What Disclosure Issues Mean for PR

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