Paid Content Has No Rules, So Behave

When institutions blow apart, the old rules give way to something that’s more like no rules. Which is pretty much where we are in journalistic branded content.

In that environment, brands have to be careful and behave, or they could find themselves losing the public’s trust.

The old structure of the media industry had its flaws. But when news and information flowed through traditional newspapers and magazines, trained journalists imposed a shared code of law, especially when it came to things like conflicts of interest, separating advertisers from coverage, and objectivity. Same with books and publishing houses, though book editors generally had a different set of standards from journalists.

If those institutions were gatekeepers, the gates have been obliterated by storming mobs. Instead of pitchforks, they’ve come bearing Web news sites, blogs, Twitter, self-publishing, Kindle Singles, etc. The democratization of media has been wonderful and eye-opening in so many ways, but there’s also this: Some in the storming mobs have a lot of money to spend and a motivation to use it in ways the old journalists usually squashed.

Case in point: the government of Malaysia. Last week, the story surfaced that Malaysia paid 10 media columnists – who wrote for outlets such as Huffington Post and National Review – to write pieces smearing an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. With a hunger for content and less scrutiny of what they publish, Web news sites are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing.

We’ve seen instances of Twitter abuse. Lots of questions have been raised about celebrities getting paid by companies to tweet about their products – with no disclosure about the arrangement. Rainn Wilson got called out for pitching del Taco on the sly.

Lately stories have surfaced about schemes to manipulate bestseller lists so books like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness looks like it zooms to the top.

Who knows how much of this goes unreported and unseen. So the temptation can be great for brands to sponsor content in sneaky ways.

But then, getting outed is a bitch. Anything pro-Malaysia in any news outlet is now suspect. Any celebrity mention of del Taco will raise an eyebrow.

In this new environment, brands have to be guardians of their own credibility. The best way to do that is to be as transparent and noble as possible when it comes to journalistic content. Don’t try to trick us. Yes, a brand may get away with it, but if we do find out, the brand will lose our trust. That’s not worth it.


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