Law Office of Stacie L. Patterson Releases Tips on Using Social Media Wisely and Professionally

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Recent social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest offer professionals a way to communicate online with clients, educate the public, and learn from colleagues without regard to geography. “Some professionals fail to recognize the dangers associated with social media,” warns professional license defense attorney Stacie Patterson. “In all professions in which service providers have a fiduciary duty to respect their client’s privacy, maintain appropriate boundaries and avoid falsehoods, participation in social networking is fraught with ethical dilemmas.”

Social Media for Professionals

Social Media for Professionals

In all professions in which service providers have a fiduciary duty to respect their client’s privacy, maintain appropriate boundaries and avoid falsehoods, participation in social networking is fraught with ethical dilemmas.

Recent social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest offer professionals a way to communicate online with clients, educate the public, and learn from colleagues without regard to geography. “Some professionals fail to recognize the dangers associated with social media,” warns professional license defense attorney Stacie Patterson. “In all professions in which service providers have a fiduciary duty to respect their client’s privacy, maintain appropriate boundaries and avoid falsehoods, participation in social networking is fraught with ethical dilemmas.”

Professionals must maintain privacy and appropriate boundaries, both in face-to-face and online interactions. “Professionals face a number of difficult questions when it comes to social media use,” Ms. Patterson explains. “Is it wise to ‘friend’ or ‘like’ clients, or to ask others to ‘friend’ or ‘like’ a professional or their business? What if the online connection precedes the professional interaction? How does one maintain personal privacy and clients’ privacy?”

Because the social media environment is new, individuals and entities are still learning to manage it from a professional perspective. “Unfortunately, business professionals can and have been disciplined by their licensing agencies for inappropriate online communication with clients, violations of ethics related to truthfulness and confidentiality, and even depictions of intoxication,” states Ms. Patterson. “There are certainly ways to avoid this kind of behavior and the resulting discipline.”

“While social media is new, these situations aren’t unprecedented,” Ms. Patterson elaborates. “For example, when a professional has lived in a community for a length of time, it is very likely that he or she will enter into professional relationships with neighbors, parents of the friends of children, and others known socially first. These situations beg the question of how to maintain sufficient privacy for the professional and his or her clients when the boundaries between work life and personal life become porous.” The new challenge presented by social media and online communication seems greater because of the hyper-public nature of online communities and the volume of casual comments made available by social media.

“The terminology created by social media sites seems to blur boundaries between personal and professional life,” Ms. Patterson continues. In order to communicate effectively on social networks, subscribers are required to "friend" individuals with whom they have no personal relationship and "like" the pages of businesses they aren’t yet familiar with. “Unfortunately, it is not clear that all members of the online community agree on the definition of ‘friend’ or ‘like.’”

Ms. Patterson has collected tips for professionals who choose to utilize social networks. “The National Association of Realtors, the California Bar, the American Medical Association and other agencies have created useful rules to help professionals maintain a code of ethics when using social media.”

  •     Protection of client and patient privacy is of the utmost importance (American Medical Association).
  •     Posts on social networks should be subject to rules governing any other type of communication (California Bar).
  •     Just because compliance with advertising standards is more difficult on social networks doesn’t mean those standards should be ignored (California Bar).
  •     False or misleading statements must always be avoided, whether in oral, written, or electronic communications (National Association of Realtors).
  •     Even though social media is meant to be more personal, professionals must maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their clients or patients (American Medial Association).
  •     Be aware that behavior on social networks is public. Professionals must remember to protect both their reputations and the reputations of their industries and professions (American Medical Association).
  •     Doctors, in particular, should consider not interacting with present or former patients on social media (Federation of State Medical Boards).
  •     Professional colleagues should keep each other accountable. If a peer’s online conduct threatens a patient’s or client’s privacy or health, speak up (American Medical Association and American Nurses Association).

“The guidelines presented by each of these organizations are founded on common sense and basic ethics,” Ms. Patterson states. “Behavior must be professional and considered. Although social media sites seem to complicate rules and can blur boundaries, the same ethical standards apply online and offline.”

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