7 Commandments of Professionalism for Content Marketers

Content Marketing can be a powerful way to increase your influence and authority. And, as always, along with power comes responsibility.

As writers and content creators, I would argue that we can and should make the world — and the web — a better place. Assuming you have the major stuff covered (you’re not killing people, bullying, embezzling funds, etc.), here are my thoughts on seven “commandments” for our tribe.

If you have your own thoughts on “commandments” or ethical best practices, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments below!

In this 20-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Staying on the right side of the law with your content
  • The most important promise you make yourself as a professional
  • The “ethical compass” that will keep you away from the Dark Side
  • Plagiarism and copyright
  • The right way to handle “side hustles”
  • My thoughts on gossip, professional and otherwise
  • Holding yourself accountable

The Show Notes

Sonia: Today I want to talk a little bit about ethics and professionalism, specifically for writers and marketers.

I’m going to assume you have some of the major stuff covered like not stealing or killing people, but I want to talk about 7 best practices or commandments or what have you, around ethics and professionalism, whether you’re a freelancer, an employee, a business owner, or just a blogger or podcaster who has something to say in the world.

If you’ve heard me before, you know I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. But you know, I’ve been writing for a living for a long time, and doing shady stuff just tends to catch up with you.

#1: Thou shalt not be a Facebook Lawyer

First things first: don’t take legal advice from people who aren’t lawyers. Second: I’m not a lawyer.

If you have legal staff in your company, or in the company you’re freelancing for, go make friends with them. Talk with them about best practices for your organization — trust me, they’ll have thoughts for you. And if you’re on your own, don’t hesitate to bring on an attorney to make sure you’re doing the right things.

Sometimes within companies, writers get adversarial with the legal staff for turning your words into “legalese.” Which does, it’s true, suck.

Most of the time, you can have a genuine conversation with the legal team about that. In my experience most of them were English or History majors before they went to law school, a lot of times they actually respect good writing.

Here’s what you need to communicate to them: Legalese doesn’t serve the needs of the company. As the writer and marketer, it’s your job to write content that is clear, compelling, persuasive, and refrains from making statements that can get the company into legal hot water. It’s the legal team’s job to let you know where the lines are. You get a much better result when you work together.

As an aside, if you do work in a company — maybe you’re an employee, maybe a freelancer — you make friends with everyone. Do not get caught up in the petty BS that happens in most companies. You make friends with IT, with marketing, with sales, with accounting, with legal, with support, with the founder. I can’t even tell you how much that has benefited my career. Life is so much better when the IT folks have your back. But it’s true for every corner of the company.

As always, listen more than you talk. You are the voice of the company, and you need to know how the whole thing works — warts and all. It’s kind of like, you can’t get into a real relationship until you understand who you are. Same is true for companies.

So, let’s get started with a few questions about ethics and how to be an ethical professional.

#2: The big daddy: Thou shalt not lie

In one way, this could be a two-minute session, because by far the most important ethical consideration is, Never lie in your content.

Of course we all tell stories that present our side in the best light we can, but the important thing is, you must not distort the facts in order to do that.

Just was listening to a radio story about the global meltdown of VW. A commentator was saying it was “ironic” given that VW’s was totally at odds with its marketing about exceptional engineering and environmental responsibility.

That’s not irony, that’s just lying. And hypocrisy. And lying always, always gets caught in the age of the internet.

If your organization is lying and they want you to lie for them, you always have the option of speaking up. It’s a good thing to do.

If it’s a good organization, they’ll respect you for it and make things right. Frankly, most organizations won’t. If you’re in an organization that lies, you probably need to distance yourself sooner rather than later. No matter how high they’re riding now, eventually they will fall, and they tend to take people with them. Think Enron or VW. Those meltdowns are scary to be part of, so leave early if you think that’s the scenario you find yourself in.

Part of “not-lying” involves setting smart expectations with the clients or customers of that organization. So if that condo in the Bahamas is more rustic than luxurious, say that. Set the expectations properly. You can learn to present what you’re writing about in its best light without lying about it. Some people love rustic. But if they get a cabin in the woods when the website promised them something more like 4 Seasons, this is not a scenario for success.

#3: Honor thine audience

I would argue for another significant part of the ethics of a professional content marketer: respect for the individuals in the audience you serve. You guys know I’m gung ho on this one.

So you work for a company that pays you money, and that’s all good, but you need to advocate for the customers or clients that company serves. This is the best way to promote your own organization, because an organization that serves its customers well is the one that will tend to survive the hard periods that any company goes through.

