What Disclosure Issues Mean for PR

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Controversy has been swirling in online and blogging circles for some time about the thorny issues of disclosure and conflicts of interest. When it comes to blogs’ coverage of products and services, there are gray areas all over the place – some of them intentional, while other ambiguities simply come with the medium.

Within this gray space, ethical best practices have yet to emerge. While traditional media had relatively defined lines between editorial, advertising and advertorials, online these approaches are sometimes blurred.

Why should we care about this as PR and Marketing Communications professionals? Well, the Federal Trade Commission is getting involved, and under their latest guidelines a brand technically can be held liable for a blog’s disclosure (or lack thereof). A more common ramification: if a blogger is perceived to have taken version of payola (sometimes called blogola) from one of your clients, there’s often a taint (real or implied) on the product or company that provided it.

Many bloggers are not journalists, and they don’t necessarily see the differences between advertising and editorial coverage the in the same way PR pros do. Consider this stream of tweets from a blogger on Twitter who received a pitch:

“Why, why, why does Big Company expect me to promote their stuff for free?  ‘Your readers want to know about this!’ Um, they probably don’t.
And in any case, would you go to magazine and say, ‘please publish this ad for free! Because, your readers want to know!’? …oh, right, advertising for you for FREE would be a PUBLIC SERVICE FOR MOMS. Do I *look* that stupid?”

Need another example of the blurry lines? Check out this plea that was sent to a number of PR pros.

It’s important that we recognize the issues, since you’re likely to encounter them at some point when working with new media.

Freebies

Before new media, there were fewer people reviewing products and services, so PR review programs were more straightforward. In the case of the technology industry, reviewers at top publications had boxes, shelves (and probably trash bins) FULL of free software – much of which they never asked for, and frequently never even opened. Far from a buy-off, delivering free software to reviewers upon
request was an economic necessity (no way they could have purchased all of the products they reviewed in a given year). For more expensive products, a loaner program was often the tactic of choice. There was no quid pro quo, and readers trusted that the reviews were legit.

This is true for other industries as well. Everything from free makeup for beauty editors to complementary trips for travel writers is part of the established culture of traditional journalism.

But now, there are often hundreds of reputable bloggers and online journalists writing about any given subject, and the freebies don’t always make it to all of them. At the same time, many bloggers are trying to figure out how to earn some well-deserved compensation for their efforts. The result? Recipients of freebies can be called out (often unfairly, by those who feel left out) or some bloggers may downplay (or omit completely) their disclosures.

The takeaway
When providing review products and services, politely make sure your contact knows you fully expect them to disclose. Examples of freebie disclosures could be including something like the following, in the introduction:

  • “I was given a loaner unit for one week, and I found it to be…”
  • ACME resort gave me a complementary stay so I could write this review.”
  • “I was given a box of XYZ diapers to try out, and…”

Also, if the product you represent is expensive, try using a loaner unit program or other creative approach instead. Disclosure is still necessary, but this lessens the perception that the writer was given a big-ticket “gift” and was thus bought-off.

Obviously, arrangements where you give free product in exchange for a positive review are not merely freebies. If stipulations are placed upon the sentiment of the coverage, then the situation falls into the category below.

Pay-for-Play

“Sponsored posts” are another matter. To me, pay-for-play blog posts (which includes gift cards) are the equivalent of advertorials, and should be clearly designated as such (for example, collect sponsored posts on a separate page, use a different blogger/author, have a special “sponsored” graphic, etc.) . A smaller disclosure (like the ones for freebies above), or a brief note in italics that states “This is a sponsored post” just doesn’t pass the muster for most readers. The backlash can be swift.

Let me point out that there are some bloggers that vehemently oppose this opinion. “Don’t bloggers have a right to be compensated?” is a common refrain. They feel that disclosing sponsored posts too prominently will reduce the impact and therefore affect their ability to attract more sponsored posts. I believe this is shortsighted, since if readers feel mislead (which can happen suddenly) they will leave.

The sponsorship issue is further complicated by the fact that some very highly respected bloggers are working with sponsored post agencies and participating in their promotions.   These well-connected folks are on the front lines of this battle, trying to find a way to bring marketers and bloggers together in a mutually beneficial way. Note that some blog networks are parsing this challenging issue quite well, but at this point, widely accepted guidelines are still to come.

The takeaway
For PR pros, if you find yourself treading into this pay-for-post area, proceed with extreme caution. I’m in no way anti-sponsored post, but the mores of this space are continuing to develop and controversies spring up regularly. If you encounter bloggers or others who require payment in return for a basic write-up, it may serve you best to walk away.

Just another day at the office

In the era of Modern PR, these issues are just another new frontier, and this is an area destined to be gray for some time. What constitutes disclosure?  What about social media mentions outside of blogs?

Most of these issues will be hammered out within the online community itself, and PR and marketing pros have a seat at that table. But until the “rules” are established, it’s key that we keep in mind the potential landmines and always operate above board.

How do you feel about these disclosure issues? Have you encountered any uncomfortable situations or have any tips?

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Photo credits: Ian Muttoo, pfala

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  • http://141st.wordpress.com Kevin Fenton

    To me, this does a really good job of covering the ethical bases, with one exception that may be less relevant to PR professionals: personal connections. Back when I was blogging about literature, I would often write about my friends’ books. My rule was to write only those positive things I actually believed (simple enough, I suppose) and to disclose the connection (“my friend Amy Shearn, my fellow MFA Alex Lemon”). I also tried to make it clear that they were comments and not complete reviews.

