via Online reviews too grrrreat?, clarionledger.com
Previously, we have written about how companies sometimes hire people to write favorable reviews about their products, with endorsements often appearing on social media and advertising. This sort of self-dealing is what has gotten a lot of companies in hot water with regulators and consumer groups, largely because it tends to muddy the waters when consumers rely heavily on what they see and read on the internet. Many people who rely on online reviews about a product before purchasing would be less likely to consider the review reputable if it were known the reviewer was paid to say positive things (especially if they didn’t clearly disclose that fact).
It’s all reminiscent of the Payola scandals of the 1960s, when the music industry was shaken by revelations that some disc jockeys were regularly being paid to play certain songs, boosting the records’ perceived popularity and in turn making them much more lucrative. The scandal helped destroy the careers of “Father of Rock” Alan Freed and others.
The most recent example of “pay for play” review practices is the venerable Kellogg Co., which has become known to generations of cereal-eating consumers as a brand associated with quality products. But last week, The Associated Press reported that its reporters had obtained a copy of a contract between the company and a group of “independent experts” called the “Breakfast Council.”
The group included nutritionists and other experts who allegedly received an average of $13,000 a year to review Kellogg’s products, post favorable reviews on social media and use “talking points” provided by the company in their reviews. According to the AP’s story, participants were prohibited from offering media services “competitive or negative to cereal” and required to conduct “nutrition influencer outreach” on social media or with colleagues.
“I’m still feeling great from my bowl of cereal & milk this morning! Mini-Wheats are my fave,” a council member posted during a Twitter chat with Kellogg about the benefits of cereal. Kellogg introduced the dietitian as a “Breakfast Council Member.”
For its part, Kellogg defended its practices in the AP’s story, but noted it understood such blurred lines could cause confusion. The Breakfast Council has since been abolished.
Still, the issue has also helped erode trust in all types of media at a time when the media’s reputation as reliable and unbiased is already a shambles. In September, the Gallup Organization reported that Americans’ trust in the mass media had reached a historic low, with an average of 32 percent of people saying they don’t trust the media. That’s the lowest number since 1976.
It should be noted that, if you think navigating the online-reputation world is easy, you’d be wrong. Companies spend millions to develop their reputations, and being on the wrong end of negative news can destroy everything practically overnight. And, while there’s nothing wrong with encouraging online reviews, optimizing your company’s search engine profile and making sure your company puts its best foot forward online, it can be tempting to go further.
In recent months, scandals have erupted after it was discovered that companies paid people to post fake reviews on sites like Amazon.com or Yelp; paid popular bloggers to write positive reviews or failed to (clearly and conspicuously) disclose that payments were made.
Since the internet has become the “watering hole” where people share news, information and reviews about products, consumers are looking for valuable and accurate information to help them make choices. Of course, everybody understands advertising and marketing are there to help sell a product, and they understand what they see, hear and read in advertisements is bought and paid for. But when it’s discovered the line between fact and claim isn’t clear, reputations can be irreparably harmed.
Many companies already belong to organizations that have a code of ethics; every company that sells products should adopt one (and adhere to it). If it’s not sufficient or broad enough, write your own, or adapt one such as this one, by blogger Morten Rand-Hendriksen: https://mor10.com/code-of-ethics-for-bloggers-social-media-and-content-creators/. Of course, just signing on the dotted line is easy, but having enforceable and robust company policies can help protect your company’s most valuable asset: its reputation.