An award-winning journalist on some ethical issues that appear when you transition to content marketing writing.
When journalism meets content marketing, sparks fly. That’s because merely the impression of a conflict of interest is enough to cause ethical issues.
You only have to visit a journalism forum once or twice and throw in the phrase “content marketing” to get a wide variety of opinions—some informed, some not so much—on either how great an opportunity it is for journalists, or how much of an ethical minefield it can be.
Both things are true, if you ask me.
Does that mean the two can’t co-exist in your career? Absolutely not. Most freelance journalists I know are supplementing their income massively with content marketing work or tentatively dipping their toes in the waters to feel it out.
That said, while there are opportunities, there certainly are costs to factor in as well.
Will you be able to do hardcore investigative reporting on financial companies if you’ve been doing content marketing for them? Heck no. In fact, I’d say hardcore investigative reporting will probably go out the window altogether. For me, this wasn’t an issue, but for you it might be, so it’s something to keep in mind.
Will you potentially lose the opportunity to work in a full-time reporting role covering the environment if you’ve been doing content marketing in the energy and oil sector? Probably.
But can you write trend stories, opinion pieces, profiles, and news stories?
There are, however, a few ethical issues to keep in mind as you bring content marketing to your freelancing mix as a journalist. Here are some of them.
Beware of conflict of interest when you source stories
If you’ve done content marketing for a bank, say HSBC, don’t use HSBC executives as sources in your news stories. While you may have done so completely innocently, there’s an obvious conflict of interest there. This applies no matter whether you’ve worked through the client directly, through an agency, or through an agency that serves another agency. It doesn’t matter that you never even spoke to anyone at HSBC. It doesn’t matter that the payment was made out to you by the agency. If it was work done for HSBC, you never get to use them in your journalism. Period.
This also means that you can’t report on stories that break out about HSBC. In fact, you can’t report on stories that break out about any competing bank either because you’ve got HSBC as a client and writing a negative story about their competitor is a clear conflict of interest issue as well.
Disclose, disclose, disclose
Here’s how to spot an ethical issue. The moment you feel uncomfortable about a relationship with a client or a potential conflict of interest, ask this: Would I be okay with my readers knowing about my relationship with this company or this person? If yes, proceed. If not, be cautious.
It’s always wise to talk to your editors (on the journalism side) and your clients (on the content marketing side) if you have questions about potential conflicts of interest.
While disclosing relationships, clients, biases, and work partnerships should be routine for most journalists, it often isn’t. When adding content marketing to the mix, I’d recommend being very open about who you’re working for, what kind of work you’re doing, and how you’re keeping the two separate. You don’t have to announce it to the world, but as long as you’re not hiding it from your editors and clients, you’re good to go.
If it seems like a potential ethical issue, talk to your editors.
One reason I don’t find it difficult to straddle both journalism and content marketing is because, at the core, I’m an independent journalist and writer. I haven’t signed allegiance with any one publication, editor, client, or brand. I’ve never been asked, but if I were ever in a position where I had to write untruths or exaggerated positives about a brand, I’d walk away.
What keeps it simple for me is that I’ve set my own standards and they are the same both for journalism and content marketing work:
- To never write anything I don’t completely stand behind.
- To act independently, with no vested interests in a publication or company.
- To have my work—both journalism and content marketing—be held to the highest journalistic standards.
What this translates to is that I don’t write anything for my clients that I wouldn’t put my name on as a journalist. This takes care of all ethical issues that can or may arise in the future.
Do a gut check
Most ethical issues aren’t exactly rocket science; they can probably be answered with a simple yes or no. And a gut check is usually enough to arrive at the correct answer. Let me put it this way: If you have to ask if you can do something, the answer is probably no.
Does that client sound like he’s asking you to do something shady, like write a positive review of a product you’ve never seen or touched? Then don’t do it. Are you being asked to exaggerate in your stories? Say no. Make up quotes? Walk away.
Basically, if it’s something that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason, don’t do it.
Create different specialties
One of the easiest ways for most journalists to create a distinction between their journalism and content marketing paths—and I recommend this highly—is to have different specialties for each of the two. If you work on health topics as a journalist, write pet stories as a content marketing writer.
This is easier said than done, of course, because the content marketing gigs you land initially may come by because of that journalism experience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t slowly transition away from it and keep the two separate.
Remember, content marketing writing isn’t about serving an agenda. It’s about providing information, advice, resources, and trustworthy content to the business’s clients and customers.
In the next article on content marketing, I’ll talk about the common mistakes journalists make when applying for content marketing gigs. In the meantime, The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Content Marketing continues to be one of our most popular books. I’ve been getting amazing success stories from readers, so if you’re interested in taking your career (and income) to the next level, you’ll want to get your hands on it pronto.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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