A Marketer's Approach to Creating Ethical Content

Dan Shewan is a web content specialist and journalist based in New England. He is a regular contributor to the WordStream blog, where he writes about everything from emerging search technologies to content marketing strategy. Dan’s essays and journalism have been featured in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, Pacific Standard, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Dig Boston, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.

In 2013, Buffer shocked the world of content by publishing the salaries of every member of staff on its payroll.

Many people dismissed Buffer’s commitment to radical transparency. They said it was crazy, that it would tank investment, that merciless headhunters would poach Buffer’s best and brightest.

The naysayers were wrong.

Thanks to the courage of startups like Buffer, blogging about employee salaries is no longer viewed as exposing sensitive proprietary information; it’s seen as a positive, desirable brand attribute, and rightly so. But something that far fewer companies seem willing to talk about or even acknowledge is the profoundly negative impact that many of the companies we rely upon and work with are having on their workers, their users, and society as a whole – and our complicity in it.

The ease and convenience promised by today’s tech often comes at great cost. Facebook may be able to offer advertisers the ability to target dozens of highly granular audience segments, but Facebook faced intense criticism when reports surfaced that it had shared sensitive data about the psychological well-being of schoolchildren in Australia and New Zealand with an advertiser. Twitter may be unbeatable for interacting with large audiences in real time, but Twitter has failed utterly to consistently enforce its own abuse policies and protect its users, and even issued temporary bans to victims of abuse. Amazon may be able to offer consumers delivery in one hour or less through Amazon Now, but the average Prime subscriber probably hasn’t heard of Amazon Flex, a virtually invisible network of independent contractors that delivers millions of packages for Amazon using their own vehicles, as part of a system with virtually no workplace protections in which drivers are forced to compete for delivery assignments using an Uber-style app.

Few companies are willing to risk losing revenue, users, or future acquisition prospects by weighing in on what are seen as largely political issues. Unfortunately, as inconvenient as it may be for Silicon Valley’s most prosperous startups, you can’t be an agent of transformative social change while enjoying the benefits of political neutrality. When you set out to “disrupt” things like public transportation by reinventing the bus for wealthy white people, or seek to capitalize upon an already predatory housing market rife with discrimination, you become part of the political landscape – particularly if you knowingly and repeatedly break the law in the pursuit of profit.

To complicate matters, many of us – especially straight white men – enjoy positions of such immense privilege that we’re more concerned with the click-through rates of our e-commerce campaigns than we are about the news of workers in Amazon’s fulfillment centers in Scotland who were reportedly forced to live in tents in the woods because they couldn’t afford to commute.

Simply put, it’s easy to ignore inequality and exploitation because we either directly benefit from them, or they don’t affect us.

Initiating a Dialogue About Ethics in Content

Sadly, there has been virtually no meaningful public discussion about the pervasive, structural inequality in tech among the content marketing community. For an industry with so much self-described “thought leadership,” this is as surprising as it is disappointing. It seems we’re much more comfortable talking about the ethics of accepting bribes from brands than whether we should be working with immoral tech companies in the first place.

Having difficult conversations about inequality in tech doesn’t necessarily mean trash-talking valued partners; all it requires is a commitment to the truth and the courage to voice it. Editorially speaking, there are very few ways to put a positive spin on a project like Uber’s Greyball tool or Palantir’s Investigative Case Management system, and even fewer ethical justifications for doing so – but content doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Someone has to write Palantir’s copy. Someone like you or me.

It’s never easy to be the person asking uncomfortable questions when everybody just wants to finish their work and go home. But we have to be those people, and one of the best ways to start talking about ethics in content is to frame these conversations as an extension of your company’s brand values.

If your company offers a way to ask questions of senior management, such as a regular company meeting, ask how – or if – ethical business practices factor into your company’s growth strategies. If you’re comfortable doing so, consider running a series of workshops to talk about how your company’s partnerships reflect your brand values. If your editor asks you to write something that conflicts with your personal ethics, ask how this content truly serves the best interests of your audience.

What else can you do? Before you start your next content project, ask yourself some difficult questions:

  • Does this content overlook, rely upon, or otherwise obscure unethical business practices to make its case or provide value to the reader?
  • How racially, economically, and socially diverse is the audience you’re writing for, and is this audience truly representative of the kinds of people who could benefit from your content?
  • Does any aspect of this content project conflict with your personal morals? If so, what would you need to do or change in order for you to stand by your content in good conscience?
  • Will your content meet the ethical standards of professional journalists? If not, why not?

We don’t need to resort to hyperbole or invective to start a conversation about unethical business practices in tech, but we do need to agree that the current system is unsustainable and that we all have to try harder and do better. Yes, we all have bills to pay, but we also have a responsibility to speak out against business models that encourage the exploitation of the disenfranchised and reward callous disregard for basic human decency.

And if we really can’t get behind ethics in content for its own sake, there’s always the profit motive for a more ethical approach to business.