Paid Advocacy Is Killing Your Reputation
Why my personal social media profiles are not for sale. Are yours? You decide.
I’ve been made an offer I had to refuse. Please admire my restraint as I move on quickly from this Godfather reference to the reason of my post: a brand offered me money to cover one of its projects through my Twitter channel. It was a good project, an interesting project, and it was also good money, all expenses paid.
I said no. What follows is why I think that this, for me, is good business.
I have a little over 11,000 followers on Twitter, a media job that brings me relative visibility and a revolving door of paying gigs as a writer, social media consultant and community manager. I also have a good reputation as somebody who is interested in social issues, literacy, feminism and civil rights, and I have often posted articles about or given visibility to initiatives I believed in. Had the brand offered to cover my expenses to have me report on the project for a magazine — with the magazine covering my fee — I might have considered it. My Twitter profile, however, is not for sale. My media job is also part of the problem in ways I will not detail here, but it is not the point of my post. If I didn’t work for national radio, would I have taken the job? The answer is still no.
This is not the first time this has happened to me. And I think it’s time we started a conversation about advocacy and promotion, what they mean and how brands run the risk of destroying its effectiveness along with the reputation of the people they’re paying.
The reason I’m writing this — and I’m writing it here — is that I think that this is a problematic issue, one with far-reaching implications for anyone who has an active social media presence, and particularly for the most popular figures. With Twitter stars, food and fashion and parenting bloggers being recruited left and right, it has become increasingly hard for agencies and brands to distinguish between those for whom the Internet has become a paying job in and of itself, and those whose social media presence is a collateral. Even when I was best known as a blogger, blogging wasn’t my job. For a while I ran blogs that were part of online magazines, but I never lived off the proceeds of my visibility: I was paid by a publisher like any other writer, and when that dried up, I quit and moved on to something else.
Am I completely impervious to the call of a well-placed hashtag? Of course not. I have participated in several twitter campaigns, either spontaneously or because I was asked to, but I’ve been careful to select projects and campaigns that I liked and that I felt wouldn’t be out of place on my Twitter feed. I went to food events, social events, music events and posted from there. As a longtime X Factor fan, I have tons of fun livetweeting the show. And yes, I am aware that this is still publicity. But it is free publicity.
Free is the key word here. When I was livetweeting The X Factor for a client, on the client’s profile, I did not have the freedom to express myself the way I would have done on my personal profile. That’s par for the course: I was acting in my professional capacity, getting paid to perform a service for a client. I had to make the client look good and keep my personality out of it. Livetweeting a show on my personal profile from a venue other than my home, possibly with a nice buffet laid out in front of me, almost invariably results in me being a little tamer in my appreciation, a little less snarky, a little less me. But I’m still free to act as I see fit: the way I see it, money is the big game changer. Nobody’s going to give you money to snark about their product: the old adage “All publicity is good publicity” stopped being true the moment Internet buzz became a thing companies were willing to pay to generate. When you take money from a company to talk about their product, the output will have to be flattering.
This might come across as a sneaky indictment of people who shill for companies. Far from it. Truth is, we’re all on the market with our individual skills, and we all sell something. I get money to do radio. Other people get paid to mention brands on their food blogs. They sell their reputation, their popularity and their own brand. They’re entrepreneurs, and they act as such. The blog is their job. Twitter is their job.
However, I do think we need to have a conversation about this. Because this business still runs on a false premise, that is that bloggers and social media stars believe in the products they’re covertly selling. It runs on an assumption of free advocacy and uses the blogger’s reputation to back this assumption. Reputation is currency: you only have so much to spend. Once you’re revealed to be shilling for a brand, it runs out faster than you can say “I really love my Windows 8 phone”.
Paid advocacy passed off as earned advocacy is risky business. It’s risky for the people who are selling their popularity and it’s risky for brands, who have a lot less to lose in the short run but in the medium-to-long run might find themselves faced with a shortage of credible people. Paid advocacy breeds suspicion: brands launching humanitarian projects will find the power of their message (and the effectiveness of the operation) drastically diminished by this lack of reputable spokespeople. Brands who rely on product testing to generate buzz might notice a decrease in ROI. People get cynical quick, and they’re particularly harsh on sellouts. Those who are willing to sell their popularity to the highest bidder (or worse, any bidder) will lose their appeal: when a Twitter feed you used to follow because of its wit turns into an endless stream of promotional tweets, unfollowing it can feel liberating.
So the question is: should you sell your social media profiles? And if you choose to do so, what steps should you take to protect your reputation? Should paid advocacy be stated somehow, and how, and where?
This is, of course, a very personal, probably incomplete take on a general question. So far, the only way I have found to protect my reputation is to keep my personal profiles separate from my job, with very few exceptions. This is an ethical decision, but it is also a business decision, and one that — so far — has worked for me.