Why bending the rules on social costs more than a fine

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The 'grey zone' of ethics on social media

For years, the mantra touted by every social expert is that brands need to 'be transparent and honest' when engaging in social networks. But some companies deliberately flout this unwritten ethical understanding between a brand and its customer. In fact, there are still too many brands (and agencies) stretching and bending to rules of engagement.

At its most basic, these brands tread a fine line between faster rewards and risk of being found out. The issue is not just in getting caught and fined, but the likelihood of a consumer backlash, lost loyalty and a bitter taste of a brand reputation in tatters.

Fake news and alternative facts, alongside unscrupulous social practices now in the public eye, are drawing the attention of the lawyers. Consumer groups and watch dogs are scrutinising more and trusting less. This year the consequences will be felt by any brand that thinks it can sneak through dodgy marketing practices.

There are laws that pertain to marketing that have been in place for years. Most household brands adhere to those. But there is an unwritten contract between brand and consumer that is being broken too often by well-known companies.

Here are the ones to clean up immediately.

If you pay for it, then say it

Paying for influencers to promote you brand and to advertise your products is an acceptable (if not always useful) practice. However, it’s not acceptable if any post is not labelled as promotional. Brands must inform readers that content published in this way is ‘paid-for advertising’.

There are several regulatory bodies paying a lot of close attention to this issue now. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have written an excellent open letter on the issue and you can get detailed guidance on the CAP Code website.

Some brands ignore the guidance. Maybe they hope it will go unnoticed as social is so noisy. The authorities are paying a lot more attention now though, and consumers are increasingly savvy in reporting infringements. Why gamble with your brand reputation? Just don’t do this.

Winners selected at 'random'

Most marketers are aware that they should not execute a social competition or prize draw that the Gambling Commission would deem an 'illegal lottery'. Hence we often add in a basic skill element to the competition to avoid the problem.

But some brands are breaking the acceptable parameters of a prize draw by not ‘quite’ randomly selecting winners. In fact, when you review the winners, you often find they are the entrants with the largest following or the greatest influence. A biased selection. It might be great for follow-up exposure, but it is unethical and if uncovered, will cost you in fines and outraged fans. You need to prove that the winners were picked at random, with verifiable data.

Guys! You know the rules, stop pilfering content

Social is all about sharing and curating content. And it is good practice for brands to do the same. It makes you part of a community.

The line is clear though. Sharing a tweet through the networking app is fine. Lifting content is not. Plain and simple, it is theft.

With so many great visuals on Pinterest and Instagram some companies find it too tempting not to pinch an image or two. In some cases, brands have completely ripped-off creative ideas, publishing them on social or bringing them into real world products.

And it’s not just images. It can be campaign ideas, music or text. Even if you attribute the content, you are not clear of copyright infringement unless you have permission. Especially if you are a high-profile brand. And especially if you use the material for a promotion or to gain financially.

There are grey areas too. The ‘fair use’ laws are changing especially when it comes to sports. In 2018, this issue is going to get hotter. Even use of content for ideas where there is no clear distinction in the final output, is considered a breach of copyright. Don’t be tempted. Check. Get permission. Pay for your content.

I am not only advocating that companies know and adhere to the law on social media, I would suggest that there is a need to behave ethically too. Don’t bend the rules and hope to get away with it. Authorities, lawyers and your customers are wising-up. No marketer wants to see their brand dragged through courts or vilified on social media. Don’t do it.

Katy Howell is chief executive officer at social specialist agency Immediate Future

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