Elements of ethics in content marketing

As brands become publishers, content marketers need to become aware of the ethical pitfalls that everyone in the publishing world faces. Plagiarism, copyright and other issues may not always rise to the level that involves your lawyers, but they will often rise to the level that does involve your ethics and your reputation.

Using someone’s photograph without proper credit or mis-attributing a quote are, at a minimum, embarrassing. In some cases they may expose your brand to ridicule, negative publicity or even legal risk.

Here are four guidelines for ensuring your content is ethical and appropriate.

Photo via Flickr by Prayitno

Photo via Flickr by Prayitno

1. Respect the truth.

The marketplace is not just a competition for buyers’ dollars, it’s also a competition among competing viewpoints. Inevitably, you will be working against someone else’s viewpoint. That’s fine.

It is not fine, though, to imply that something you don’t like — a viewpoint, a piece of information, a perspective — is not true if it is. And it is not OK to imply something is true that you know is untrue. (Note: I realize this is common in politics, to imply that the other guy is wrong or to look away as folks on your side of the political aisle make wrong claims. However, I think those of us who aren’t in politics can do better. Heck, I think those of you in politics can do better.)

Respecting the truth is a master principle of ethics. Follow this guide, and chances are you won’t go wrong.

Here’s the thing: No matter what you claim, if you’re working against the truth, than sooner or later you’ll be found out. And when that happens your reputation will be shot, even if everything you say after that is absolute truth.

The bottom line? Don’t sell off your credibility for a cheap shot.

2. Credit where credit is due.

If you’re quoting someone else, using a Creative Commons-licensed photo or referencing a statistic or fact from someone else, link to your sources. I recognize that this isn’t always possible, and that sometimes that link won’t be useful for all your readers (for example, a link to content behind a news outlet’s paywall). However, whenever possible, link to your sources.

Sometimes it’s not a single piece of information or quote that you’re borrowing, but an important idea or concept. And sometimes the sources you’re drawing from aren’t online. In those cases, it’s still appropriate to tell your audience where concept or fact is coming from.

For example, if you’re talking about the importance of social proof, you could link to Robert Cialdini, one of the most important modern scholars and writers in the arena of ethical persuasion.

Linking not only helps to attribute information and creative assets to those who created them, but it also makes your content more credible by showing your audience where you got it.

3. Don’t defame people or companies.

I’m all for a vigorous debate, whether in the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace of products and services. And it is fine, if you can back it up, to claim that your product/service/brand/organization is better than the competitor. It is also fine to point out legitimate shortcomings of the competitor (Ex. Google+ has fewer users and less activity than Facebook).

But, you need to keep it clean. Don’t say things that are untrue and harmful to another person or company’s reputation.

Whatever short term gains you might win with these kinds of tactics, in the long term your reputation, credibility and, ultimately, your business will suffer.

4. Disclose your interests.

If you’re being paid, or could be paid, on behalf of someone else, disclose the relationship. You also need to ask people advocating on your behalf to disclose any benefit (financial or otherwise) that they might receive from you thanks to their advocacy.

Disclosure, though now required by the Federal Trade Commission, is still not always present. And it can feel challenging (“If I disclose my interests will people think I’m saying this just because of my financial interests?”). But do it anyway.

In the long run, consistent disclosure will help you build more trust with key audiences. And that trust with an audience is the most powerful thing you can create when you’re doing content marketing.

Want more?

Want more guidelines on ethical content marketing? I like Contently’s take on it, too.

What’s your take on ethics in content marketing? Let us know in the comments below.

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