On my trip back from Germany working with my 360 Digital Influence teams in that country and the UK, I was struck by a Herald Tribune article by Akash Kapur about media companies in India asking for payment in exchange for positive media coverage ("earned media"). During the same trip, Chris Graves, Ogilvy PR CEO, was reminding our client that it remains common enough practice for unscrupulous marketers in China to astroturf positive or negative comments in BBS systems under anonymous user names. There are different practices and standards for behavior online and in marketing across the world. The question? Do you adopt custom practices in every market around ethics and disclosure depending on custom and law (not too many of those around the globe yet) or do you define and follow one 'best way?'
We work globally in social media. Many of our clients are working across 10 or more markets. Many are trying to grow capacity to use social media in many of those markets. It's hard. Pushing digital innovation across markets that each have a peculiar manifestation of social media means balancing local relevance with universal 'best practices.' The enduring dynamic between local market and global center always calls for some, "they don't understand my market" grumbling. Still, there are some boundaries that should be shared.
The risks to the brand of a marketer paying bloggers to post positive reviews in China are just not worth the benefit. The "return on reputation" is just not there (the reputation risk outweighs the potential marketing benefit). But if everyone is doing it is it really a risk? And isn't it Western hubris that suggests that type of behavior is wrong in the first place. I don't think so. A brand's relationship with its customers is not a variable one. Brands must earn the trust of those customers and do nothing to devalue it or undermine it. As my new clients in Germany would attest, some things in business are universal and simple.
Trust is a Universal
What worries me about Akash Kapur's article is his focus on the explosion of media outlets struggling to find revenue sources and models in a vicious economic environment. He chalks it off to an entrepreneurial drive exploring new business models. The consumer thinks the article is from an independent journalist and the ad alongside is paid for by the advertiser. The fact that the advertiser paid for both is a slap in the face to that customer. Its a practice that treats the customer like a 'rube" whether in Bangalore, New York City or Berlin.
Our social media work succeeds because of the trust we have for our peers and amateur/experts we come to know online. No short-term perceived marketing gain is worth risking that.Global brands should adopt the 'one best way'- social media guidelines that demand full disclosure, ethical outreach, and the path to truly 'earned media.' If that puts you at a disadvantage in China where your competitor pays bloggers sneakily or in India where you must buy the article not just the ad, then so-be-it. I would guess that advantage is temporary and illusory.