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Race to the Bottom of Social Media Ethics

August 27, 2010

NOTE: This is a mirror of a post I first wrote for Campaign Asia.

Today, Reverb Communications settled with the FTC over a claim that it misrepresented itself by having staff post positive comments and reviews about a client’s video game on iTunes without full disclosure of the paid relationship between the brand and the endorser – otherwise known as sock-puppetry, or simply fraud.

This is a case that has been going on for two years, ever since Reverb was rumbled by MobileCrunch. As Adam Curry warns “There are no secrets, only information you do not yet have.” MobileCrunch even managing to get a hold of one of Reverb’s proposal documents, posting it in its entirety. It wasn’t pretty.

I doubt it’s coincidence that last year The FTC revised its endorsements and testimonials guides that online posts of any nature must disclose the connection between reviews or comments left and the seller of the service or product in question. This rule goes for employees associated with a product any agency advertising the product and any third-party paid money or consideration in kind to write something about the product – ie. A blogger, or even a journalist. Many governments in Asia are evaluating bringing in similar guidelines.

I’m not naive – sock puppetry is rife in many countries across our region. I know smart in-house marketers and communicators who believe there is no problem in doing this. They should know better and I do my best to explain why this kind of practice is dangerous for their careers and the reputation of their employers. Despite Reverb being a PR firm, this practice is industry-wide.

In short, if anything is going to change, it’s going to take the various industry bodies – from the 4As, to the PR institutes, to ADMA to the IAB etc to take the issue of ethics in marketing seriously and drive a code of practice and educational curriculum around this to its membership – it’s what WOMMA has done with it’s Honesty ROI – but in a region where ethical leadership is most needed, I worry it’s still sorely lacking.

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