Module 4 – Content Strategy with Professor Phillip Simon
Should “enablers”, those who conceive, perpetuate and expedite unethical communications, lies, be held legally accountable for their actions? Let’s be clear, laws govern societies, they are a codified form of ethics crafted from group compromise and consensus. Ethics, however, are deeper. Ethics are about universal right and wrong, they dictate behavior and are very personal. Ethics are about the individual, and if an individual does something unethical, then they, and they alone, must be held responsible. When we find that there has been some business calamity, a corruption that leads to real social and human costs, there is a communication component. Unfortunately, very few of the leaders, if any, are held accountable. Enablers are the individuals who followed the orders, were instrumental in making the lies possible with full knowledge of the wrongdoing.
Sometimes the law does not prohibit many acts that would widely be condemned as unethical. For example, lying or betraying the confidence of a friend is not illegal, but most people would consider it unethical. Also, speeding is illegal, but many people may not have any ethical conflict with exceeding the speed limit. Unethical behavior usually reaps some personal gain, then those personal gains should be forfeited when it comes to light.
Yes, but what does this have to do with content strategy? I was just doing my job.
If content is king, then it follows that those who control content exercise great power. They do. Today, Joseph Goebbels could have been a content strategist, packaging Nazi hatred in patriotic films, radio spots, and newspapers. But his methods seem archaic compared to the tools and tactics of present-day advertisers, public relations firms and lobbyists. I’m sure he would have appreciated terms like “alternative facts”. A mass communication mastermind, he was responsible for countless deaths, but he would not be the last. He did it for power, for an ideology, others do it for much worse reasons: profit.
After 45 years of lying, in 2006, the truth was finally revealed in a courtroom when a federal judge found that the U.S. tobacco industry “ have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.” Since 1964, the government estimates that tobacco has killed more than 20 million Americans. That is 15 times the number of Americans who have perished in all wars combined. The companies were punished, but the executives who reaped decades of rewards, and their staff, just packed their bags and moved on, free to continue murdering people with fresh lies. They drove to new corporate parking lots in their Mercedes Benzes where new spin-doctoring was needed, doubt needed to be sown, products needed to be pushed.
Do you believe that the lying stopped with tobacco? Consider the ongoing debates of today: climate change, healthcare, opioids, gun violence, trickle-down economics….there might be a Marlboro man lurking in their midst.
So I will say it again, content strategists can wield enormous influence in a world where a $100,000 worth of Facebook impressions can swing an election. Yet, the band plays on. Even our current president, who is regarded by some as a pathological liar, who has been fact-checked and exposed thousands of times, somehow manages to keep a third of the country mesmerized by his tweets. Americans love spectacle, marketers know this. Rush Limbaugh is given the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Jennifer Lopez slides down a stripper pole at the epicenter of the Super Bowl. It is no secret that our society rewards the outrageous. We revel in irreverence, but to what end?
Truth prevents social decay.
From the debauchery of the Romans to the cruelty of the Aztecs, history is filled with cautionary examples of fallen societies, partly destroyed by moral decay and excess. Where are the limits and who decides what is acceptable? Of course, using controversy and clickbait is not comparable to human sacrifices, but our norms are often rooted in a group’s moral underpinnings. What we allow is who we are. Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society. The term is derived from the Greek word ethos which can mean custom, habit, character or disposition. The American experiment tests the idea of freedom daily. Its diversity produces an ongoing debate of moral values often measured in the courts. When a nation’s morality is in perpetual evolution, it becomes crucial to protect the truth.
Content strategists work at the crossroads of several different fields. These fields predate content strategy and have developed legal and ethical frameworks in which they operate. We defined the three primary areas in my earlier blog post. They must adhere to the rules of these fields, for example, content marketing stems in practice and purpose from advertising, hence the content strategist must be aware of and stay clear of deceptive practices in advertising. Content creation often entails producing artifacts like whitepapers, articles, videos, infographics and other assets that are designed to inform the user and emulate models used in journalism. And finally, a content strategy requires curation, taxonomy, collection and often establishes the policies for the storage, handling, and dissemination of content (information, data, creative). Therefore the actions resulting from a content strategy should be rooted in the best practices of library and information sciences.
Lies live in content, in manipulated charts, doctored photos, fine print, false reviews, skewed scientific research, deep fakes, created by people and each and every one of them had a choice. Technology has introduced hundreds of new ways to lie. This has introduced a new form of moral relativism. Hany Farid writing for Quartz magazine describes the dystopian present:
If doctored images and videos, fake news, and conspiracies are the virus, social media is the host. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter do not just allow this content to survive: They actively promote it for financial gain. The core business model of these platforms is engagement—to keep you mindlessly clicking, liking, sharing, and tweeting for as many hours as possible. And sensational, outrageous, and downright fake content often engages us more than the real stuff.
