it similarly, had I been in any other organisation or the vice versa someone else would have done it in my place.”

Sandeep says , “ If an agency is open to the idea that no one person can own 100% of all knowledge, and that sharing stands to benefit everyone involved, then the assurance comes from the knowledge/value/worth gained. The SRO or industry body then needs to lay down laws that allow sharing, while ensuring that the industry rises to a knowledge level, where only information not sensitive in any manner is shared. Thus, One Source tries to keep forwards to a minimum, and pushes value-adds. When members have requested for something sensitive, the core team arbitrates in order to set the correct expectation from any forum. Over a period of time, members understand the sensitivity of a community, and gauge what can be posted, or requested.”

Kharvi however points out that, “On platforms like Whatsapp the issue becomes more critical as any member can share anything and once shared, you cannot do anything about it. On Google Groups or Yahoo Groups, you have one level of moderation, but if you miss that then the email is on everyone’s inboxes, which you cannot retrieve. In that manner, platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook are little safer as the moderator can delete unwanted posts from the forums but again you need someone constantly monitoring and moderating.”

Client and agency concerns

A concern that agencies may have – is about their own liability when information is shared online.

Nitin Mantri, founder and business partner, Avian Media has a nuanced approach. He says, “ I don’t think it is unethical to share information on Whatsapp or FB groups as before the advent of social media people used to share information on other offline channels. But with new social media platforms coming up, the ethical code of conduct says that we should have the individuals/clients’ consent before sharing any content. The online content posted should not breach the fundamental right to privacy of an individual or an organization. “

Mantri further adds that, “Clients can take legal action against agencies if they violate a certain code of conduct. Hence, the practice is to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), which clearly specifies that sensitive and exclusive information cannot be shared in the public domain without approval.”

Mantri advises that, “Agencies should have employee guidelines for using social media platforms. Ethical code of conduct needs to be self-imposed as there is a thin line between ‘the right to express’ and ‘the right to privacy’.”

Shaikh agrees that self-monitoring is key, she says, “While most professionals come with an understanding of what is kosher some untoward outbursts do happen from time to time. Some things like disrespecting the sensitivity of media contact information, airing brand-agency grievances, venting frustrations about journalists / PR people are not in good taste. However, the whole crowd sourced wisdom of groups does come into play to make conversations more productive.

She adds, “ We have come a long way from offline associations to blogs to google groups to Facebook and now Whatsapp groups, such forums help the industry evolve. “

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