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?
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
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.