Podcasting Needs a Code of Ethics Now

Eliminating Pay-for-Play is Job One


If podcasters aren’t careful, they could become the new ‘mommy bloggers.’

Nora Ephron’s last film was called Julie & Julia. She wrote and directed it ‘based on a true story’ for release in 2009. It starred Amy Adams as Julie Powell, an aspiring writer living in New York, and Meryl Streep as Julia Child.

The important thing for us is what the book said about the power of blogging and how one woman catapulted herself from a relative unknown to a successful writer through the power of her blog, her innovative idea and her words. The story follows young Julie through the process of trying to cook the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s 1961 classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The twist was that Julie had to do it for 365 straight days and document it all in her blog.

It’s a great movie, which at least in part validated the whole notion of influencership in the Internet age.

The Rise of the Mommy Blogger

This was around the time when the art and practice of blogging was all the rage and the key to becoming an influencer. Words, not Instagram selfies or TikTok videos, were the key.

This was when “mommy bloggers” entered the picture.  These were young moms who figured out how to build huge followings by blogging about motherhood, their kids, about traveling, feeding, caring for and raising children.

By 2011, Forbes reported that there were roughly 3.9 million mommy bloggers on the web. The largest blogs had millions of followers. The smallest were from young mothers who published their blogs as hobbies for friends and family.

As with any such phenomena marketers took note and converged on these new influencers. Many bloggers didn’t even have to try to attract the attention. Some of the early successes were women who had an interest in blogging, and they naturally attracted huge followings, much to their own surprise.  Marketers approached them, offering free merchandise, trips, and money to shill their products.

There were no rules for this, really. All women had to do was accept the offerings and promote the products. And they did. Some became rich and famous.

Once this started to happen, others took note and started blogs of their own with the goal of becoming rich and famous, too. They sought out advertisers and marketers to “donate” merchandise and other things that they could promote. Again, marketers were all too happy to oblige.

An entire industry built up around mommy bloggers, most of whom saw no need to disclose to their followers that they were being compensated for their recommendations. Some may have assumed their readers already knew. They saw it all as a win-win proposition. They’re benefiting financially, and they’re doing a service for their followers by making recommendations.

But once you have a steady stream of money flowing into a sector like mommy blogging, sadness, scandal and tragedy tend to follow, as a number of women went to extremes for fame and fortune via mommy blogging, oftentimes at the expense of their families.

Today, there are still thousands of women running successful parenting blogs, and many more who do it as a hobby. But for the marketing field, the bloom has come off the rose. Yes, some major advertisers still sponsor certain bloggers, but as an industry, mommy bloggers have lost that aura it once had.

My Own Experience

I can tell you what my experience has been. As a public relations representative for my own clients, I’ve pitched thousands of journalists over the years on stories that have run the full range. Standard operating procedure is, if you’re a journalist, I approach you with a story idea or a possible person to interview. You decide if it’s newsworthy for you and a good fit. If you decide it is a fit, the understanding that is, I provide you with the information or the source without you having to go look for them. And you interview and quote them for your story or on your show as you see fit.

No money or compensation changes hands. This preserves your journalistic integrity and the ethics of our relationship. Readers or viewers can assume, rightly, that the sources you choose are selected based on merit and relevance to the story at hand. This dynamic is critical to your credibility and the credibility of your organization, your blog or your show.

But mommy bloggers blurred those lines. They did interviews, they quoted people, and they endorsed products without ever disclosing they were being compensated.

So, when I’ve had story ideas and I approached mommy bloggers, the vast majority of the time they have demanded I pay them if I wanted my client to be interviewed. Further, many maintain policies where they do not disclose that I would be paying if I decide to proceed.

Needless to say, I’ve never once paid for routine media coverage and I am not about to start. Throughout the PR field, mommy bloggers have earned a shady reputation as ‘pay-for-play’ actors and have become taboo for most legitimate communications programs.

Of course, there are many mom blogs now that do disclose paid content as they should.

Payola and Why It’s Illegal

When I first worked in commercial radio, one of the documents I had to sign as a “payola” form where I promised not to personally accept payment for undisclosed access to the airwaves.

Payola is also knowns as “pay-for-play,” and centers on an early practice where commercial radio stations would accept payment to broadcast certain records without telling listeners they were being paid to play those songs. Sometimes individual disc jockeys would take payment from record companies to play certain music.  This erupted in scandal that eventually led to making the practice not just unethical, but illegal.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now considers payola as a violation of its Sponsorship Identification Rules, which require broadcasters to disclose the broadcast of any paid content. In fact, the Communications Act of 1934 was amended to include payola prohibitions.

What this all means is, when you take money for access to your audience, you are either taking advertising or taking a bribe. The difference is, if it’s advertising, your audience and your readers know it because you disclosed it. But if you don’t tell your audience that it’s paid content, you are intentionally or inadvertently leading your audience to believe the content is organic and is there only because you, the content creator deemed it worthy on its own merits.

Enter the Regulators and Governing Bodies

Clearly, the FCC and the court system thinks this is all serious business as a matter of public trust.

As a veteran public relations professional, and a long-standing, accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America, I adhered to its Code of Ethics, which on matters of public disclosure specifically states that its members are required:

“To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.”

The Society for Professional Journalists in its Code of Ethics, states that its members must:

“Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has specific rules for content creators on matters of sponsored content disclosure. It says:

“If you endorse a product…your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand. A “material connection” to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship – such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services.”

What this Means for Podcasters

At the moment, these are some of the leading organizations for podcasters: The National Association of Podcasters, Podcast Professionals Association, and The Podcast Academy. As far as I can tell, not one has an expressly crafted Code of Ethics that addresses professional behaviors outside of their involvement with the respective associations.

Podcasting is still in the breakout phase of its growth, not unlike where the mommy blogger sector was in 2009. In many respects it still has a Wild West feel to it. The big commercial enterprises have come into the space and found ways to build huge audiences and make millions of dollars. Some podcasters have done very well.

Like those mommy bloggers, there has been a proliferation of podcasts. There are now well over one million podcasts available to podcast listeners.

And many of those podcasters are repeating the mistakes that many of those mommy bloggers made. They are endorsing products, brands or services without disclosing they were paid to do so. They are asking guests to pay to be on their podcasts without disclosing to their followers that these are paid guests, and that this is indeed paid or sponsored content.

In short, pay-for-play is likely rampant in podcasting. Who’s charging for guest spots and endorsements? We don’t know, and that’s the problem.

If podcasters and podcasting as an industry aren’t careful, they could do to themselves exactly what mommy bloggers did, which is to establish a less-than-reputable reputation among the very people they need most, their followers and the communications industry that feeds them guests, information and content.

The podcast industry is ripe for a professional association that comes along and pushes for professional standards, even before professional development and the infrastructure to help podcasters make money.

If podcasting does not preemptively address and maintain its credibility with its markets through a common, industry-wide sense of professional ethics, the industry will repeat the same mistakes some media sectors made long before it is doing, and it will suffer the consequences.

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