Brand and Blogger – does it pay to be ethical?

As influencer marketing and PR continues to grow how do we, as PR professionals, ensure that our efforts are also ethical?

By Deb Sharratt & Anne-Marie Lacey,

As professional communicators, we work hard to strategically build relationships between brands and their target audiences, based on robust research, whilst protecting, preserving and enhancing a brand’s reputation. So, when working with influencers, it’s not only a legal requirement for you to get it right, ethically it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure the integrity and trust in the brand you’re representing.

Every week at the moment there seems to be another negative story about unethical online influence. Recently it was online reviews when a BBC investigation found that fake online reviews are being openly traded on the internet. Last week another BBC investigation has found that YouTube stars are being paid to sell academic cheating.

Working with influencers can bring huge benefits but with the influencer industry still relatively in its infancy, we as PR professionals have a great opportunity ourselves to influence the growing area so that it develops into a trusted, authentic, strategic and effective part of the communications mix and PESO framework.

So how do we ensure we are legal and ethical? As a professional communicator, once you have carefully selected appropriate content creators, what should you be asking bloggers for in terms of disclosing payment and links, while following the rules of different social media channels for disclosing paid-for content?

The ASA has announced a review into how paid-for influencer and native advertising is signposted online, saying that misleading posts damage consumer trust in advertising and that filters back to the brands participating in this bad practice. We totally agree.

As we all know the ASA is concerned with advertising, but what constitutes an advert when it comes to influencers’ blogs, vlogs and social media channels? We now work with content creators and pay them to highlight our brands, rather than just undertaking traditional advertising where we buy space and fill it with our own content.

According to the ASA an advert includes payment and editorial control. Any paid-for content should also be clearly marked as an advert, when paid for, or when receiving product or experiences in kind and there has been some kind of editorial control by a brand. Editorial control goes as far as even just asking for a post, inclusion of a specific link or campaign hashtag to be included in the influencer’s content.

And it is something that the CIPR is very clear on too. We spoke to Sarah Hall, CIPR President, who said: “Having a robust approach to influencer marketing is absolutely critical as this market continues to grow and scrutiny increases. One constant is the need for transparency, which means full disclosure where any money changes hands or where there is payment in kind, to comply with the Advertising Standards Authority regulations, not to mention the CIPR’s own Code of Conduct.

“As PR professionals, it’s also our responsibility to be up front about the value influencers can deliver for brands. Intelligent planning and research will weed out false metrics, which can artificially inflate an influencer’s value to a brand.”

We are all agreed that full disclosure is critical to the blogger and the brand. The relationship should be clearly declared at the start of a post, not hidden away at the end, or before someone clicks a link on social media to a particular article. Each channel has their own way of marking paid for content, and yes it would help if there was consistency, but safe to say as PR professionals we should be insisting on full disclosure and on all channels at all times.

In our experience, it’s actually welcomed by content creators, who are all too often at the end of requests for non-disclosure and follow links, leaving them having to weigh up the monetary gain against breaking regulations and the law.

A carefully chosen content creator with an engaged following is likely to have an audience that trusts and is influenced by what they say, regardless of whether they have been paid to highlight a product in their own way. This authenticity is why we want to work with them. So why jeopardise our reputation and theirs by hiding disclosure? If a brand is appropriate to the audience, then whether the influencer has been paid or not shouldn’t make any difference.

And what about the link included? Yes, high quality backlinks are beneficial to SEO, but are against Google regulations if they are paid for. Google ranking should be earned not bought; requesting and buying paid-for links can bring about a Google penalty and also contravenes the CIPR Code of Conduct. So, any paid for advertising with a content creator should come with a request for a no-follow link a standard. It’s also worth remembering that a content creator willing to sell backlinks is also likely to have a website with lots of low quality links – is that a website you want your brand associated with?

If public relations is about protecting, preserving and enhancing an organisation’s reputation, then honesty, transparency and trust must be the foundation on which we build our relationships between a brand and bloggers.  Influencer relations can deliver a massive return on investment when delivered as part of a strategic approach to build, manage and maintain relationships, and while being ethical might not always deliver a quick win, as part of a prolonged approach, being ethical when it comes to influencer relations always pays in the end.

Deb Sharratt and Anne-Marie Lacey are both PR & Marketing professionals, academic tutors and current Vice-Chair & Chair of CIPR North East respectively, who work with influencers on a daily basis.

Deb is a former winner of a PRide Best Independent Practitioner award and also has her own family lifestyle, food and travel blog – My Boys Club. Anne-Marie is the current winner of the CIPR’s Outstanding Young Communicator Excellence Award, is a Chartered Practitioner, and is Managing Director of an award-winning PR and communications agency, Filament PR.

Follow them at @debsharratt @myboysclub and @AM_LaceyPR @Filament_PR.

Photo by Sebastian Mantel on Unsplash

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