No longer willing to work together towards unequivocal truth, we simply believe what we want to believe. Able to exist in untethered media-fueled echo chambers.
Our actions may be legal but are they ethical? And just because you can, does it mean you should?
Hoping that people will come to their senses and do the right thing is naive and useless. Especially if the truth is relative. There are very few brave enough to give up their livelihood, jobs, homes, kids education and luxury vehicles for the ethical high ground. It usually does not pay as well. So they must be compelled to do the right thing from a stronger prime motivator: self-preservation.
The powerful always have proxies. Singular accomplices or groups. It is not until we have the ability to publicly shame enablers and hold them responsible through civil suits, do we start to dismantle the trade of professional lying, more commonly known as “spin doctoring”. It is not enough just to punish the top, but everyone who was involved.
I am not calling for legislation, this is not something that can be solved with a policy. A conviction would be determined by proof of intent, which is already notoriously hard to prove. But it will begin the process of maturing the field and providing a mechanism for recourse and accountability. After all, we can sue for libel, slander, defamation of character, fraud, theft of intellectual property, copyright infringement. Why not willfully “undermining the public trust” or “endangering society’s welfare”? Trust me, I do not want to feed the lawyers either, but maybe just the threat of the hassle will deter unethical behavior.
Perhaps it will encourage communication professionals to adhere to journalism’s core values of honesty, integrity, accountability, and responsibility. Maybe they will always credit sources of content or ideas, never plagiarizing or repurposing stories or prose, whether one’s own or another’s, whether written content, photography or other media, whether the original source is known or not. Disclose if images have been manipulated.
We may find that content creators will disclose all potential conflicts of interest, both to the client before accepting the assignment and to the reader in the final work. The threat may ensure that the reader understands the source, sponsor or intent of the content. If the content is appearing in a context where it’s not clear that it was created by the client, the authors will fully disclose that sponsorship at the start of the article. It may even become law to require something like “Content provided by (Brand) and written by independent journalists just as cigarette packs had warnings on the side and websites now have cookie pop-ups. Sure, these may not be the complete solution, but at least it’s a start.
Who knows, legal liability may also provide the enablers involved in unethical behavior with enough reason to find work elsewhere and stop lying.
Resources & References
Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda – Wikipedia. (2020, February 11). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reich_Ministry_of_Public_Enlightenment_and_Propaganda
Heath, D. (2016). The Atlantic. Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/low-tar-cigarettes/481116
Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections – Wikipedia. (2020, February 12). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections
Hodkinson, M. (2020, February 10). Content Marketing is Dead … and Controversy gets Clicks. Retrieved from https://www.influenceagents.com/brain-juice/content-marketing-is-dead-and-controversy-gets-clicks
Libert, K. (2016). Case Study: How We Created Controversial Content That Earned Hundreds of Links. Moz. Retrieved from https://moz.com/blog/case-study-controversial-content-earned-hundreds-links
Contently’s Code of Ethics for Journalism and Content Marketing | Contently. (2012, August 01). Retrieved from https://contently.com/2012/08/01/ethics
Is Your Content Marketing Ethical? (2020, February 10). Retrieved from https://www.business2community.com/content-marketing/content-marketing-ethical-01549600
What is branded content and is it ethical? (2020, February 10). Retrieved from https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/center-public-relations/usc-annenberg-relevance-report/what-branded-content-and-it-ethical
Farid, H. (2018). Fake news, photos, and videos will be the new reality in the future of media. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1383619/the-dystopian-digital-future-of-fake-media
Ethical Issues in Content and Social Media Marketing – EnVeritas Group. (2018, October 05). Retrieved from https://enveritasgroup.com/campfire/ethical-issues-in-content-and-social-media-marketing
Ethics and Deceptive Advertising. (2020, February 10). Retrieved from https://smallbusiness.chron.com/ethics-deceptive-advertising-58233.html
Truth In Advertising. (2013, August 05). Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising
ETHICS FOR LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SCIENCE (LIS) PROFESSIONALS | Education essays | Essay Sauce Free Student Essay Examples. (2016, November 11). Retrieved from https://www.essaysauce.com/education-essays/ethics-library-information-science-lis-professionals
Deshpande, P. (2017). Content Curation & SEO: Do’s and… Curata Blog. Retrieved from http://www.curata.com/blog/content-curation-seo-dos-and-donts
Why You May Want to Rethink Data, Privacy, and Content. (2018, August 08). Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2018/08/data-privacy-content
Is Ethical Marketing Extinct? (2017, October 04). Retrieved from https://topdogsocialmedia.com/ethical-marketing-extinct
Difference between Law and Ethics. (2020, February 12). Retrieved from http://www.differencebetween.info/difference-between-law-and-ethics
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