Illustration (and caption) below by the talented Ming Zhuang at Medill’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

On the one hand, it’s a brave new world where bloggers represent a new and unfettered publishing channel. One that enables us to consume new points of view and smart thinking without the third party filters of an editor or publisher. This is a good thing.

Some of these bloggers have developed a large following and have become influencers in their own right, just as popular columnists for mainstream newspapers can influence public opinion.

This is where the "on the other hand" comes in. 

Let me frame up my thoughts with an example.

Supposing you were a fan of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. And supposing you read his recent column, Stranded in Suburbia, about the merits of driving less and in more fuel-efficient cars. Now suppose you found out that Krugman was on the payroll of the Institute of Clean Air Companies. Disclosure: I made up this example. I know nothing about the ICAC and to my knowledge Krugman has no connection with any organizations that might affect his reporting.

Eegads, you’d say. Does Krugman really believe in fuel-efficient cars? Or is he shilling for the ICAC?? You might say: "Hmm… well the column is well written and informative. I guess it doesn’t matter if Krugman received (additional) payment to articulate this POV. It seems in keeping with his other columns."

Now ask yourself this: would it make any difference in your thinking if Krugman clearly disclosed in his column his relationship with the ICAC? Would you prefer that he disclose the connection, or not? Do you, in fact, care about this conflict of interest if the column makes for compelling reading (esp. if you happen to agree with it)?

Bear with me. Now suppose Krugman were a popular blogger who wasn’t bound by journalistic conventions? Would the above scenario be different? Are the rules governing what a blogger writes about and what he or she discloses - or doesn’t - any different? Does it matter whether payment in cash is involved? Or do other types of compensation (travel costs, free product samples) apply equally to what constitutes a conflict of interest?

These are the kinds of questions swirling about in the face of the FTC’s proposed guideline changes for endorsements and testimonials and how they might affect bloggers. Note: more below in my comment about the proposed new guidelines.

Frankly, it’s all pretty confusing. We’re familiar with the saying that pornography is easy to recognize, but difficult to define. But does the same apply to conflict of interest and what bloggers write about?

Yes and no. Conflict of interest is a slippery slope. It may or may not involve disclosure and transparency. I.e. it’s still a conflict of interest whether or not you disclose, right?

The nub of the conflict seems to be payment. Whether or not you are paid, in cash or in kind.

Here’s where it gets murky. To take the stand that editorial content on a blog has to be absolutely pure, borne only of the blogger’s intellect and passion… is naive. It doesn’t work that way. Without an editor intermediary looking over our shoulders, or nudging us with emails and phone calls, what we write about is serendipitous. In my case, it’s what I think is important or what catches my interest. It might, in fact, be influenced by a discussion with a client. (Is that a conflict of interest??)

For another blogger, a post or series of posts could be prompted by an ongoing relationship with a big brand. Power mommy blogger Jessica Smith (aka JessicaKnows) is writing about her experiences driving a Ford Flex for a year. She is completely frank about her relationship with Ford. But is there a conflict of interest? Perhaps. She knows—and her readers know—that she may not be absolutely candid about the car. In reality, it’s a bit awkward to be snarky and critical when the #7 company on the Fortune 500 list has loaned you a car. It’s difficult to be downright critical about something someone has given you, particularly when you have a warm relationship with that entity—which is what Jessica Smith has with Ford (and, as I understand it, Scott Monty). I often find that my relationship with a good client is a combination of business and social. We become very friendly and the line between personal and professional can become a bit blurred. Something to be aware of, of course.

What it really comes down to is the blogger’s credibility. If readers find her to be hugely credible and compelling, they will trust her. In fact, they’ll hang on her every word. And those words are worth LOTS to her sponsors.

Disclosure and transparency (what the FTC is calling for) are mandatory. Beyond that, maybe we’re talking about a new animal - a form of content that is neither purely editorial, nor entirely advertorial. (Advertorial means that the sponsor controls the message, the actual words. And Ford is not doing that.)

And what’s wrong with that? We’ve known for years that the line between editorial and advertising on Web sites is blurred. Why don’t we give that new kind of content in the middle a name? Suggestions?

