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There’s a line when marketing online….and you know when you’re crossing it

I worked with someone once and this co-worker was doing something that I thought was unethical.  I let them know that I thought what they were doing was wrong and the response I received was,”According the letter of the law, I’m not doing anything wrong.” Actually, in truth they were referring to a company policy not a law, but you get the idea.  What they were doing was wrong, but not against the explicit language, but definitely against the spirit of the rule.

Transparency is a word that is overused when talking about online marketing, social media, PR, heck with everything these days.  My description of transparency in regards to online PR etc is pretty simple; say who you are and why you’re there. For example I try and include the word “Client” in a tweet talking about a client. It doesn’t make it in all of them, but a lot of them. I also periodically send out a tweet with the list of companies I’m working with.  I don’t post anonymous reviews, although past clients have asked me to do so.  I might send a note to friends asking them to try a product and if they like it to write a review.  I’ll send product and information to the media and help answer their questions. I’ll respond to questions posted online (and identify who I am) That’s PR.

Last year, MobileCrunch ran a pretty well-researched story about a marketing and PR firm where “interns” were posting positive reviews of products on the Apple App Store.  The article included a document reportedly from the PR firm that outlined a program, below:

Intern Program:

Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on Developer Y products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team

The first part of this is great!  Listening to what people are saying! That’s what this whole social media thing is about, well halfway.  The next step would be engaging with these customers in the forums described above, but unfortunately this story doesn’t have a happy ending as it wraps up with “posting game reviews.” THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT!

The response from the agency is that, “Our interns and employees write their reviews based on their own game play experience, after having purchased the game by themselves, a practice not uncommon by anyone selling games or apps and hardly unethical.”  Writing reviews isn’t unethical. Not saying that you are being paid by the company is, whether they are paying you for that specific activity or not. Actually, it’s a step beyond unethical, it’s illegal. It is? yep, the FTC just announced a settlement with the firm that says “it engaged in deceptive advertising by having employees pose as ordinary consumers posting game reviews at the online iTunes store, and not disclosing that the reviews came from paid employees working on behalf of the developers.”

So that line I mentioned? It’s more than an ethical line, it’s a legal one. Say who you are and why you’re there, it’s that easy.

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