Ethics: Transparency Is Not All

In a comment today on a recent B2B Memes blog post, “Content Marketing’s PR Problem,”  a reader by the dubious name of Ant Miles raises an interesting point about content marketing and journalism. As Miles notes, journalism is often biased in hidden ways by PR and marketing. In content marketing, that bias tends to be more transparent. So in the latter case, “cynical audiences will see overly biased content for what it is—PR by another name—and treat it as such.”

In this view, transparency is not in itself a guarantee of ethical content.  Rather, by disclosing the potential for conflict, it raises the bar for content creators. And by giving readers a reason to distrust them, it requires them to work that much harder to produce ethical content that will earn back that trust. As Miles puts it, “the art to great content marketing must then be, through the very act of providing neutral, targeted content . . . to position the company as a trusted information source for the future, to earn the respect of the audience through truthful content.”

What interests me in this comment is the way transparency, volitional or not, is viewed as the starting point of ethical content, not the end point. That distinction isn’t always clear.

Not much has been written yet on ethics in content marketing, but what has focuses largely on transparency. For Rex Hammock, for instance, transparency is the only constant of ethics:

“Transparency—a clear explanation of the sponsorships and relationships involved in the development and presentation of any media—is the foundation (or high ground) that must be adhered to whenever determining whether or not something is ethical. Frankly, beyond that, ethical standards are a negotiation between media creator and media receiver.”

To old-media minds, the idea that ethical standards are negotiable is offensive. Content creators, they would say, should not shirk their ethical responsibility by transferring it to the reader.

From the new-media perspective, however, that is a paternalistic argument aimed at maintaining control of the medium. The interactivity inherent in conversational media means the reader is not simply a passive recipient of information, but shares ethical responsibility.

While I agree with the new-media perspective as Hammock expresses it, there’s a danger to it. It’s too easy to leap to the conclusion that you don’t need anything more than transparency to guarantee ethical content.

As Mitch Joel says, and as I think Hammock would agree, it’s not true that you can do whatever it takes to get your point across as long as you are transparent about your intent:

“That is, simply, not the case. All cannot be forgiven by just waving your hand over a piece of advertising posed as real content and saying, “paid,” “sponsored” or “advertising” on it.”

Without specifying what it takes to get there, Joel says that credibility is the ultimate goal, and that’s much harder to achieve than transparency. As he puts it, “if you can build your brand by starting off with a foundation of transparency and then think about what you can do to create those real interactions between real human beings—understanding that this is a long road—you are well on your way.”

We might say then that transparency is the foundation of ethical content, but there must be a superstructure of walls and roof beams as well. Building that superstructure involves a lot of work and interaction with the audience.

Whether the architecture is always negotiable or involves some other constant principles is up for debate.  But this much is clear: Transparency is not all.