The Ethics of Sponsored Online Material in PR Strategy

ethics cartoon

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming third edition of my book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice due out from Kogan Page on April 3, 2016. [If you are a PR instructor/Professor you may order an inspection copy here.]


Regardless of its platform – blogs, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to name the top four – when material is sponsored (i.e. paid for by someone) there are ethical lines over which it might be inappropriate to cross. These lines are related to honesty and transparency.

Public relations strategies use blogging as a tactic in two fundamental ways: blogs can be produced by PR practitioners on behalf of their clients or employers, or PR practitioners can use outside bloggers as conduits to their target publics. Either use has its own ethical landmines.

As the Wal-Mart Across America campaign highlighted (if you’re unfamiliar with this watershed PR ethic fail, read about it here Wal-Mart’s Jim and Laura: The Real Story) there are significant issues of transparency when the individual purporting to be writing the blog is not what or whom he or she appears to be.

For example, if your CEO asks you to blog on his or her behalf, readers will reasonably assume that the person signing the post is actually doing the writing. Unlike speechwriting wherein there is a reasonable expectation that many people do not actually write their own speeches, blogging is perceived differently.  Blogs create a kind of dialogue with individual members of your target public.  It is possible, however, to find a reasonable balance between the ideas your CEO would like to have conveyed in his or her personal style, and the application of your expertise as a writer.  One way of doing that is a disclaimer on the blog, although that may not be enough.  Another is to have the CEO draft the remarks, have them tidied up by you, the writer, and then signed off on by the CEO, much as you might do in crafting a news release containing a ‘quote’ from your CEO or other member of the organisational hierarchy.

Blogs have been used for developing internal relationships, developing and maintaining community relationships and involvement, engaging important publics in dialogue and providing information, to give just a few examples. Working with outside bloggers – whether paid or unpaid – unearths a different set of ethical dilemmas. Sponsored blog posts (much like sponsored tweets) need to be identified as such.

In the summer of 2015, Kim Kardashian used her online accounts – Instagram and Twitter – to promote a drug for morning sickness. ‘OMG. Have you heard about this? As you guys know my #morningsickness has been pretty bad,’ she posted and then went on to edify her millions of followers on the benefits of the drug Diclegis. Unfortunately, nowhere on her posts did she indicate the myriad side effects and dangers of this drug.  The FDA 9Food & Drug Administration) in the United States had the posts pulled within 24 hours, but the information from this highly influential celebrity to her naïve fans had already made its way around the globe.  So, where is the ethical problem for public relations in all of this? It seems that the posts were, in fact, sponsored by the company that made the drug. According to the spokesperson for the drug company, Duchesnay, Kardashian was a paid spokesperson.[i] Ethical public relations practice will take into consideration the potential harm that could be caused by any form of communication, especially to vulnerable or easily influenced publics. The drug company clearly did not apply any ethical tests to the tactic before implementing it.

Australia’s Interactive Advertising Bureau dealt with this issue in 2013 by developing a set of guidelines for ethical dealing with sponsored online material (blogs, tweets, Facebook posts etc.).

Their guidelines suggest the following:

  • ‘Sponsored blog posts should be identified as a sponsored feature;
  • The client should brief the bloggers about the product being covered in the post but the blogger should maintain independence over the final content and positive or negative feedback; and
  • The client should set clear expectations with the blogger about whether they need to review reactions and/or comments on the sponsored post.’[ii]

Ethical considerations as part of strategic and tactical planning pave the way for improved, ono-going relationships with the target publics.


[i] Johnson, C 11 August 2015 ‘The FDA just recalled Kim Kardashian’s Instagram post.’ The Washington Post [accessed 13 August 2015]

[ii] Archer, C, Pettigrew, S & Harrigan, P 2014 A Tale of Power, Passion and Persuasion: Bloggers, Public Relations and Ethics. Asia-Pacific Public Relations Journal. Vol 15, No 1, pp. 39-40 [accessed 13 August 2015]


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