Sincerity is the key to social media

Product placement can be highly beneficial to a brand. It can also be amazingly damaging. Striking the balance between these two extremes is where your PR agency comes in: Trust the specialists to avoid the pitfalls of what can be a highly controversial practice.

This controversy doesn’t just emanate from consumer groups or broadcast regulators. The PR and advertising industries in the UK have been left reeling against the British government’s recent decision to ‘blacklist’ some products from any product placement whatsoever. Many agencies argue that the practice is ‘self-regulated’. Products on this ‘blacklist’ would usually not be placed anyway, out of fear of a viewer and consumer backlash. This inevitably would lead to negative PR.

Our UK readers may be surprised to learn that a similar discussion is raging amongst German PR’s – albeit with different battle lines.

Social media as a PR tool is new to Germany. Our clients at Vivid Köln are wide-eyed when we talk about the possibilities that direct engagement offers. They’re excited when we report back on their social media campaigns. But for most German companies, social media is still the ‘undiscovered country’. Some firms and agencies are using this to their advantage by jettisoning all of the best-practice knowledge gained in their home markets.

Bad practices are causing a PR controversy. Alexander Güttler, president of the Gesellschaft der Public Relations Agenturen (Association of PR Agencies) spoke out against covert pay-per-endorsement bloggers last week: “If you’re placing a product in a positive light, because you’re being paid to do so, you’re a professional undertaking PR.”

In context, Güttler made this assertion after outlining a ‘Code of Conduct for Online PR’ that the GPRA intends to enforce. The Association wants the financial relationships between influential bloggers and companies to be fully disclosed.

Güttler argues that if you’re receiving payment for your endorsement, then readers should know this, and you should be subject to a professional code of conduct. The German blogosphere retorts that they are private people and not covered by a professional code.

We’re back to self-regulation: Bloggers are covered by a code of conduct, and not one that needs to be enforced by a third party. Social media is by it’s very nature a discussion, between bloggers, publics, and companies.

If a blogger continually endorses products that fail to meet expectations, they lose their audience. If they consistently evangelise a brand only because they are being paid to do so, their audience will pick up on their insincerity, and leave.

There is no reason that they shouldn’t disclose their financial support – I’d argue that their audience would appreciate the honesty and still be open to what they have to say. The nightmare scenario for any media producer, blogger or traditional, is insincerity coming to light. It ruins your reputation instantly. And when you’re a blogger, your reputation is really all you have.

German bloggers beware – be upfront about your cash, or risk losing your hard-earned audience.

The GRPA’s draft ‘Online Code of Conduct’ will be released on 26 February.


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