Ethics, Professionalism, and Good Manners for Content Marketers

There’s a lot of great content out there … and then there’s the topic of today’s podcast. Sonia looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There are two kinds of people. Some folks do the right thing for its own sake, and some because the other option has negative consequences.

This one’s for both types.

In this 20-minute episode, Sonia Simone talks about:

  • Plagiarism, content theft, and how to use someone else’s material ethically
  • Considerations when content marketing touches on serious news
  • Great news for people worried about the world discovering they’re not perfect
  • Some elements of a good apology
  • Thoughts on whether or not content creators should wade into hot-button conversations
  • A widespread bad habit I’d love us to work on quitting


The Show Notes

  • A nice classic post from Brian Clark on How to Steal Great Content Ideas — without, of course, resorting to plagiarism 🙂
  • A great way to ethically use other people’s content is the curation model — Brian Clark and Pamela Wilson share an infographic with you here: Do You Have What it Takes to Publish a Curated Email Newsletter?
  • The excellent site Sorrywatch, with examples of terrible apologies (and advice on how to do them well).
  • If you need a real attorney (not the Facebook kind) for advice on your content, I’m a fan of Rachel Rodgers. She’s smart and she understands business issues as well as the legal ones.
  • Ethical, effective, and strategic content marketers hang out in the Authority community. Great advanced content, a great community, and answers to your individual business questions. Hop in now before we increase the price! Learn more about the Authority premium community for content marketers.
  • I’m always happy to see your questions or your thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone (or you can always drop a question right here in the comments!)


Ethics, Professionalism, and Good Manners for Content Marketers

Jerod Morris: Hey, Jerod Morris here. If you know anything about Rainmaker Digital and Copyblogger, you may know that we produce incredible live events. Well, some would say that we produce incredible live events as an excuse to throw great parties, but that’s another story. We’ve got another one coming up this October in Denver. It’s called Digital Commerce Summit, and it is entirely focused on giving you the smartest ways to create and sell digital products and services. You can find out more at Rainmaker.FM/Summit.

We’ll be talking about Digital Commerce Summit in more detail as it gets closer, but for now, I’d like to let a few attendees from our past events speak for us.

Attendee: 1 For me, it’s just hearing from the experts. This is my first industry event, so it’s awesome to learn new stuff and also get confirmation that we’re not doing it completely wrong where I work.

Attendee 2: The best part of the conference for me is being able to mingle with people and realize that you have connections with everyone here. It feels like LinkedIn Live. I also love the parties after each day, being able to talk to the speakers, talk to other people who are here for the first time, people who have been here before.

Attendee 3: I think the best part of the conference for me is understanding how I can service my customers a little more easily. Seeing all the different facets and components of various enterprises then helps me pick the best tools.

Jerod Morris: Hey, we agree — one of the biggest reasons we host a conference every year is so that we can learn how to service our customers, people like you, more easily. Here are just a few more words from folks who have come to our past live events.

Attendee 4: It’s really fun. I think it’s a great mix of beginner information and advanced information. I’m really learning a lot and having a lot of fun.

Attendee 5: The conference is great, especially because it’s a single-track conference where you don’t get distracted by, “Which session should I go to?” and, “Am I missing something?”

Attendee 6: The training and everything, the speakers have been awesome, but I think the coolest aspect for me has been connecting with both people who are putting in on and then the other attendees.

Jerod Morris: That’s it for now. There’s a lot more to come on Digital Commerce Summit, and I really hope to see you there in October. Again, to get all the details and the very best deal on tickets, head over to Rainmaker.FM/Summit.

Sonia Simone: Hey there. It is good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog.

You can always find additional links and or resources at the show notes, which you can get to at Copyblogger.FM. You’ll also find a complete archive for the show.

Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about ethics. I’m going to talk about good behavior and not so good behavior for content marketers. I’m just going to talk a little bit about doing the right thing, what I think the right thing is, in certain circumstances.

Not so much because I want to be your content marketing mom and wag my finger at you, although I do enjoy that from time to time, but just because you see things out there in the world of your profession and you see things that it would be more awesome if people did them differently. I thought I’d talk about a couple of those today.

