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The ethics of online media relations, it’s not sponsorship

February 27th, 2009 by Lesley White · 3 Comments

There was some controversy last week about a YouTuber who had allegedly accepted something from a company and then posted a video without declaring any kind of vested interest.   It’s all detailed on and is an important part of the ongoing discussion about what is ethical or unethical in the worlds of paid vs earned social media ‘coverage’ or at least commentary. 

So… just a quick list about what we here at Network will and won’t do with online contacts.  

We will treat online commentators with as much respect as traditional media warrant   What does that mean? Well where the budgets and our access to information and materials allows we will:

  •  provide newsworthy insights that have not yet been made public (information)
  • give online media and commentators access to ‘talent’ whether it be in the form of written or verbal interviews, or simply ensuring that their questions are answered in a timely manner
  • make sure they have access to the products, services or information we thought they’d be interested in speaking to their viewers or readers about, similarly to a journalist review program.

If it is a service or consumable, then we will provide a one time use of that service for review or research purposes.

We will also provide opportunities for the ‘publications’ those media represent to offer some value-adds in the forms of prizes to their readers/viewers communities, again within the client’s means.

To what extent do we mean value add?  Well it’s impossible to be prescriptive given that we haven’t seen every type of client, product or service imaginable. However, and in general, it means: 

  • We will provide online media who review movies with a free viewing of that movie, ideally a non-paid preview, but if the time doesn’t suit or they are far from a pre-screening, then definitely a single or double in-season ticket. 
  • If I am helping a company launch a new coffee, a sample of that.  
  • If I would like an online commentator to judge a book then a copy of that book and where available, an interview with the author.  
  • If I identify that the commentator is of particular significance then I might offer them transportation to a particular interview or conference.  This could include an airfare or accommodation. 

In short, the online media commentator will be treated as well as but not better than a traditional journalist or reporter.   That means, a reasonable level of spend for them to be able to form an independent opinion on that product or service in line with whatever that industry does to educate, inform or advise the traditional media and reporters in that sphere.

What we will not do:

Make any inference to our contacts that this is in any way related to a specific attitude, review, or result.  All we are seeking is their attention, with the hope they would like to broadcast their opinion within their own channels.

We will not promise to clients a specific, let alone positive, outcome for this access.  At the same time, in keeping with usual public relations client briefing practices and based on our knowledge of contacts,  we are likely to have an educated view about how that person may react, since we enjoy getting to know bloggers, social media commentators, reviews, web site owners, moderators, online media etc.  

We will equally not allow any online contacts to use editorial coverage as a means of lobbying for advertising spend by our clients, however we will be happy to put them in touch with the relevant agency or department who makes those independent decisions.  We would not then contact the advertising people with any recommendation that in any way links editorial favour to advertising spend. 

And, should one of our online contacts write a negative report on a product or service, we will neither overtly nor subtly discourage that independent voice or opinion.  

To summarise, Network Communications Australia and its consultants/advisors do not do cash for comment.  We never have, and never will.  

In line with our rules of engagement, when we do engage with online media, commentators and networks, we will always seek to understand first what our clients can add to them in terms of value, rather than what they can do for our clients. 

I completely refute any suggestions made that any client of Network’s engaged paid-oriented coverage, unless obvious or clearly declared.  In the recent newspaper article, it would seem that that the  the word ’sponsored’ was a rather economical use of words for word count sake but not accurate as such, or at least very open to intepretation.  

For those who did not hear, and although it was a rather incidental mention in that story, I would like to clarify, nonetheless. Our client provided a particular high profile YouTuber with tickets to a number of movies, ie. the minimum required for them to form an opinion on our client’s product. That is neither more, nor less than they would accord a member of the traditional media and there was no inference that this would result in any particular coverage, let alone positive coverage.

Network takes pride in its ethical stance.  We believe that our reputation is our clients’ reputation.  If you are interested in our rules of engagement, they can be found on our website: 

Our clients are as ethical as we are in this respect, and they engage with online media in line with our recommendations, ie those above, and in our online rules of engagement within the ’social media’ section of our company’s website.

Ethics in online engagement continues to evolve, what are your thoughts on ethics or likely ethical guidelines for both paid or earned social media agencies, clients or engagement?  What other guidelines would you like to see here on the earned side of the equation?

Tags: Ethics · Lesley White · network pr · freshchat · Social Media Trends

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jye Smith // Feb 27, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Solid, practical advice here. Writing the text for blogger outreach programs i.e. media outreach.

  • 2 Lesley White // Mar 2, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks Jye. We’ve been doing this for years, I just didn’t see any particular need to post it until now.

    I’m hoping some voluntary codes of conduct can be developped, across both earned and paid social media marketing, to restore the transparency needed by both clients and consumers.

  • 3 Jane // Mar 11, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Hey Lesley,

    I’m doing an assignment investigating the ethical implications of media sponsorship, looking at similar things you have outlined above- do you know of any other case studies where media have ’sponsored’ an event/thing and the objectivity of the coverage has suffered as a result? Or infact, anything on the topic that i may be able to look at?

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