On Disclosure

Jackson Motors, home of dependable used cars

Fair warning — social media and blog tactics nonsense ahead. It’s long, opinionated, and a little bit rambling. Don’t want anything to do with that? This piece on Nowhere Mag by Frank Bures is amazing: The Crossing. It’s a great read about what drives travelers, far away places, history, and a nonexistent bridge. If you skip The Crossing and read this instead, it’s your own damned fault.

I recently received an offer of pay to write comments and post links to a travel operator. The email included a list of posts that the PR flak wanted me to comment on and said that if I was interested, I should reply to find out how to bill for my time. It wasn’t much money, let’s call it date night dinner money.

Seriously, are you still here? It’s not too late to go read that Frank Bures piece. It’s very good. No? Okay then.

A lot of bad pitches come to my inbox from PR and SEO consultants. They want me to run their articles and infographics, share their contests and specials, promote their celebrity gossip…  Every now and then there’s something cool — a company has released a new product that’s interesting or useful, there’s a rare and exotic fish at a particular aquarium,  there’s an exhibit opening up that’s worth traveling to see. But mostly, it’s anonymous junk seeking promotion in exchange for nothing. Every now and then, someone will ask for advertising rates or what it costs to run a sponsored post. If they seem legit, I respond with my terms and then, I never hear from them again. That’s fine.

I immediately delete about 70% of the pitch mail I receive.  I know this number because I spent a month tracking it. About 2% of the mail I get turns into something useful — a story idea, a contact I need for something I’m working on, that sort of thing. The remaining 28% I read with some interest, noodle on, sometimes save, but mostly, do nothing about.  I used to be annoyed with the onslaught; I’ve moved past that to a healthy relationship with the “delete” option. Reluctant concession: Gmail’s “promotions” tab has made this stuff even easier to ignore.

But every now and then, something will come in the front door, bypassing my filters and catching my attention. These pitches are addressed to me directly, written as though they’re personalized. They read like there’s a human on the other end, not just a machine using spray and pray tactics (cover as wide an area as you can and hope that you hit something). I received one of these as a personal update  from a PR flak who’d changed jobs recently. The text included the words “paid-orgainic is the new SEO.” Thankfully, the email also included an unsubscribe link, which I clicked and then, went on to rant about how paid-organic is not a thing. If you pay for your media, it’s not organic. Cue swearing.

Now, back to the offer at hand — payment for comment and sharing. This offer seemed personalized enough, like the inquiries I get about ad rates. But the flak had the misfortune of hitting me on a day that I was well rested and feeling like questioning what I was being asked to do. It’s been a while; a friend reminded me that the last time I felt like asking questions I set a fire and received threats of violence. (Not a joke, I filed cyber-bullying reports.) Some people really don’t like it when you ask questions, it seems. In this latest situation, my questions were delivered via email and then posted to Facebook without naming the client or the PR firm.

My issues were about the ethics of paid media and engagement. Consider the following stories:  Samsung was fined $340,000 for placing fake comments that trashed HTC, one of their competitors. Businesses paying for fake reviews on Yelp were fined a total of $350,000 for misleading consumers. Fox News got heat for creating fake commenting accounts that defended Fox News perspectives.  Slate banned Dish Network paid commenters from their site, classifying them as promotion and advertising — even though the comments seemed to be on topic.

Make no mistake about it, paid content/content marketing — even in places as seemingly insignificant as comments and sharing — is where the money is right now. I wish that were not the case, I wish that the firewall between editorial and advertising was not so porous and weak, but in most cases, unless the stuff being published is deliberately misleading, it doesn’t appear to be illegal. Slate’s scenario, in which the content is backhandedly promotional rather than explicitly misleading, is probably more common than Samsung’s clumsy hatchet jobs or restaurant review fakers. I was not asked to write deliberately positive or negative comments, only to participate for pay and to share the posts on which I’d commented. There was no discussion of disclosure to the reader.

There are a few metaphors I like when it comes to content. Food and farming are my favorites. (I also like alliteration, but that’s not what this is about.)

I like the Amway heartbreak metaphor as well. Many years ago, I worked for a small company and I had a friendly workplace relationship with the admin. When she invited me (and my now ex) over to dinner, I was so pleased, but by the end of the evening I was disappointed and sad. They fed us dinner and asked us to join their Amway team. My feelings were hurt; it turned out I was a way for these people to make money, I was being buttered up and I felt mislead. The admin did not say “I’d like to feed you dinner and talk to you about joining my business.” The invitation appeared to be social. It was not.

When it comes to food and farming analogies, it’s pretty simple. I won’t feed my friends food simply because I was paid to do so, I have to also think it’s really good chow. And factory farming is absolutely not illegal, but it degrades the quality of our food and our environment. We recently failed to pass an initiative in Washington State requiring that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. I was disappointed, I thought we should get to know if it’s Frankenfood before we buy. It’s unlikely that there will ever be a enforceable legal requirement that paid content — which I think of as GMO writing —  be labeled as such, but I still think labeling is the right thing to do.

All the stuff around disclosure on the web is so muddy and not for a minute would I claim to be a legal expert. Ethics are self-defined, though the Public Relations Society of America has a short paper on pay for play here that says:

Disclosure must be requested in any pay for play situation. Journalists should be notified that any gift, or in-kind service in exchange for placement should be clearly disclosed to the reader, viewer, and listeners so they can make up their own minds about value, bias, accuracy and usefulness.

