Monday, September 8, 2008

As social media adoption increases, do ethics get left at the doorstep?

I've been fascinated with social media for a while now and for a number of reasons. What has fascinated me the most about these technologies with regards to public relations practice is the promise they hold to topple old one-way models of communication and to increase transparency. I figured these changes would be good for the PR profession - I figured they would help the profession regain some of its credibility. That's one of the reasons I wanted to teach a class on this topic and support the push for the corporate adoption of social media. However, my optimism about the power of social media to change our field took a little hit last week when I was reminded not once, but twice, that there are an increasing number of people out there who "don't play by the rules".

Earlier last week one of my former students contacted me to tell me about her (and I quote) "horrible internship experience". I won't identify who she worked for here, but in essence she was asked to violate basic rules of social media transparency in order to publicize companies and events. Fortunately, she decided to stand by her ethics and quit her internship!

Just a few days later, my husband received a package of nutritional supplements he had ordered online along with an interesting offer: "Want a $10 rebate in this order? Write about your Vitabase experience on your website, blog or somewhere else on the Internet." In order to receive the rebate, a customer has to complete the following steps:
  1. Write a short testimonial about Vitabase or our products and put it on your personal website or blog or any public place on the web. Include a link to any page on 
  2. Send an email to telling us the page that you posted your information
Vitabase does offer some blogging tips, such as "avoid sounding like a commercial or like you are biased toward Vitabase", but nowhere does the company even suggest mentioning that the blogger is receiving financial compensation for his/her "unbiased" Vitabase review. Adding insult to injury is the requirement that bloggers link back to the company website - in essence paying people to add inbound links to their site and thereby increase the site's Google ranking. 

I know we are only talking about $10 here, but to me such initiatives seem to be violating basic ethics guidelines, such as the Social Media Guidelines set forth by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR):
Members' use of social media must be transparent, and they must make extra effort to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. They should, if writing or contributing to a blog which recommends a service supplier, make clear any financial interest they or their client might have in doing so.
or the PRSA Member Code of Ethics which calls for the disclosure of information and conflicts of interest in its code provisions and reminds its members that "avoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers, and the publics." 

Also worth mentioning in this regard is the PRSA Professional standards advisory PS-6 (April 2005) on disclosure by expert commentators and professional spokespersons of payment or financial interests. Although that advisory was mostly geared towards media commentators, it nonetheless provides important guidelines for disclosing financial interest when promoting a product or cause that could be easily applied to bloggers - especially when considering that social media empowers us all to become a sort of media commentator.

What really bothered me about both these examples is that I believe that there are many more of these out there. Is it possible that paying customers to write positive reviews is becoming the norm? Are companies leaving their ethics at the doorstep as they are embarking on their social media endeavors?

We just covered the findings from Edelman's Trust Barometer survey in my campaigns class the other day. I wonder how long peers will remain the number one trusted source of information with ethically questionable promotions such as these on the rise...


David Ross said...

This is an interesting topic and one which needs to be addressed. I work for Kocina Marketing Companies, a PR firm based in Minneapolis, MN and we have had this very same discussion within our office walls lately.

Contributing to blogs, forums, social networking sites, et. al. is a great way to increase a company's web presence, but it does create a problem when it comes to ethics. It would be very easy to covertly slip in favorable opinions of one's company and/or products under the guise of a "real" consumer, or in the example you illustrated, to pay someone to do it for you, but it defeats the purpose of utilizing this powerful promotional channel.

Blogs and social media sites are an incredible tool for marketers, but as we practice here, all dialogue MUST be done overtly. We have clients who hire us to monitor blog activity all over the web, looking for opportunities to talk about their products, but we stress that we will only do so while adhering to the strictest code of ethics. They appreciate our integrity.

These types of sites are the new landscape of PR so we must pay close attention to them, ensuring they are not being abused by unethical companies.


corinnew said...

David - I'm glad to hear this is a conversation you've already had in your office. I do believe that there are lots of reputable PR/marketing firms who "get" social media and understand that a relationship built on dishonest communication practices can only hurt them in the long run.

That's said, I also think that there is an increasing number of businesses and not so reputable PR/marketing firms out there willing to forgo transparency in order to get publicity or in this example, a positive online review. There is no Internet ethics police stopping them, so maybe that's why we are seeing more and more unethical social media behaviors.

Ultimately though, I think that these companies are only hurting themselves. Building a successful relationship on lies is as bad an idea in the business world as it is in private life.