I’m still teasing out the questions. So I’ll lay them out for you to ponder. And hopefully offer up some answers:

     
  • Amateur vs. professional: is this the key question we should be asking about bloggers vs. journalists?
  •  
  • Conflating conflict of interest and disclosure (aren’t these two different things?)
  •  
  • What constitutes payment (cash vs. in kind) and when is it appropriate or required for blogger reviews?
  •  
  • Credibility: if I tweet that I love Zappos do readers assume the online retailer is "paying" me (in shoes or money) to say that?
  •  
  • Finally, is it editorial, advertorial - or something in between - if a blogger is paid (in cash or in kind) to write about it?

 Required Reading

FTC Guides Concerning Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertisement

Useful post with commentary about the proposed revised FTC guides by William Slawski

Bloggers, Brands and the New Publishing Paradigm by Stephanie Smirnov* (full disclosure: DeVries PR is my client)

 Conflict of interest doesn’t apply to blogs (another reason newspapers are dying) by Penelope Trunk / Brazen Careerist (note: I disagree with many of her assertions but this is very provocative)

Paid to Pitch: Product Reviews by Bloggers Draw Scrutiny - Wall St Journal

Blogola: the FTC Takes on Paid Posts - Business Week

Jessica Smith (aka JessicaKnows) blogs about driving the Ford Flex

FTC to enter social media fray with new guidelines - from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism

* Thanks to Stephanie Smirnov for the links to WSJ and BizWeek.

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Previous Comments

Scott Moroney said on May 28, 2009 at 04:55 PM

I understand the intervention on our “behalf”, but it misses one key aspect - we are seeing a new medium develop that removes artificial barriers like editors.  Maybe we need to ease in as we are doing, but maybe we need to just jump right in.  We have let the web go thus far without a ton of intervention by the government.  What is so scary that we need it now?  I’d say it is more related to change of philosophy from one administration to the next.  My vote is for staying out it.  I am surprised that they are getting in since I believe their sister organization (FCC) is now run by a seemingly “pro -social” guy, Julius Genachowski.  http://gigaom.com/2009/03/03/julius-genachowski-fcc-chairman/

Are my facts correct?

Debbie Weil said on May 28, 2009 at 05:40 PM

Scott,

I’m by no means an expert on the FTC or the FCC. Nor am I a lawyer. But as best I understand, the language I’ve read that asks for change revolves around disclaimers and “typical use” in consumer testimonials. In other words, those TV drug ads that add the caveat “results not typical” in a rapid monotone may violate the new guidelines if they’re adopted. Since companies are now introducing products via the Web (including blogs and message boards) the “typical use” standard would have to be enforced in these new media as well. If a blogger says the skin cream sample removed every wrinkle, is that typical? And if not, is the company that sent her the sample liable? Here’s a blog post with a bit more commentary on the proposed changes: http://www.seobythesea.com/?p=1300 Is this government intervention? I guess so. But I can’t see how it could possibly be enforced. The revolution we’re all talking about (and that so many of us delight in) is the rise of influential bloggers as an alternative form of media. And of course, the decline in the power of traditional media. It’s downright remarkable if you think of the fact that blogging was still “new” only five years ago.

Bernd Nurnberger said on May 28, 2009 at 06:41 PM

With recording devices ready to roll and upload at a whim for the public record, is the next we need a regulation of “smalltalk”? 

How is that for naming what’s between advert and editorial on a website. I agree with Debbie. Honesty and transparency in speech and publication are laudable, and its absence can be disgusting, yet in between it does get murky. 

Before agreeing to move for regulation in this direction I would like to see its proponents come clean with a full disclosure of what they or their buddies stand to gain from the FTC proposal. Then let’s talk about how to “fairly reflect substance of endorsements and testimonials”.

Credibility is in the eyes of the beholders. Plural used advisedly.  Spammy comment, disclosure missing, not plausible? What to YOU do? Anyway, you decide whom you trust. More research, more openness, endorsements truly independent as far as you can tell - means more trust.  Until someone credibly points out the opposite. According to your current knowledge.

How much more transparent can it get than a website or blog with open comments and lively dialog?

My take: as before, think for yourself. Trust whom you want to. Crowdsource the cred.

