Social Truth - Ethics, Law and You

by Matt Ridings on Jun 08, 2010

Being involved in the social media consulting circles I tend to see more than my fair share of what these people post and tweet.  One disturbing trend that I have been seeing lately is a complete lack of disclosure taking place.

While this used to be a very gray area when it came to blogging, twitter, etc. the more recent FTC guidelines have attempted to clarify this.  And while it might be an interesting exercise to dig into that 80+ page document and try and explain line by line what it means, it would also be boring as hell.  Much of the focus to date has been on the disclosure of gifts, monies, etc. in exchange for favorable blogging/reviews.

Isn’t This Just About Blogs?

In the consulting world it is more often the case that our conflicts of interest revolve around who our clients are.

Suffice it to say that through the FTC document, on the record comments they’ve made, and various Truth In Advertising guidelines they have made it clear that you have to disclose conflicts of interest and/or things of material value that would have an influence on the information you are publishing.

This applies just as much to Twitter and Facebook posts as to blog posts.  Yes, you must fit your disclosure into your 140 character tweets.

Ethics Schmethics

So that’s the “legal” side of things (note that what the FTC publishes are actually “guidelines”, which are then actionable via lawsuits/fines, it’s semantics in the end but just wanted to be clear).

And while that may be the more serious side, I’d like to focus my attention here predominantly on the ethics side.  Namely because I want to hear your feedback on various scenarios of what is and is not ethical.  The real value of this post will be in these comments, not my opinions.  To that end, here are your scenarios,  remember I’m looking for your response on ethics and not law, we already know that some of the scenarios mentioned are technically illegal:

1. Is it ok to promote your client through tweets, Facebook posts, Yelp/YouTube reviews, etc. without disclosing that they are your client?

2. Is it ok to have your friends & family promote your client without disclosure, and does it matter if they are not receiving any direct compensation for doing so?  Obviously they have a interest in your success.

3. Is it ok to present “false dialogs” as a means of putting your client in the spotlight? (false dialogs are when you actually control the clients Facebook or Twitter account and make it appear as if ‘they’ are having a conversation with ‘you’ when in reality you are on both ends of the conversation.  In some cases this may be a broad base of accounts, perhaps you have established hundreds of generic twitter accounts for example which have these ‘dialogs’ in public)

4. Do any limitations exist regarding staff in your organization? (is it ok for the receptionist to tweet positively about a hair stylist who also happens to be your client…i.e. even though there is no intentional deception, is it important to insure you maintain the appearance of avoiding conflicts of interest?)

5. What can you do where a client relationship is confidential? The vast bulk of my clients are confidential, does that mean that I have to avoid saying anything positive about them since I can’t disclose that they are a client?

6. Let’s make things a little harder.  What if the Huffington Post were Chris Brogan’s client (they are not to my knowledge), if he re-tweets a positive statement *someone else* said positively about them is that kosher?

    I think many of these answers will come down to ‘intent’ where ethics are concerned, but I’m interested to hear your viewpoints.  And one last question, do you think the rash of non-disclosures I’m seeing is happening simply due to ignorance or is it a blatant disregard of law and ethics?

    I look forward to hearing what comments, questions, and new scenarios you come up with.

    Cheers,

    Matt Ridings – @techguerilla

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    As CEO for MSR Consulting, Matt has the privilege to consult for a variety of progressive organizations ranging from name brand enterprises to nascent startups while leveraging his background as a creative problem solver and strategic thinker. Matt...