We often think in terms of communication ethics being central to crises – in particular the disclosure of information and details for the safety of one of many stakeholder groups. However, as the Ethics Officer for Minnesota Public Relations Society of America, I suggest that such transparency is no less important when considering how messages are deployed about a firm or its product and service offerings in an increasingly complex promotional environment online.
According to Stephen Dupont, APR, VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules, who recently authored an article on branded content for The Public Relations Strategist:
“In the graying world between editorial and paid media, branded content will at times appear side-by-side third-party earned media. This is where your branded content must stand for something. And that something is trust and authenticity. The test is whether your branded content can meet the same journalistic standards of similar earned media. When it does, that’s when you’ll see just how very effective branded content is.”
As an extension of that “test”, a recent Forbes article highlights guidelines for firms wishing to deliver content ethically. These recommendations were part of an Edelman Public Relations report written by chief content officer Steve Rubel, based on interviews with executives at more than 30 media companies.
The framework consists of six “ideals” to maintain:
1. Disclosure. Clearly identifying all sponsored content on news sites.
2. A mechanism for audience feedback. This means a comment area that does not screen out negative comments on the article to make it appear more favorable.
3. An ongoing commitment to “earned media”. Meaning, PR firms can’t simply place sponsored stories to avoid the filter of working with journalists.
4. Continuous updating. Sponsored stories must be as current as the news where the content is found.
5. No quid pro quo arrangements. Just because you buy ads or sponsored content does not “earn” editorial coverage in staff written content.
6. Precise organizational divisions. Those who produce and place sponsored content should not have opportunity to influence those who work directly with journalists. Rubel calls this a mirror of “the so-called church-state divide in the press.”
Interestingly, a contributor to the development of the Edelman report, David Weinberger, in a July 2013 HBR Blog Network post, noted concerns of his own regarding “paid content,” sometimes called “native content” or “native advertising.”
“My problems with paid content come from asking the obvious question: Does it make the place better or worse? The answer seems clear to me. It puts partisan work that looks like journalism literally next to actual journalism. Even when it is properly labeled as paid for by a company, the proximity of actual journalism can elevate the seriousness with which the paid content is taken. Readers may mistake it for actual journalism if the label is too small or unclear. The wall can be too thin.”
Beyond being clear about whether content is earned or paid, conflict can arise inside any organization between competing perspectives about the nature of the content itself. While many marketers and professional communicators are doing their best to keep the shine on the apple by obscuring blemishes, others may suggest keeping things transparent – acknowledging the shortcomings of the firm, its leaders or product… the brown spots that all its competitors may also suffer, but have been busily concealing also.
In some cases, stakeholders may not really want to know all the details (Who really wants to know what’s in a hot dog?) But what do these white lies we tell our stakeholders and selves have to do with the ethics of communication guided by public relations practitioners?
For both paid content and sins of omission, it is the potential for escalation of the behavior that can be worrisome ethically. Intentionally unethical actions tend to be much less common than those that evolve from tiny marginalities into accepted-but-questionable behaviors within an organization – think Enron.
While the very nature of new media make it nearly impossible to keep truths from surfacing eventually, it is the micro-deceptions that could build from not communicating transparently about the origins and intentions of content that pose ethical issues for businesses. This is why members of the Public Relations Society of America urge clients and employers to maintain high ethical standards and practice vigilance in communicating the messages that are necessary to the success of the organization and its relationships with stakeholders.
- Mike Porter, APR, Director of the Master of Business Communication Program at the University of St. Thomas; Ethics Officer for the Minnesota chapter of PRSA