September 26, 2009
PR firm interns posting fake reviews about iPhone apps for their clients. Ghost blogging and tweeting by just about everyone, including thought-leaders in social media. Bloggers not disclosing sponsorship. It’s just a matter of time before someone poisons the well for EU social media.
Over the past few months I’ve integrated For Immediate Release, a twice-weekly hour-long podcast on all things PR2.0, into my weekly routine, and one of the most commonly recurring themes has to be unethical behaviour in social media blowing up in the faces of its perpetrators – and their clients. Depressingly familiar stories that confirm many people’s stereotypes of the worst aspects of PR.
But it’s not always PR firms – and/or their clients – that act less than ethically. Bloggers do, too, and – just to make life that bit more interesting – bloggers in different countries have different views of the same ethical questions.
So let’s open a can of worms, find a crystal ball, look deep inside it and spot a train wreck waiting to happen.
Trust and Authenticity, or the lack thereof
Back in July, Michael Netzley – FIR’s Singapore-based correspondent – recorded an interview with Jeremy Woolf of Text 100 about that global PR firm’s Global Blogger Survey Report (read the social media release). One of the things that struck me was his report about how bloggers from different countries approach sponsorship. It’s difficult to quote a podcast so I’ll paraphrase.
To begin with, American bloggers “almost universally” said they would disclose sponsorship or other forms of corporate association. For example, if they work for a company and have a private blog, they will mention that association when discussing company-related business; and if a company flew them to a trade fair to blog about their products, they would clearly say so in their reviews, which would remain independent.
For an example of how fully disclosed sponsorship of a blog post can look, read this account of an American Mummy Blogger going on a trip to a Ford car plant. And ask yourself what would happen if everyone who ever benefited from an EU programme blogged like that.
Anyway, back to that survey. It turns out that not everyone has the same ethical standards. Fewer Asia-Pacific bloggers, for example, said that they acknowledge sponsorship – many seem happy to take money to say nice things about a corporation’s products, while seeing no need to mention this to their readers. This trend, thankfully, was focused on North Asia, rather than Australia and New Zealand.
In Europe it was – typically – a complex picture. It turns out that French bloggers “were the least transparent when it came to acknowledging corporate association“. My life isn’t worth me making a comment on that.
Anyway, why does this matter? Well, as Woolf pointed out:
The very nature of social media is that you’re valuing the authentic voice and opinion of the individual who’s writing. If you were to discover that they wrote positively because they were getting some type of incentive, that’s going to damage your standing.
But it’s not just the unethical blogger who’ll (deservingly) suffer. What about the sponsor?
If I was a corporate sponsor I would insist on some sort of disclosure … because the reverse is incredibly damaging. Do you want your brand to be known as one that pays for positive noise? You’ll open yourself up in the blogosphere to be hounded, attacked and flamed.
What the US bloggers and their sponsors know is that traditional PR just doesn’t work in the social media space. In fact, it’s counterproductive, because the slightest insincerity online will inevitably be discovered.
It’s simply the nature of the environment – social media is utterly ruthless with anything less than the truth. And it’s also in the nature of the environment that mistakes go viral – i.e., if you screw up, everyone will hear about it, as Microsoft found with its Photoshop problems.
Catching up with the problem
Today, of course, the EU institutions are a long way behind the corporate world in realising the potential of social media, so they’re probably some way from their first monumental social media screwup.
But the potential for both is vast, so it’s just a matter of time before someone, somewhere within an EU Institution, goes to a consultancy and asks for a social media engagement strategy, and ends up with more than they bargained for.
Now I guess there’s a chance that this hypothetical client will understand how important transparency and authenticity are, and so insist on transparency and disclosure. But it’s by no means certain, because newcomers are always being urged to ‘just do social media’ in order to learn what it actually is. So there’s a good chance that our client won’t understand that old fashioned PR tricks will blow up in their face when applied to social media.
If they don’t understand this, of course, there’s a slightly better chance that the consultancy will. But many consultancies out here are no more clued up on social media than their clients, while most of the rest can be pretty unscrupulous (disclosure: I work in a consultancy, but it is clued up and we are ethical, which is why I joined them). So even if they realise that what the client is asking for is dangerous, they may not care to try and persuade them otherwise. And even if they do, the client won’t necessarily listen.
Poisoning the well
A screw-up, therefore, seems likely. And that will poison the well.
I mean, it’s bad enough when the Commission is innocent – witness the cretinously daft conspiracy theories about the ‘EC taking over the blogosphere‘ when this site was launched.
But what will happen when the first real ghost blogger, or the first undisclosed sponsorship, is exposed?
It won’t matter if it is done without the Commission’s knowledge by some PR consultancy intern who is as zealous as s/he is ignorant of social media ethics. The damage will be done, and I suspect it will be longer-lasting than the temporary storms which regularly lash corporate PR.
The EU Institutions – or, more exactly, the functionnaires who’ll carry the can if things go bad – will probably learn from the experience by shutting down anything smelling of social media, significantly delaying the benefits social media offers the EU’s various policies and programmes.
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic and/or oversensitive from previous experience. But I can’t help thinking that this is one train wreck that can and should be avoided.Mathew Lowry