Social Media Grows Up: Its Got Ethics Now

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

A long, long time ago — say around the early part of 2009 — the social media landscape was much like the American Wild West of the late 19th century:  An unregulated place full of digital desperadoes who answered to no one.  Okay, enough with the hyperbole.

But last December, the Federal Trade Commission published new guidelines governing the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertisements, including those involving blogs.   Here’s what stood out to me from the FTC announcement:

“The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

This topic, and others involving ethical practices in social media and the blogosphere, were brought to light during a luncheon panel discussion September 14 hosted by the Chicago Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.  Since this is a discussion of ethics and open disclosure, I’ll get this out of the way now: I’m an appointed member to the PRSA Chicago Board of Directors.

The panel was comprised of three really smart, digitally-savvy people:

  • Phil Gomes, SVP of Digital for Edelman in Chicago.
  • Bill Bonner, Senior Director of External Relations for Office Max.
  • Sherri Maxson, Director of Digital Marketing for DeVry University.

David Kamerer, PhD, Assistant Professor a the Loyola University School of Communications, moderated the discussion.

There.  I provided attribution for what’s next.  I posted links to the people above based on what I found in a Google search.  Here are a few thoughts shared by the group, in no particular order of importance.  I didn’t record the conversation, so please accept by paraphrase.

On Ethics in Social Media:

Sherri:  Journalists are now bloggers, but not all bloggers were journalists.
Phil: One blogger presented a “contract” that was required in exchange for product coverage.
Bill: I hope that some day someone establishes a “Blogger Accreditation Council.”

Regarding Online Tracking of Internet Use:

Sherri: It’s needed to help sort through all of the content that’s available online.
Phil:  When you sit in front of a computer, that’s the world in a window. It’s a personalized experience.

What’s in the Future:

Sheri:  Groupon is becoming more relevant to location.  If you use Foursquare, be smart about revealing too much information.
Phil:  All companies will take social media more seriously. Domino’s did not have a Twitter acc0unt during the 2009 YouTube fiasco. They had to start one.
Bill: Layar, a “Beautiful, fun augmented reality app that shows you things you can’t see,” will be the next hot development.

There were a few other great topics of interest, but I ran out of room on sheet of paper I was using for notes; and, I wanted to finish my tiramisu. Now, my thoughts on the issue of ethics in social media.

  1. The 2009 FTC improved guidelines are just what’s needed; but is there the means in place to enforce them?
  2. When I studied journalism, I was taught to understand and report news accurately and without bias.  Are colleges teaching ethical practices that pertain to social media?
  3. Bloggers have a lot more power over how a brand is perceived than many people believe.  Are brand managers strategically targeting bloggers with messages that are different from messages sent through the “mainstream” media?

As an ethical blogger, I must disclose that the three questions above were made up by me.  Honest.

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