In the golden days of the dawn of the internet, marketers were looking down the barrel of a giant gun at something called “transparency” and quaking a little. Since those heady days, an entire industry has grown up around maintaining the image of a company on the internet, and they are doing it in ever-increasingly nuanced ways.
Recently, a colleague of mine asked fellow writers to have a look at his post and to tell him why nobody was reading it; I came back with the fact that “This article is sponsored by” was highlighted so prominently at the top of the article that most people wouldn’t even bother reading it. In order to get it read, his employer would have had to ask the site that was hosting it to remove the graphic and just express the “Sponsored By” in a less apparent line of text.
Too frequently, we don’t even get the courtesy of seeing “sponsored by”. We have to conclude from the content of the post or article that it was sponsored by a company, and this happens all the time.
As writers, we are essentially reputation management agents, so we can’t exactly throw stones at our own glass house. However, we should always keep in mind that comments and articles may be paid for by a third party, and we should always base our own articles on solid research with proper sources rather than taking the internet’s word for it.
Wikipedia is especially bad for this. Whenever you are dealing with Wikipedia as a source, use their source articles listed at the bottom and the article itself as a launching point only. It is unfortunate that the very thing that makes Wikipedia so accurate – open-source editing – is also responsible for Wikipedia entries that make a company seem much more glowing than it probably should be. You will save yourself a lot of headaches if you follow this simple, yet necessary step to improve the calibre of your research.
When you are doing your own research on a company or person, look at both negative and positive things that have been posted about them, even if positive things seem to be the overwhelming majority. Eventually, you will learn to spot reputation management; the glowing, positive things will lack the substance of the negative comments, and they will outweigh the negative comments 2:1.
That isn’t to say that complete idiots don’t write negative comments about a company because they didn’t use a product for the purpose it was sold for, or similar circumstances. However, these are usually pretty easy to sort out for yourself just by reading the story and drawing your own conclusions.
A reputation management agent will also be smart about it; they won’t simply write an advertorial piece. They will include references to 2-3 other companies to make the piece seem genuine.
Do I have a problem with a reputation management agent? Depends if they are reputation managing one of my sacred cows or not, but in the end we are all reputation management agents as writers. The only objectionable circumstance for reputation management is where someone is paid to take a certain viewpoint and represent it as their own; you’ll frequently see this in comments on “hot topic” items with a lot of money at stake (i.e. oilsands, political commentary, larger internet businesses) where you can trace commenters back to think tanks and similar organizations. Also remember that if someone has “reputation management” listed in their list of business offerings, they may not be making a heartfelt comment on your blog, but a paid one.
In the end, if a product, service, or website looks like a bad deal, it probably is, regardless of whatever else you see on the internet about it.