Blogger Disclosure

Last week I spoke to a journalism class at Lehigh University about blogging. I was joined by Bernie O’Hare, a fellow blogger from Nazareth. We both began blogging in 2005 and our sites (his, Lehigh Valley Ramblings and mine, NewsOverCoffee), while different in nature and scope, are both focused on local news.

During our conversation we talked about many issues, but one topic was in regard to traditional media having defined roles such as advertising sales, opinion columnists, and journalists, whereas bloggers are often a one person show and must determine how to juggle each of these hats.

Within this discussion I mentioned including full disclosure to reduce perceived conflicts of interest. I explained that I put a block in the top right of my site and include a hotlink to my LinkedIn account, which has information about my professional background. Bernie liked the idea and I noticed he has since added the same.

How big is the issue of blogger (or any social media for that matter) disclosure?

A year ago the FTC published disclosure guidelines for bloggers (read them here) and today I was reading a post by Cynthia Boris, “Foursquare’s Crowley Gets Undeserved Ribbing,” in which she addresses comments Crowley made during an NYU panel discussion.

Apparently Crowley was discussing a potential referral program whereby users who provide a link to a specific product or service would get a referral payment for each purchase that comes through their link.

This would actually be very different from what the FTC was concerned about when it created the disclosure rules, because the program would be known and announced and no free service or payment was made prior to a purchase by a 3rd party.

The problem that brought about the disclosure guidelines was that some bloggers were getting paid and/or accepting free product or services and conducting favorable reviews without the reader knowing there was compensation involved.

A little over a month ago, Frank Reed commented in his post, “PR Agency Settles with FTC Over Fake Reviews,” about the practice of agencies having staff write reviews for clients posing as ‘average’ reviewers. This agency settled, so their guilt was not determined, but the reason they came in violation was for writing positive reviews as part of a planned marketing campaign and the writers were being paid and therefore making an endorsement.

Like any legal area, only time and test cases will sort out what can and cannot be done, but being as transparent and authentic as one can be in the meantime won’t hurt.

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