There’s two kinds of people. Most people, in my experience, want to know more about these best practices because they’re the right thing to do. They don’t want to do something that’s unethical, inconsiderate, or doesn’t make their business better, doesn’t treat their audience well. Most people want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Some people want to do the right thing because the alternative has consequences.

Breaking rules, breaking ethical guidelines, has consequences. It has very real consequences, sometimes very significant consequences.

Two reasons to be a good guy, to be a good egg with your content — the first is because it’s just more fun to be a good person than a crummy person. The second is because the alternative may backfire on you and probably won’t work anyway.

Plagiarism, Content Theft, and How to Use Someone Else’s Material Ethically

Let’s get into the right and the wrong — or perhaps I should say, let’s get into the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve got to start … honestly, you just can’t talk about content without covering this right now, without talking about plagiarism and people stealing one another’s content.

Apparently, for some people, this is a complicated issue. It’s actually not that complicated. If you didn’t create it — if it’s not yours, you didn’t write those words, you didn’t take that photo, you didn’t draw that illustration — then it doesn’t belong to you. You can’t just use it like you did create it.

So no, you don’t just get to use it because it’s on the Internet.

Honestly, I think you guys are way too smart to fall for that, but I have to cover it because I see it so often. People just rip things. Facebook is just really bad right now for absolutely stolen content. This includes some large companies, especially with visual content, who are just ripping artists off from Instagram and from Pinterest and then presenting that work as their own for purchase.

It’s unethical. It’s the legal. It’s terrible.

Kind of related to that, attribution is not enough to cover you. You can’t just say, “Oh, this is who I stole this from.” That doesn’t really work. Now, you have to be aware on this topic of what I call a ‘Facebook lawyer,’ which is somebody who has absolutely no training in law, but they will tell you the law because they read a blog post somewhere.

People will say, “That’s fair use. This is fair use, and that’s fair use.” Fair use is more complex than people who are not lawyers, I am one of those people, imagine it to be. Just keep that in mind.

If somebody just tells you with great assurance that something is fair use, it may be or it may not be. If that person is not your attorney, I would take it with a grain of salt.

Very roughly, typically, you can use a little bit of something if you attribute it. The most common thing we use is a quote. I will quote from a book. I will quote from another person’s blog post, a sentence or two from somebody else’s writing, with attribution to illustrate a point. This is normal, natural, and reasonable. It works just fine.

Now, if this is in a paid product, the rules are different, and I want you to talk to your attorney. But if it’s just a piece of web-available blog content or a podcast, then normally that’s fine. A quote that’s a small sliver of the whole thing is normally totally okay.

Visual content and musical content, different rules. Different juries have ruled different things. That’s something that you want to ask somebody more expert in those realms than I am.

Really, if there’s any way that you can do it, and usually today there is, it’s just really excellent to ask permission if you possibly can, especially if you’re quoting from a blog or somebody’s Facebook page, something that they said on a Facebook page.

Of course, if it’s something that they said in a private group — for example, it’s an authority in your topic who made a post in a private group on Facebook or a private group in some other venue — ask before you use it. It’s a good idea. It’s smart, and it’ll keep you out of trouble.

Related to this, plagiarism is really about specific expressions of things — the specific drawing, the specific string of words. If you get an idea from another person, if someone’s said some idea and it really sparked your thinking, it’s just very good manners to credit that person when you talk about the idea. I always try to remember to do this.

Sometimes the idea is such a part of my brain that I forget where I got it. But whenever you can, whenever you can remember it, when you have an idea, something that sparks your thinking, sparks your own creative juices, always circle back and say, “I love this idea. This idea is very important to me, and I got it from this person.” Then credit that person.

It’s just being cool. It’s being a good guy, and it’s sharing the pool of knowledge in a way that’s beneficial. Plagiarism is the one where we’ve got really a right and wrong. Don’t steal things from other people because it’s really a terrible thing to do.

It’s All About Decorum

The rest of this is going to be more about what I would call decorum. It’s really more about behaving yourself in a way that communicates your authority, that communicates that you respect others within your community, respect others within your topic.

It’s just about being a good guy, a good person, and somebody who people can look up to, admire, and respect — and will want to do business with.

