The ethics of branded content

August 27, 2013

How should PR professionals respond to ethical questions about using branded content?

The rise of branded content as a tool for both editorial organizations and PR practitioners was probably inevitable, considering the changing economics of both professions. It makes sense: Editorial needs content and ways to pay for it, which presents an opportunity for those of us who have messages to convey on behalf of clients. They get the content they need and our clients get their message out — everybody wins. It’s simple, right?

Of course not. Branded content not only presents an ethical challenge, but it also presents a challenge for how editorial organizations present material to their readers.

Let’s use an obvious extreme to make the point: If everything that you publish is paid propaganda, then your readership will dwindle to near zero, and it will happen quickly. There is a question of trust between publishers and readers, too. If I’m giving you marketing content but trying to make it look like editorial content — in the hope that you won’t be able to tell the difference — then I’m going to quickly lose your trust.

And deservedly so.

In some ways, it’s because branded content makes so much economic sense that it cries out for ethical guidelines. This past July, Edelman provided a good start with a set of guidelines that it proposes as the industry standard, including:

1. Disclosure — when you promote branded content, you need to clearly label it as such. Don’t try to sell marketing content as editorial.

2. Allow for real reader comments, like those found on news and opinion pieces. Don’t edit or remove the negative ones only because someone bought and paid for the content.

3. Don’t let it become a substitute for earned media. Just because you post branded content doesn’t mean that you should stop working with the PR community to develop stories that deserve publication.

4. Keep content current. The days of the static news story that’s written once, published and left unchanged are over. Now, stories are constantly updated as information develops. Branded content should be the same way.

5. Respect the non-porous organizational divide — simply put, people on the news staff don’t write, edit or place branded content. That keeps the editorial folks focused on their true, professional news judgment.

Developing stories

I don’t have a problem with any of these tips, although, keeping content current will be much more difficult to do in practice, since the people writing the branded content are not reporters and they won’t be used to the idea of constantly updating the so-called “developing story.” But maybe this opens up professional opportunities for people who could bring those editorial skills to the marketing side.

Even so, both the publishing and PR professions need to be careful. For the former, there is a huge opportunity in expanding the use of branded content, especially if it’s well-written and useful to their readers — and yes, this is possible. But readers will only accept so much. They read your work because of your basic, non-branded editorial mission, and if they find material related to that mission scarcer as they sift through the branded content, then readers will leave.

The changing nature of media creates a lot of great opportunities for innovation in what PR pros do. But if we’re not careful, then branded content can tempt us to laziness, even as it sets new ethical traps. Edelman has made a great contribution to this discussion. I’m looking forward to more publishing and public relations professionals weighing in.

Ann Willets
Ann Willets is president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc., an ethically focused PR agency. She was the 2010 chair of the Counselors Academy.


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