This is murky territory folks, but ever since I shared this article on my LinkedIn…I’ve been bombarded with questions about morality and how I can stand to work in such a slimy industry. How come disclosure isn’t common practice? Why are big brands able to get away without disclosing practically anything in regards to free/ gifted product?
[enter SHRUG here, to those of you who ask with malintent versus interest in educating yourselves.]
Listen, I get it.
Public relations sounds pretty yechhhh once you learn what makes it different in relation to advertising. There’s this funny little saying that I live by when it comes to explaining this profession to others…
In Advertising, you pay…in Public Relations, you pray.
What do I mean by that? Well…Advertising is exchanging brand exposure (thing of like a billboard, a television commercial, a radio ad segment, etc.) for dolla dolla bills. You pay for that sort of exposure, and usually it’s quite a chunk of change based on the audience you’re expected to reach. For example, I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars here folks. Disclosures are obviously stated on the branded content itself, clearly marked as a “paid advertisement.”
Public Relations on the other hand, is crafting a brand image via favorable media mentions and placements without spending a dime. Traditionally speaking, anyway. We rely on building relationships with those in the media, educating them in hopes that they think our products are so cool/ newsworthy/ cutting-edge/ nostalgic/ WHATEVER enough for them to write about it and share with their audience.
Here’s a little history though, that’ll give you an idea of how the age of public relations has changed with the rise of the Internet and social media and how it has heavily impacted the need for disclosure.
So back in the day, before social media was really a “thing,” every public relations person was tunnel-vision on one industry. The magazine industry. Your sole focus was to meet with the editors at magazines relevant to your industry and educate them on your product. You’d gift them the product in a creative way, or perhaps schedule a deskside meeting to chat. Maybe you greased them a little with expensive tickets to a show that tied in with the benefits of your product, or maybe dinner at a fancy place that has a dessert similar to the skin cream you’re pushing. Disclosure? Wasn’t a thing.
If the editor liked the product, you’d find out 6-8 months later when you picked up the magazine from the newsstand that you were probably stalking on a daily basis. You’d flip through the pages and squeal with excitement when you found an article that mentioned your product, excited that so many readers were also going to see that placement because don’t forget…this was a time when there WAS no Internet. If people wanted advice, they picked up a magazine.
Now, magazines are fighting to grow dying circulation numbers. Instead of paying money for physical magazines, people just turn to Google or the Internet. Blogs were born, why trust an editor who got to try the product for free when so-and-so went to the store and shelled out the money so the rest of us might not suffer from wasted product AND wasted money?
Then came the rise of YouTube content creators and social media. Consumers turned to trusted voices like those, the joe-shmoes who knew how to work a video camera and Final Cut Pro to create sexy pieces of content and now…Magazines are truly dying left and right.
The problem? Back in the day, nobody would really know that you landed a magazine placement because you bought those hella expensive show tickets for the editor. Or that you took them to a super nice/expensive dinner or five. Those things just weren’t regulated because they flew under the radar.
The problem now? Everything is publicized. The industry has evolved to focusing on social, where absolutely EVERYTHING is shared and screenshotted and passed around. I’ll never forget the outrage I came across in one of my favorite Reddit threads dedicated to the beauty community.
“How are we supposed to trust these people when they’re sent PR packages from every single major company? I know if I was the one receiving this shit, OF COURSE I’d say the stuff was awesome!” One Redditor complained.
The funny (not funny) truth is, this is just how PR works. This is the industry I’m in. The only difference is now social media brought the truth to light, so to speak. But with this shift in mindset, needs to come transparency and honesty. There’s no “getting away with shit” now, and it’s super important that influencers and brands alike do their part to be as transparent as possible with consumers to avoid burning MAJOR bridges that could seriously affect brand reputation (important) and sales potential (equally as important.)
What does this mean for brands in an actionable sense?
Every time you send out a PR package, you include a note…yes? If you don’t, shame on you. Fucking include a note, that’s best practice and why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to thank the HUMAN on the receiving end of the package for giving you and your brand the time of day when they very easily could have passed? And in that note, include that the influencer should tell their audience that they received the items free of charge and compliments of the brand. Also throw in a reminder about your social handles + hashtags to make their lives easier, because nobody wants to have to go digging through the Interwebs to make sure they tag the right brand when in reality they’re doing you a solid.
What does this mean for influencers in an actionable sense?
Tell your audience (followers, subscribers, etc.) that you received the products for free from the brand or from a PR agency. Honest and up front, pretty simple.
I know a lot of influencers hesitate to share for fear of negative backlash but if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years… The consumer is getting SIGNIFICANTLY savvier. Sharing that you got items complimentary will only help your reputation as an honest and open influencer who owns that they have great relationships with great brands. You’re going to have a few haters, but in general? Disclosure for you is going to do way more good than harm…I PROMISE!!