In a high-profile example of failing to attribute content to its source, Instagram influencer and author Rachel Hollis was accused of plagiarism when the quote “Still, I rise” was posted on her Instagram account without attributing the very famous line to the author, Maya Angelou. Defending herself against the allegation, she posted an apology that said, “This morning I found out that my social team posted a graphic on my Instagram yesterday that said, “Still… I Rise.”
Her defense, though, exposes the fundamental tensions of transparency and attribution within content marketing. Most people on content production terms aren’t simply writing under their own byline or posting their own thoughts on their social media channels. We are producing content for others — ghostwriting, managing social media accounts behind the scenes, writing reports that are published without our names on them.
There’s an inherent lack of transparency in that relationship. People follow Hollis on Instagram because she purports to be sharing herself with her followers authentically and openly. But the reality is that she has a team that carefully plans, crafts and delivers content on her social channels to reflect her lifestyle brand to give the illusion of intimacy and authenticity. But as her response reveals, not only does her team create the content shared on her account, she may not always be aware of what they post under her name until something goes wrong.
Content marketing is a relatively new field compared to content-driven fields like journalism. We don’t have the benefit of long-standing and well-established norms and a code of ethics to guide our values and ethos within the field. So for content marketers struggling to get it right, to be transparent and forthright, and to have systems in place that ensure we give credit where credit is due, how can we approach transparency and create trust in our content?
I sat down with an expert on transparency in communications and journalism, Andrea Hickerson, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Her focus has been on using data and technology to improve the quality of content. Hickerson has worked with journalists and media forensics experts to use machine learning to identify deepfakes and fake videos as part of a project funded by the Knight Foundation. We talked about why transparency is so essential in writing, how content marketing can build on its roots in journalism to develop its values and codes of ethics as a field, and how content marketers can put processes in place that minimize problems.
Create Authenticity and Trust With Transparency
Audiences crave authenticity. Fewer than one-fourth of U.S. consumers say brands are “open and honest,” according to research conducted by Cohn & Wolfe. But 86% of consumers say that authenticity matters to them when making decisions about what brands to support.
“Transparency is necessary for trust because we’re not good news consumers,” says Hickerson. “We can’t process all of the information. We’re relying on the writer or content producer to help us.” She points to a study that revealed that 60% of people think journalists get paid by their sources at least sometimes. “Even in journalism, we’re bad at explaining our process,” she says.
That’s why it’s important to be transparent about those processes, she says. You can’t have authentic relationships between the reader and the content producers without transparency. It’s about that trust with the brand. If you have that trust, mistakes can be understood.
“The audience is looking for authenticity,” Hickerson says. “And negative examples come from a disconnect between the content producer and the audience.” Take the Rachel Hollis example. “It’s undermined all of her content and her brand. In that case, the damage is more significant.”
Borrow From Journalism to Create Transparency Norms
Content marketers can use the established code of ethics in journalism to help create norms and an ethos around content production. A good example of this code comes from the Society of Professional Journalists and requires journalists to, among other things, “never plagiarize, always attribute” and “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.”
These rules may seem basic and even eye-rollingly obvious. The fact that many people working in content marketing have some journalism background seems like it would make it even easier to adhere to the code and create transparency around the content we produce. But content production is not always this straightforward.
Say, for example, you interviewed an internal source for a client’s blog and unbeknownst to you, some of the information was taken directly from another source without attribution. You published the article under your byline. Who’s responsible for that breach of trust?
Or what if the client you’re ghostwriting for simply gives you misinformation, perhaps ostensibly from internal research that you can’t easily independently verify. The article is published and suddenly there are allegations that the information is fabricated. What if the client blames their “content team” for the mistake?
And while every freshman comp student may have “never plagiarize” drilled into their heads, that didn’t stop Rachel Hollis’s team from posting a plagiarized quote on her Instagram feed, damaging her brand and her audience’s trust in her.
The complicated economic dynamic between content creators and clients can make these kinds of ethical scenarios more difficult to navigate. But ultimately, for content marketers, “it’s about creating an ethos around content,” Hickerson says. Everyone in the content production team has a role to play in making sure the content we produce is transparent, accurate and ethical.
Develop Processes to Create Trustworthy Content
Even with the best of intentions and a strong code of ethics, people who routinely create content will inevitably make mistakes or run into attribution pitfalls. A robust editorial process can help reduce issues, though.
Having multiple people involved in content creation — from the client and subject matter experts to the writers and editors to client managers — opens the door for mistakes, errors or omissions to emerge. But collaboration — with the right processes in place — can also help reduce issues with transparency. Building review checkpoints throughout your process can help reduce the chance that something gets published that shouldn’t.
In the editorial process at Rep Cap, our approach to producing content is deeply collaborative. We have multiple points where individuals with distinct roles review the content. The client manager, the editor, the writer, the client, and often the source or subject matter expert all have an opportunity to review the content, verify facts and check sources. This kind of editorial review happens at all levels of our content production, whether we’re writing a full research report, a blog post or social copy. Collaboration and a robust review process can’t fix all of the tensions inherent in producing content for marketing purposes. We are not journalists. But we do have responsibilities and obligations that guide us. Part of finding the right balance comes from building a team led by a clear set of principles and then holding each other to those principles.
Technology also provides tools that can help reduce the likelihood of attribution issues and plagiarism:
- Grammarly has a built-in plagiarism detector that will flag problematic content that could potentially be misattributed or copied from another source.
- Unicheck offers robust content analytic tools that can help companies identify and remove potentially plagiarism and help ensure originality.
- Turnitin is the gold-standard of plagiarism detectors for academic institutions and it has a unique feedback feature that allows the reviewer to flag and comment on any problematic content.
But the truth is that content marketing as a field doesn’t have this all figured out yet. My background is in academia, not journalism, and so my relationship to sources and attribution follows a different, but similarly rigorous code of ethics. In literary studies, using source material is the backbone of our field. Our evidence, our methodology, our entire epistemological approach is rooted in other people’s words and ideas. In my prior life as a college English teacher, I used to explain the difference between MLA citation style and other styles by saying that in literature, we care about the words on the page. We want to know: What are the exact words used? Who said them? What was the context? And what page can I find them on? Literary studies’ respect for the word, the voice of the author, borders on obsessive. But there are lessons to be learned from it.
Content marketing, by its nature, struggles with those issues. Our words are often not our own. Our voice is usually that of a “brand.” Our job is to give voice to others’ ideas, to companies’ positions or views. Our relationship with the content is complex, nuanced. We are guides, doulas, helping others give voice to their thoughts, birthing their ideas through our own work and creative struggles. The nature of our work means that our ethos around ideas, creativity, ownership will always be fraught.
But if we want to grow and advance as a field, to avoid becoming “nothing more than the content between adverts,” as Tim Maughan writes in his hauntingly prescient novel “Infinite Detail” about what happens when the internet goes dark, we must establish our own code of ethics, one that ensures content marketers can produce meaningful, lasting, ethical work.
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