    Kevin Fenton’s last blog post..White Paper: Twitter: From Trend to Tool

  • http://EricaSays.com erica mueller

    Good post and practices. As a blogger, I enjoy doing the reviews. Personally, I won’t accept a product to review unless I feel it fits our lifestyle and is something we’d use. I always make it clear if the item was given to me. If anyone ever pays for a review, it WILL be marked as sponsored, and I tell a company that up front. I haven’t done any paid reviews yet, and am not actively seeking them.

    I’d recommend this post to every PR department at every company, and I think mom bloggers should read it too.

    erica mueller’s last blog post..Disney Pixar Cars 3-Tier Storage Organizer Review

  • Kellye Crane

    @Kevin- Excellent point. It’s highly ethical of you to point out any personal relationships you have with the people you’re covering. Great advice for others to do the same.

    @Erica- Thanks for this comment! You raise another important issue: the applicability of a product/service review to the blog’s established subject matter. Some blogs have strayed from their typical content to review unrelated products, and the result is jarring to the reader. Your approach is certainly best for building and maintaining blog readership in the long-term.

  • Mary Barber

    Yet another thoughtful post Kellye about an issue that’s important to all public relations professionals and others. The Public Relations Society of America Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) has issued a Professional Standards Advisory around some blogging and online practices. BEPS continues to advise professionals and others about this area and is looking to update the current standard based on new online tactics. The current standard is located: http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/psaPS8.html.

  • Kellye Crane

    Thanks for adding this, Mary. The PRSA guidelines deal with yet another important ethical issue for PR pros (though less of a gray area): misrepresenting yourself or a client.

    Fake blogs, fake comments, fake social media accounts, etc. are deception pure and simple, and have no place in the ethical practice of PR. If ethics alone aren’t enough, you also have a good chance of getting caught (e.g., Whole Foods’ CEO – http://www.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idUSN1725360820070717).

    Thanks for bringing up this related point!

  • http://www.theharteofmarketing.com Beth Harte

    Kellye, this is a great post! Thanks for taking the time to explain and provide examples of the many complexities of the social media culture versus traditional media/marketing mindset when it comes to disclosure. This is definitely a post to share with people new to social media.

    I was recently speaking at the MarketingProfs conference and in return for having a badge on my site, I was paid an affiliation fee for anyone who purchased a conference pass via my blog. I wrote a post about the conference, how much I respect MP and how I was looking forward to attending. That said, I linked it back to a post that I had written about a previous MP conference that I paid out of pocket for. I think being up front about the affiliation and my past experiences provided credibility and balance (at least, I hope!). That was the first time I had to disclose that type of information. I think being upfront is all that people ask for so that they can make their own decisions.

    Beth Harte’s last blog post..The Social Media Leech

  • Kellye Crane

    Thanks for the kind words, Beth. Affiliate links work best when the blogger is a genuine fan of the “product” (in your case, a conference) — I know Brian Clark of Copyblogger is a proponent and very successful example of this.

    Affiliations only become an issue when readers can sense the writer is selling something to them just to make a buck. Being open and true to yourself, as you were, is always the best policy. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.thoughtgadgets.com Ben Kunz

    Nice post. However, I think the focus on disclosure really misses the point. Disclosing something does not make it right. Disclosing is not the answer, because it does not solve the ethics.

    If prostitutes *disclose* they take payment from a client, does that make it OK? If you *disclose* to your spouse you slept with another person for a gift, is that cool? How is your reputation afterward? Bloggers who accept compensation for writing reviews risk permanently damaging their voices — because trust me, taking a gift card to write a review means you are shilling.

    If you doubt this, why not go all the way and drop brand names into your oral conversations, too? Just think how delighted your friends will be to hear you over barbecue segue into a Kmart riff. But that’s OK. Just disclose you got a gift card.

    Now, let’s turn it around. Imagine what happens if you DON’T shill. One of the big breaks in my career came when an editor from BusinessWeek called and asked me to write a column, based on the authenticity he saw in my blog. I don’t have the best blog in the world, but I don’t write about clients, I don’t take payment — instead, I offer my real, real view. Somehow he stumbled upon it, and decided I was a person he could trust. (Thank you, Tom…)

    It’s all a choice. You really need to think hard, though, before you sell out your voice. You only have one. If you are authentic, people will notice you, and it will lead you places. Be careful, because your voice is worth far more than you think.

    Ben Kunz
    c 203 506 7269

    Ben Kunz’s last blog post..Why we’ll miss Dos Equis’ dos demos

  • Kellye Crane

    @Ben- Thanks for weighing in with such a well-articulated (and colorful!) explanation of your stance on the ethics of blogging.

    PR and marketing pros will encounter bloggers of various ethical stripes. Yours is a great reminder that some bloggers still adhere to a journalistic standard.

  • http://www.thoughtgadgets.com Ben Kunz

    Thanks, Kellye.

    One more point: It’s worth noting Google has weighed in against paid posts, too. Google requires bloggers who accept compensation for writing on a topic to include a no-follow tag — which means the post is never picked up by search engines. Bloggers who do not comply risk having Google remove their page rank. (So much for blogging fame…)

    For marketers and PR professionals, this means that trying to game social media with paid posts really won’t work — because Google is not going to allow such paid comments to be used to improve a brand’s ranking online. For bloggers, this means you’re taking a risk that the world’s biggest search engine may make you invisible.

    Apparently Google thinks this is more than an ethical issue. Google is worried that paid posts will pollute its ability to offer relevant search results, so it is coming down hard telling bloggers who do so to get off the Google map.

    Great debate, as always! Cheers…

    Ben

    Ben Kunz’s last blog post..Why we’ll miss Dos Equis’ dos demos

  • Kellye Crane

    Thanks for another important addition to this discussion, Ben.

    For readers interested in additional background on Google’s stance, Ben’s post on the topic is a great overview: http://bit.ly/Zw97w

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