Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2016

An urgent question of transparency

Why ethical content marketing is a must for brand building and creating lasting brand recall.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

With content marketing becoming more and more of a buzzword in Pakistan, even if its use is still embryonic, PR practitioners can enjoy a quiet smile. For isn’t this what they have been espousing all along – that content is king? Of course, content shared via PR channels is largely free of cost, whereas content marketing is paid for.

Marketers should understand from the outset that although both advertising and content marketing may be paid for, the approach has to be distinct.

In both cases, payment implies that the content or the communication can be controlled, with no third party modifying or editing the content. However, here the commonality between advertising and content marketing ends. While advertising may be allowed a certain level of poetic license in terms of the claims made or the way the story is told, content marketing has to present the facts truthfully, avoid speculation and expose also the dark side if there is one, so that the audience has the full picture.

The implication is that content marketing needs to follow a code of ethics. As of now, there does not appear to be a defined and universally accepted code of ethics for content marketing.

A USA-based company, Concentric Content Marketing, which describes itself as “a content marketing agency that helps companies communicate with their target audience”, has made the effort to devise a code, because “words can be incredibly powerful... While marketing clearly has a very different goal than journalism, it is still critical to the future of the industry that we not squander the trust of our audience.”

Concentric Content Marketing has based its code on ethical journalism standards, which is logical given that content marketing is a form of journalism.

Another USA-based company, Contently Inc, which states that it is “a technology company that helps brands create great content at scale,” has also developed a code of ethics, again largely based on the ethics of journalism. However, it goes further and advocates that “content marketing should seek to adhere to stricter standards of reporting than traditional journalism, due to its different legal position and increased commercial motivations.”

Nascent as it is, content marketing has developed rapidly both in terms of the type of content put out (text, infographics, images, audio, video, music and even events using some or several of these media) and the media used to share the content (from traditional print publications to the array of digital platforms). Therefore, from an ethics perspective, it is necessary that a code of ethics for content marketing incorporates principles beyond those associated with traditional journalism.

Perhaps the best applicable set of ethical standards for modern, digital age content sharing has been devised by BuzzFeed, the cross-platform, global network for news and entertainment that receives seven billion views each month. These standards cover four areas: sourcing, corrections (updates, deletions and errors), legal and ethics, and the editorial and business relationship. Space does not permit a detailed review, but the interested reader can access these on the internet. Suffice it to say that it is a work of great effort and responsibility. BuzzFeed has offered these standards to its staffers and readers “as a first attempt at articulating the goal of merging the best of traditional media’s values with a true openness to the deep shifts in the forms of media and communication.”

Given the well-informed consumer of today, there can be no doubt that unethical content marketing will be short-lived.

So there is enough material out there to guide marketers on ethical content marketing. Of course, when we talk of ethics, we can say that there are some universally accepted ethics and then there are others which are based on the cultural, social and religious values of every society. Taking both into consideration, I will venture to list the top five guidelines which form the core code of ethics for content marketing:

1. Responsibility
Your content may have been developed by an external source, but it remains your responsibility to ensure 100% accuracy of the facts and figures and sources of information must be impeccable and verifiable. When brands use external sources for content generation (bloggers and activists on social media platforms), they must ensure that the independence or objectivity of such contributors is not compromised through monetary rewards or non-monetary gifts, as this tilts towards unethical practices. What brands need to understand is that by effectively ‘buying’ third party content generators, so to speak, they are compromising the credibility of the content they wish to promote. It is not inconceivable that over time the content generators who have been gratified in one way or another will lose credibility too, and will be identified by savvy consumers as no more than billboards for certain brands.

2. Telling the truth
Similar to being responsible, telling the truth entails not deliberately hiding any negative aspects, or telling only the bright side of a story.

3. Transparency and accountability
Any claims made must be research based and the source shared. This is not only being ethical, it supports the content in terms of making it more credible. This implies never plagiarising or repositioning somebody else’s content, whether the original source is known or not. A good example is Tetra Pak Pakistan’s Facebook page, which is an excellent source of useful information on subjects like nutrition and the dairy sector.

A recent post advised that the livestock sector in Pakistan contributes around 12% of GDP and 56.3% of agricultural value addition. The source of the data is given as being a research study conducted by a LUMS professor and his team.

4. Cultural sensitivity
Content should consider cultural sensitivities. In our cultural context, content should avoid references to sex and nudity, violence and profanity. (On a broader level, it is wrong to bring race, ethnic or language prejudices into play.) This can be achieved while maintaining appealing content, presented in a glamorous way. An example is the portal with Unilever brands in the background.

5. Avoiding political and religious biases
Marketers should not be concerned about shaping public perception on political and religious matters. All content should be vetted to ensure that such biases do not exist, especially as a lot of the content development may have been outsourced and such biases may have been included in the content, even unconsciously.

Anyone who has understood the potential and power of content marketing knows that to be effective, content has to be highly relevant. In Pakistan there is perhaps no better example of this than Coke Studio. However, it is not relevance alone that has made Coke Studio so big. It was the uncompromising integrity rooted deeply into the concept and execution. Integrity is an ethical fundamental of journalism and it has to be so for content marketing as well. Coke Studio demonstrates this by giving a free hand to the producers and the musicians, so that the music is not influenced by the brand or its attributes.

Ethics in content marketing are advised not only because we should be ethical in our endeavours, but because for brands it is smart to be ethical with content. Given the well-informed consumer of today, there can be no doubt that unethical content marketing will be short-lived. The outcome of unethical content marketing can be irreversibly destructive; as Warren Buffett once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO, APR.