As a marketing professional and a former newspaper reporter, I’m well aware of how important it is for journalists (and the media organisations that employ them) to fully disclose their commercial interests. Any journalist worth their salt knows that it’s completely unethical to accept undisclosed payments in return for favourable coverage of a sponsor. Serious western media (perhaps with the exception of John Laws and Alan Jones) abhors the practice but in Russia it’s become so common for journalists to accept bribes in return for coverage, they’ve actually invented a word for it: ‘Zakazukha’.
While mainstream media outlets have shareholders and reputations to protect, out here in the blogosphere there’s no code of ethics to abide by and nothing to stop me, or anyone else ranting and raving about whatever we like. If I want to start accepting payments for favourable coverage I don’t have to give a toss about my reputation. The danger is that the Internet becomes a Zakazukha zoo.
This notion became all too apparent last night when Julie from Network PR emailed to confirm that, as an influencer with a blog, Facebook page and Twitter account that all mentioned vino every so often, I would be receiving, via post, a dozen bottles from her client, Kirrihill Wines: no obligation, I just had to enjoy the wine and if I felt like blogging about it or posting pictures of me and my friends drinking it to their Flickr Photostream, then that would be fine. I jokingly changed my Facebook status to “Matt is looking forward to sampling some marvelllous Kirrihill Wine from Australia’s Clare Valley”, with the intention of disclosing my zakazukhing in this blog this morning, but within minutes friends had started commenting on my status and asking about the wine. I have blogged often and loudly about the power of social media marketing, but this was the first time I’d seen it in action like this from a different side of the fence. Kirrihill will be wrapped I’m sure.
One of my friends is a lawyer (and her mother happens to be writing her PhD thesis on ethics in ‘new journalism’) and we started a debate about what, if any, duty of disclosure I had to tell my Facebook friends that I was in fact on the payroll of Kirrihill Wine. The answer seemed to be that I had no legal obligation whatsoever. As this sort of social media marketing becomes more common and more and more ‘influencers’, like me, are brought into campaigns, I think we’re also all going to find it harder to recognise and abide by the moral obligation.
Gyms are notorious for their hard-sell, ‘refer a friend’ tactics and the idea of rewarding people in exchange for a recommendation is nothing new, but now that everyone is an influencer in the eyes of a marketing department somewhere, and everyone has the tools to broadcast their opinion to the world, are we going to have to start asking our friends if their opinion has been paid for? Furthermore, if everyone’s on the payroll, will the power of social media marketing eventually be eroded?