Fair or Foul: Is Pay-Per-Click An Ethical Crisis Management Strategy?

A recent news story examining some of the marketing efforts around the Gulf oil spill fostered some interesting, friendly debate around the M/C/C office. It wasn’t about the spoof @BPGlobalPR Twitter stream set up by a brilliant man known by the penname Leroy Stick. We’re all in agreement that he’s a genius, and the feed is hilarious. This debate was sparked by a story examining the ethics of a British Petroleum (BP) pay-per-click campaign running on search engines Google, Yahoo! and Bing.
Through the search campaign, BP attempts to “…make it easier for people to find out more about [its] efforts in the Gulf and make it easier for people to find key links to information on filing claims, reporting oil on the beach and signing up to volunteer.” (via triplepundit).
Search “oil spill” on the search engine of your choice.  You will probably see the top sponsored link for BP’s own website devoted to the oil spill with the tagline: “Info about the Gulf of Mexico Spill; Learn more about how BP is helping”. Research indicates that the majority of people don’t recognize sponsored links as such, and, instead, take them to be objective information raising the question, “Is it ethical for BP to use sponsored links as part of its crisis management strategy?”

In traditional media, the publisher has the right, and obligation, to identify advertising as such when it is presented by the advertiser as editorial content. That’s a standard that has been driven by pressure from editorial staffs for decades. It allows readers to be clear on what is commercially paid for material and what is independently generated content. It is also the right of the media to refuse to publish advertising that they feel is inappropriate or offensive to the audience (as exemplified in the recent Lane Bryant commercial vs. ABC/FOX fallout). Perhaps the ethics of Google and other search engines should be questioned here.  Why don’t they put policies and practices into effect that more clearly identify advertising versus organic search results and/or refuse paid advertising that they believe is inappropriate or misleading to users?
At the end of the day, when you’re a company in the middle of a crisis – your approach to disseminating your own information is always going to be called into question. The best practice is to be honest in your communications. But, utilizing any legitimate outlet, PPC programs included, to spread your message and serve as an up-to-date resource regarding the situation is not unethical. This used to be done primarily through public relations efforts and paid broadcast and print ads, but as the traditional disciplines continue to merge into integrated marketing platforms, we predict PPC will become a commonly used tool in crisis management kit.

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M/C/C creates the right mix of communications for today’s audience – from traditional advertising and public relations to highly interactive digital communications, engaging social media and powerful search engine optimization. With such a broad range of communication services, it’s easy to think of M/C/C as the big agency that does. With the passion of the little agency that could.

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