Disclosure: I stand to gain personally and in business from the Internet being open and transparent. I intend to act in this spirit as much as I can in the time and space available. I reserve the right to know more tomorrow and add revocations to the din.

Looking for an opposite of murky?
http://www.changethis.com/58.01.CreativeElegance

Tracy said on May 30, 2009 at 10:45 AM

From a consumer standpoint, I know that I personally don’t care about regulatory control because I know not to trust whatever line someone feeds me and I’m going to make decisions on my own, not by what others are selling/saying. It’s a social media world out there where everyone and anyone can tell you what they think about every little thing. Some might be for real and others posers. It’s the consumers job to do their own research, not the governments.

Just because someone tells me that they love their new Ford I’m not going to go out and buy one without test driving it, and other cars before making a decision. The more important question for me is how can we make people understand that an ad is just an ad? People shouldn’t trust every little thing they read or see online and I don’t think it’s fair to lay it on the bloggers for writing their personal opinions. If it’s true then others will find it out for themselves and learn to appreciate your recommendations in the future. If it’s false, they will hopefully learn that you’re on the take in some way and can read what you write, but with a grain of salt.

Maggie said on May 30, 2009 at 02:44 PM

“She knows—and her readers know—that she may not be absolutely candid about the car.”

This is where I disagree with you—call me naive, but if I’m reading someone’s blog I fully expect complete candor. What’s the point otherwise? The whole reason companies pay bloggers or provide them products to review is to capitalize on the “authenticity” that blogs represent—just a regular guy/gal talking about things that are interesting to them.

When a company pays a person to talk about how great a product is and gloss over the not-so-great parts, it’s called a commercial. I change the channel during commercials. Same goes for when I read magazines—those pages in magazines that look like articles but include, across the top of the page, the wording “paid advertisement”? I skip those. So if you’re saying that you think I’m perfectly ok taking a “wink-wink” approach when I’m reading a blog—“oh, this is the post she got paid for—nothing she’s saying is true”—you’re incorrect. I don’t really care whether or not someone gets paid to write about something or gets it for free—good for them—but I do expect what I’m reading to be genuine.

Maggie said on May 31, 2009 at 07:46 AM

Check out Jessica Smith’s most recent post about the Ford Flex; not at all awkward or snarky yet she is critical (constructively).

http://jessicaknows.com/2009/05/5-things-i-dont-like-about-the-ford-flex/

Debbie Weil said on May 31, 2009 at 08:57 AM

Maggie,

You make some very good points. And you’ve pointed out a sentence in my original entry which could have been more clearly worded. I’ve read Jessica’s latest post and agree it’s very well done. She is gracious and diplomatic and strikes just the right tone in saying that she loves the car but there are just a few things that could be better designed. Perhaps I should have said something like: “It’s difficult to be downright critical about something someone has given you, particularly when you have a warm relationship with that entity—which is what Jessica Smith has with Ford. I often find that my relationship with a good client is a combination of business and social.” [I’ve amended my post above.] She says in one of her posts that her son couldn’t wait to meet Ford’s Scott Monty. http://www.scottmonty.com/ So it would seem that her whole family was excited about embarking on this adventure with Ford.

Cafe Marly said on July 27, 2009 at 04:12 AM

I am interested with your statement [...] it’s a brave new world where bloggers represent a new and unfettered publishing channel. One that enables us to consume new points of view and smart thinking without the third party filters of an editor or publisher. [...]
It seems that blogger should be not too brave to make any improvement, if so, i think the improvement on many major site is good s well they want to make much more user. It also just like a new site i found http://www.pinneysestate.com/ and also http://www.womenmind.com/ even they are a little nice site, they make any good progress to get much more reader.

Cozy Diet said on July 28, 2009 at 04:55 AM

Actually, i am interesting how you make great story to your nice blog. I would learn how make a big site just like yours. Would you like to make any story about your experience to build this site? So i can follow your way to make my great site too. Thanks Deb.


About This Blog

I’ve been writing about corporate and CEO blogging and business use of social media for over a decade. I welcome your Comments if they are on topic. I delete them if inappropriate or spammy.

 

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