I raised the issue of disclosure and asked the PR flak if I could share the the PR company’s name, the name of their client, and the names of the commenters who chose to participate in this initiative. I’ll honor the “Please don’t,” response because contrary to what you might think, I’m not a complete monster. Plus, I suspect that the PR flak simply had not done their homework on this issue. But “Please don’t share my client’s name or mine” is a very different reaction than, “Oh, totally, disclose away, we’re all about transparency.”

Google is a whimsical master, one I simply refuse to serve. This pay for comment campaign is likely a somewhat dated SEO play, the Google monster likes a site with heartbeat.  It’s also a nod towards that awful “paid organic is the new SEO” remark in that it creates the appearance of engagement — much like those organized sharing groups favored by many bloggers. These tactics are common, effective when targeting an uneducated readership, and they’re totally legal. They’re also potentially reputation and creditability damaging. I certainly don’t want my name appearing in a place where dozens of people in my niche know I’ve engaged in undisclosed pay for play or that I’m sharing things for personal benefit, not because I stand behind their quality. What’s that do to the trust my readers have for me?

I explained the pay for play situation to a friend who works in retail and is wired but doesn’t do social media, not really. “Gosh,” he said,” why didn’t they just go to their existing customers and ask them to check out the site  and to share it with their people? I mean, they already use and like the product, why are they going to people they don’t even know?” That’s a pretty good question.

For years now, I’ve been saying that I don’t care who pays for your writing, as long as you’re giving me the good stuff. And lots of folks say that no one outside the virtual beltway of travel bloggers cares either, that readers simply do not care. I’m starting to change my mind on that. The least you can do if I sit down to read you is give me the good stuff, don’t waste my time by phoning it in. But I’m starting to wonder if we tell ourselves readers don’t care because it’s convenient to do so. Readers don’t know, I think, which is not the same as they don’t care. We can justify trading dinner money for some unlabeled content because the reader doesn’t care. If they don’t care, why should we?

We should care because it’s our job to tell the truth.  Our reputations are based in what we share and the terms under which we share it. “I was paid to write this comment” is such an absurd way to open a comment, yet I think it should be included if that’s what the terms were. “I got this thing for free but I still think it’s awesome,” is a less ridiculous application of disclosure and can actually help establish credibility. “I was paid to tell you about this,” is advertising, plain and simple, and if we don’t have a way to indicate to the audience that it’s an ad, we shouldn’t be doing it. It’s especially critical for independents — we don’t have fierce editors looking over our shoulders for lies, omissions, and hidden agendas.

Breathe deep and notice something: Nowhere did I say that pay for play content is bad by default. Nor did I say that advertorial sucks by default. I didn’t bash advertising; some of it is funny and clever and can be genuinely entertaining. What I argue for is disclosure. I want to know what I’m getting. And I think the least I can do for my readers is to let them know what they’re getting. I can label the, um, contents of my content.

If that seems like too much to ask for, well… the last question I’m going to ask is this: Why?

Image: Used car dealership postcard via The Boston Public Library on Flickr (Creative Commons)


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10 thoughts on “On Disclosure

  1. One of these days I’ll make it to Seattle and oh the rant session we’ll have about the state of the Internet. I recently had a company offer to pay me to write an article to pitch to magazines/websites. That felt icky, so I said no. They never did quite understand.

    • Also recently in my inbox, a guy who said he thought he could get my name in Conde Nast Traveler. Dude hadn’t done his homework, not even a little bit, because if he had, he’d have know that I was a regular contributor online for a year and then some.

      The OTHER thing that gets me is that this has become somehow a definition of what bloggers do. We’re for sale, for cheap, and we don’t care about journalistic ethics. Yay.

  2. Interesting blog post. In fact, if the PR contact offered to pay you in £ pound sterling, the currency of the United Kingdom, then I received the same e-mail. I deleted this e-mail, but was curious if anyone took the bait.

    After reading your blog post, perhaps she has learned the error of her ways?

    • Given that what was offered was not illegal, I’m not sure this is a “see the error of your ways” scenario. More a “Maybe I should read up on blogger/PR ethics and best practices” kind of thing?

      But if this tactic works and achieves the client’s goals, there’s no reason to stop doing it, is there? Again — NOT illegal.

  3. I was surprised when I found out that commenting on blog posts is a big business. What? You mean all these people aren’t just friends just wanting to share their opinion to help me out? Everyone on the internet isn’t just surfing around trying to share their knowledge out of the kindness of their hearts?
    I think the key for sponsored posts and reviews is really honesty. You can tell when a fake review is over the top, and it does erode credibility.
    I don’t care if you got something for free: if you tell me something useful or interesting and you’re *honest* I’ll take my time to read it.

    • Damn internet, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic!

      “You scratch my back…” is a pretty old way of doing business but I do remember a time when people genuinely were just conversing and sharing because they wanted to, not because they were being compensated to do so.

      Being honest includes discussing the terms, I reckon.

  4. BRAVO Pam!
    Full disclosure, I make my living “selling media” AKA a sales schmoe.
    A clearly disclosed distinction between “paid” media and “earned” media makes my job easier.
    Every form of media should have an ethics statement that clearly defines editorial policy and commercial policy. Here is one from a media company I represent: http://www.tnooz.com/ethics-statement/

  5. Totally admire your honesty and your sense of need to disclose. I know this is just ranting. But I agree on some things in this entry. Hats off to your honesty.

  6. Enjoyed the piece, Pam, as usual.

    Like James, I also like the idea of ethics statement. Mine is up, on the off chance I ever realise my plans of writing for my own site a bit more regularly. It’s not as comprehensive as James’s, perhaps because no one in their right mind would actually want to run an ad on my site. It’s perhaps a touch more flippant. But also: deadly serious…


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