It’s not necessarily about right or wrong because that one’s tricky. Don’t kill anybody. Don’t steal things. True black and white, right and wrong is a little bit short list. This is more Sonia’s rules of don’t do things like this unless you want people to think you’re a total tool.

Considerations When Content Marketing Touches on Serious News

The first one, I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again because every time somebody steps in it … we saw it recently. Recently we lost Gene Wilder — wonderful actor, wonderful comic, gentle genius Gene Wilder — and within a couple of hours content marketers were using it to promote their completely unrelated businesses with Willy Wonka this, et cetera, et cetera.

As a content marketing professional, one of your rules, if I may suggest such a thing, is if somebody dies, don’t use that to sell stuff.

Sometimes this can actually get tricky and delicate because a tribute can sometimes be all right. If you are a musician and Prince dies, then it’s completely legit for you to have a Prince tribute concert where you play the music that meant so much to you. That’s normal, seemly, and fine. Again, for decorum’s sake, it’s usually good manners to donate the proceeds to some charity that would be relevant.

Where you cross the line into just looking like a tool is if you’re Office Depot and you offer 50 percent off cartridges of purple ink because Prince died. That’s just lame. It’s not relevant. It just looks like you’re trying to make a fast buck off of somebody else’s grief. That’s what we want to worry about.

The thing about this issue, and so many of the issues I’m going to talk about today, is it’s about how it’s taken, not necessarily how it’s meant.

You may be meaning it in a pure and good and wonderful way, and it’s just taken as being self-serving, as being opportunistic. You have to be willing to look at your own stuff and say, “I certainly didn’t mean it to be opportunistic … but I didn’t make a good call there, and I’m sorry,” and move on.

Very commonly, if you’re working with other people, there’s somebody on your team who’s really good at picking these up. A lot of times, distressing number of times, that person’s voice doesn’t get heard.

Hilarious, sad example recently I saw on Facebook, a magazine in Oklahoma put a picture of a baby on the cover of the magazine in a Wizard of Oz Tin Man costume. Regrettably, just the angle of the costume and the hat was really tall. It really, really looked like this baby was in a KKK outfit.

This is not good. We really don’t want to have this in our business, especially a print magazine, because you can’t just pretend it never happened. Not that you can on the web, either.

I promise you, somebody in that editorial office looked at that and said, “Guys, we cannot run that. That baby looks like a little grand master. This is horrible. Find a better picture,” and that person was ignored. So I want you to think about that. Whether it’s a little voice in your head or there’s somebody on your team, that person can be useful.

If you look at it and think, “You know, it’s not meant that way, but this could really be construed as being really racist, or really sexist, or really insensitive, or trying to be opportunistic about the death of somebody beloved,” if you’re questioning it and you’re second-guessing it, it’s probably best to find a choice that makes your intention much more clear.

Be clear about what you intend. All right, moving on.

Great News for People Worried About the World Discovering They’re Not Perfect (and Some Elements of a Good Apology)

Next thing I want to talk about is related to what I just said — which is do not try to cover things up and pretend they did not happen. We do this all the time on social media. There was a really rich one at the Oscars where somebody saw a picture of Whoopi Goldberg, and they thought it was Oprah Winfrey. They Tweeted about it, so this is not great. Then they just took the photo down and pretended it didn’t happen.

Well, tens of thousands of people are Tweeting about this, so the cat’s kind of out of the bag there. You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.

You are always, especially on the web where there are captures of things and people can use various tools to go back in time, but just really, frankly, in general, if you do something stupid, your best bet is to stand up and say, “Wow, was that stupid. I’m very embarrassed, and I just don’t … ”

Either if you know why it happened, say, “You know what, it happened because this situation existed, and this is what I’m doing so it won’t happen again.”

If you don’t know why it happened because you just had some crazy brain worm thing, then you say that. You say, “I don’t even know what happened there. I’m just terribly sorry,” and you’re done. You don’t need to flay yourself, but you do need to stand up and admit when you screw something up — because everybody screws things up.

So many people cover things up because they’re afraid that people are going to find out that we aren’t perfect. So I have some fantastic news for you: everybody already knows you’re not perfect. So you don’t even need to spend one more minute worrying about that. It’s covered. You’re cool. You can just fess up and move on.