And if you’re writing for your own company, for your own business, that goes about 10x. Put the audience first — and that includes prospects, other bloggers or social media personalities in your network, customers, clients, leads, people you advertise to — all of them. Put them first, it’s actually the simplest way to get things right.

Human being first, witch second; hard to remember, easy to do. ~ Terry Pratchett

If you swap out “writer” for “witch,” I hope you see what I’m getting at. Being a decent person will auto-magically make you a decent businessperson and marketer.

No organization is perfect. But clear, honest, and respectful communication goes a super long way to getting through the rough spots and keeping the loyalty of your customers.

#4: Thou shalt not plagiarize

Of course, we need to talk about plagiarism. Copyright law is not as simple as some would have you believe. For example, whether or not a particular image, quote, whatever is “fair use” is decided case by case by a jury. If the jury thinks it’s fair use, then it is.

Yes, there are guidelines and best practices, but that’s for an attorney to advise you on for your situation, not me. There have been all kinds of copyright cases won by the person who the amateur attorney thinks didn’t have a case.

The simple way, of course, is don’t use material that you didn’t create or pay for. Don’t try to get away with just doing a Google image search, and don’t let your organization do it either. Most companies won’t, but I’ve seen all kinds of crazy things in my work life. You know you have the rights to an image, mostly, if you or your company paid for it.

Also, of course, don’t use other people’s words as your own, unless it’s a ghostwriting situation that the company has paid for. You will in practice probably ghost write a lot of words for other people — that’s a normal practice and IMO the ethical boundaries are clear because you know going into it that that’s the arrangement, and you’re compensated. If you personally don’t feel comfortable with it, let your organization know that before you get started with them, but most writers don’t mind it.

As to quotes, again, remember the part about the jury deciding what’s fair use. Work with your legal department. Don’t let people who aren’t attorneys tell you what’s fair use and what isn’t, because what everyone else is doing isn’t necessarily going to be your friend. The bar tends to be higher for a company using something in marketing (or even a product) than in freely available content. A little caution will help you a great deal.

When you quote, of course name the person, and a link is nice as well, especially if it’s someone who mainly writes online.

If you paraphrase, or play with someone else’s idea, name that person, even if you don’t use their exact wording. It’s just the right thing to do. Credit your influences.

#5 Thou shalt conduct thy side hustles with integrity

If you’re an employee, let’s talk a little about side hustles and moonlighting. In my experience, most writers do it unless your job is insanely all-consuming. You should let the people you work with know if you’re doing it, and of course don’t let your side gig take time away from them.

If you’re a freelancer, my advice is, Never have only one client. It’s much too risky, also in the U.S. the tax people don’t tend to dig it.

But whether or not you moonlight for pay, every writer and content marketer needs to have a website you use to promote and maintain your own brand as a professional. In other words, you need to have one outside client, and that client is you.

You need a blog, possibly combined with a podcast. Ideally, you’ll have all of that in place when you start at your assignment or your new job; then it’s just part and parcel of who you are.

#6: Thou shalt not gossip

By the way, little voice of experience here, and no, I didn’t do this, but don’t gossip about your co-workers on your blog. And never say anything negative about your current employer or contract while you’re employed there.

Once you’re gone, you can use your discretion, but realize that what you write on your blog or even in social media is just as susceptible to things like libel law as a book or a paid advertisement would be. You can be held accountable for the words you write online. We tend to think of them as in some kind of different category, but the law has not, for the most part, agreed with that.

That leads us to professionalism. Of course, meet your deadlines. A lot of writers don’t. There’s no excuse. Meet your deadlines. Real emergencies are rare. Meet your deadlines.

#7: Hold thyself accountable

Then, going back to being accountable for what you publish online, realize that truly just about everything you type on your keyboard has the capacity for a very wide audience. Lots of people have been fired for making what they thought were “private” jokes on Facebook. A pseudonym won’t necessarily help you.

Don’t be a train wreck on social media. Don’t talk about how drunk or naked or whatever you were last weekend. Keep your private life off the web.

So, to sum up:

  1. Make friends with the lawyers
  2. Don’t lie, and don’t agree to participate in lies
  3. Set the right expectations with customers/clients of the organization
  4. Advocate for those customers and clients and make them your priority, for the good of the whole organization
  5. With few exceptions, don’t use images, sound files, or text that your company didn’t create or pay for
  6. Don’t gossip about your colleagues or organization on your blog or social media accounts
  7. Don’t publish anything, in any medium, with or without a pseudonym, unless you’re willing to be held accountable for it