Something which has quietly crept under the radar, but could change digital PR and viral marketing practices is the EU’s new Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which came into force across Europe on January 1st and is set to be activated in the UK on May 26th. It’s a fairly weighty document, which covers a wide variety of trading practices, from false advertising to misuse of the word “free”. However, the one that could affect online PR & marketing the most is the ruling that:
“Falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.” [emphasis mine]
is considered an unfair trading practice. This covers not just companies but any agencies working on their behalf, and there is nothing stopping it from applying to business online as well as offline – as The Register sums up:
Under laws due to come into force at the beginning of next year, but likely to be delayed until April for the UK, companies posing as consumers on fake blogs, providing fake testimonies on consumer rating websites such as TripAdvisor, or writing fake book reviews on Amazon risk criminal or civil liability.
More can be found in an article in The Times from last year, although as of yet there isn’t as much of it in the blogosphere as I’d expected, funnily enough.
So what will this mean? It will outlaw creating fake profiles and identities online, whether to praise a product, badmouth its competitors, and could even extend to circulating viral videos, pictures and games. While this form of promotion is against the Word of Mouth Marketing Association‘s (of whom we are international members) code of ethics, it is no secret that some agencies have engaged in this behaviour online.
In fact, there has been a slew of recent high profile cases; it ranges from Sony’s “All I Want For Christmas is a PSP” campaign, to the founder of Whole Foods attacking his competitors under an alias, to the recent “Wal-Marting Across America“. All of these have resulted in various degrees of consumer backlash – which might lead you to believe the system is self-regulating, and that the fear of bad publicity will deter companies from pursuing such tactics.
However at the same time, these are only the cases that come to light and less high-profile cases may go unnoticed and unpunished. Additionally, by merely relying on self-regulation, there is no possible means of recourse other than naming and shaming, which ultimately erodes not just consumer faith in how brands work online, but could in the long term also scare off companies from using online and word-of-mouth altogether for fear of a cynical and jaded audience. As this pertinent quote in Socialized PR puts it:
“The Internet functions on trust,” says Joel Postman, a corporate communications specialist and founder of Socialized PR, in Boulder Creek, Calif. “As more and more people do business in the digital world, more consumers than ever need to know who they can rely on to tell the truth.”
Enshrining an ethical commitment in law like this gives consumers a more formal means of recourse and shores up trust in an medium that is still developing and evolving, and EU should be applauded for keeping ahead of the game – online is currently a small, but growing source of advertising and marketing complaints – and it’s good to see them adapting to the current environment.
So what does this mean for marketing and PR? I won’t speculate on how the directive will be enforced nor how severe the punishments are (we’ll have to wait and see on that count), but more on the opportunities it creates. We picked up on this law change last year and since then internally we have been making sure not just that we stick to it, but that we put ourselves at the forefront of a shift in marketing practice that fully engages with consumers and is as open as possible. Part of that means recognising user-generated content and consumers’ conversation as an asset, not a threat, and engaging with bloggers and other creators openly and directly, establishing relationships.
Another part of it means creating content and stuff that is actually good and adds value; after all if your viral or video needs to be pushed onto fake blogs and video channels, it’s probably not good enough to be circulated by genuine bloggers and tastemakers in the first place. And another means being smart enough to identify who you should be focusing your resources on and engaging with exactly instead of trying to blanket the web with fake reviews and blogs in the first place. These (and more) are what we focus on in our core business today.
With that said I’ll open out to the floor. Have I covered all the bases with what’s needed to engage with bloggers? Or do you disagree with what I’ve highlighted? If you have thoughts on this or anything else to do with the topic then add a comment below.