There’s a wonderful website called SorryWatch that looks at terrible apologies and gives the architecture of good apologies. I will give you a link to that in the show notes. I’m pretty sure it’s, but I’ll check for you.

Thoughts on Whether or Not Content Creators Should Wade into Hot-Button Conversations

Here’s another one. I wouldn’t say this is an ethical issue. This is more of a civic-minded issue or a community-wellness issue. I would love more people to be more mindful about stirring the pot in heated conversations.

Before we get started, I am not telling you to water down your beliefs because I don’t believe in that.

I think you should stand up for what you believe in, and I think you should be clear about what you believe in. I’m not saying being mealy-mouthed or wimpy about your true deep-seated beliefs.

But what I am saying is that it is really awesome to be mindful, to really think about is this actually shedding light on the topic? Or is this just generating a lot of rage, a lot of crankiness, a lot of preaching to the choir, and a lot of emotional intensity — and not actually shedding any kind of light on any kind of situation or bringing any kind of coolness or analysis to the situation?

It’s sometimes called ‘outrage porn.’ I just think that term is really helpful when I see it. It’s something that is shared purely to create negative emotions in people. It doesn’t actually motivate anybody to do anything. There’s no call to action. There’s no request to take an action, like make a donation or write a letter to your Congressman.

It’s just about being outraged, and man, is it just polluting the discourse right now.

It is, of course, always especially intense around elections. The United States election season right now is … it’s always heated, and it’s like Mordor at the moment. It’s superheated. It is a volcanic lake of lava at the moment.

I’m not saying don’t be political. That’s up to you to decide if it’s valuable to you to be political in your content or not.

I am saying please try to think about sharing messages that call for action in a civil way, call for specific action, and try to enlighten people about why you think things should be different instead of just sputtering with outrage over how crummy things are.

It doesn’t really do anything other than just create a lot of anxiety. Actually, I think it keeps people from taking action because people are so overheated. That’s my two cents. You may see it differently, and that’s cool, too.

Be Mindful and Think Before You Speak

Quite closely related to this is my final thought on good behavior, bad behavior, potentially problematic behavior. Maybe it’s just a good thing to think and be mindful and consider and hold in your mind the possibility that we might not need every single thought right as it comes out of your head.

And I have seen this, somebody’s drunk, offensive rantings on Twitter. That’s not transparency. That’s just self-indulgence. Maybe just don’t do that. Maybe if you’re going to go out and get really hammered, use one of the self-control apps and just turn off your social media for the night.

Everyone will thank you in the morning, especially you.

A Widespread Bad Habit I’d Love for Us to Work on Quitting

Finally, I’ll just leave you with a little bit of my own peace, love, and granola. I think it’s one of the most important things we can do because we come into contact with so many different people now on the web, so many different kinds of people we never bumped into before, it matters a lot not to make people into un-people.

The ones who are opposite from you, whether it’s politics, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, whatever it is, the ones who are other — and it truly does not matter how you vote — almost all of us have some kind of group that it’s like, “Yeah, I believe in equality. I believe in justice, and I believe all people are equal, except for those people, ha, ha, ha.”

I’m really respectfully asking you to think about maybe not doing that.

You may have excellent evidence that those people are incorrect, that they’ve got their facts wrong. They may very well be on the wrong side of history. Quite possible, we’ll see how that goes.

Speaking out against ideas, speaking out against behavior, I think that’s totally fair game, but telling yourself that certain kinds of people who think a certain way, vote a certain way, that they are not really people, there’s nothing in a way that’s more natural to the human mind, but it is something that you can resist.

It is a bad habit that you can overcome, and I think it would be awesome if we all worked on that — and myself included. I’m not immune at all to such things. But I do try to let the better angels of my nature rule the day. I don’t always win, but I do my best.

All right, that’s it for today. That’s an assembly of suggestions, ethical recommendations, and just considerations on maybe how to be a good guy, a good gal on these Internets that we travel.

It’s always wonderful to be with you, to have your time and attention, and I will catch you next week. Take care. This is Sonia Simone with Copyblogger.FM.