The Art of Disclosure

This week has brought the full spectrum of social media engagement and ethics discussions.

Last week – a panel talk with two peers and 300 audience members at the City Club of Boise about the evolving role of social media engagement for businesses, media and our community. Attorney Lisa McGrath drove home the need for legal to be at the table and part of the thought process for all social media strategy. It’s an issue Red Sky has been advising our clients on, and adapting our own policies to address, as the medium continues to evolve. At its core – the FTC Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements & Testimonials in Advertising and the ethical and legal need for disclosure and transparency.

Last night  two colleagues and I found ourselves in the middle of a big brand sponsored social media event –  a VIP Tweetup at the new Nordstrom Rack in Boise two days before it opened to the public.

The invite to attend came from Nordstrom’s social media team and it promised a sneak peek, early-bird shopping, drinks, appetizers and a gift card. I went for several reasons:

  • Professionally: We’ve been on the organizing and coordinating end of several ‘buzz-building’ events for various clients that target consumers, social influencers and amateur and professional bloggers. We’ve seen the good and the not-so-good of how other agencies in Idaho and beyond engage with the social crowd. We wanted to experience how a large brand like Nordstrom ran their event.
  • Personally: While I’m not a fashionista, Nordstrom is one of those brands that makes me giddy (like Apple, Frye Boots, Texas Longhorns and Food Network.) And, I’m a sucker for getting to see and experience things before other people. Maybe that’s why I started out as a journalist. I like to know the scoop first.

Prior to attending the event my colleagues and I chatted about how we would disclose our participation. This was the first time we’d actually received the equivalent of payment (in this case a gift card) as part of an event. We’ve been invited to things for a sneak peek previously, but there was no monetary value exchanged. This time was different. We decided we would  tag each tweet with #ad or #sponsor to follow best practices and be transparent with Twitter followers. We also incorporated #RackOpening into the tweets to ensure ours were part of the overall feed and folks could see this was a sponsored event.

On a sidenote – Red Skyers have also begun tagging certain tweets we put out on our personal feeds with #client to identify when a tweet is tied to an individual, organization or company we receive payment from. I will admit to struggling with this one because I see my role as a connector and sharer of information – not a shill. I tweet about what I find interesting and think others might as well. But for full disclosure we have begun doing this and will continue to do so. Our @redskypr feed doesn’t currently utilize that hashtag because as a PR agency, we feel it is obvious we are tweeting on behalf of those we work with and for. Our bio states that.

Back to Nordstrom Rack.

From an attendee standpoint – they put on an amazing event. Great client service, engaging employees, a DJ, catered food, drinks, an overall fun atmosphere to drive home what the Nordstrom Rack experience is all about.

From a PR standpoint – I have to wonder about the disclosure aspect and where they would fall with FTC guidelines. All attendees were encouraged to tweet and use the #RackOpening hashtag. Those that did qualified for opportunities to win merchandise. Every attendee received a gift card to use in the store. While many spent far above and beyond that gift card – it is still providing monetary value. However, at no time did I see or experience any employee telling any attendee they had to tweet, what to share, and to only share positive reviews and feedback.

As I understand the guidelines – responsibility for ensuring disclosure falls on the company &/or agency. In this case, did the brand go far enough? When we work on behalf of brands and engage with bloggers where product is provided for review we make sure we communicate that there is no expectation of what they will share/write and that we expect them to abide by disclosure guidelines and make that clear in their posts/tweets/updates.

It was fascinating to see the discussion on Twitter around @Boise_Rack and #RackOpening. You had dozens of enthusiastic attendees and then you had quite a few media members crying foul. I did find it a tad bit hypocritical.

If we are enforcing disclosure of this nature on social media engagement – which I fully support – then I also think ‘traditional’ media should consider following suit for those times when they:

  • are ‘comp’d’ passes or tickets to ski resorts, sporting events, concerts or entertainment venues in order to cover a story or ‘experience the atmosphere’
  • receive swag and gear from state universities and sports teams for their anchors or sports reporters or discounted lodging or travel to cover sporting events
  • get sneak peeks and ‘eats’ at new culinary establishments
  • work for a news organization that is sponsoring an event, where monetary value or trade is exchanged as part of that sponsorship, and they promote said event to the community through social media channels

Bias and subjectivity and the need for transparency is everywhere – not just in the social media realm.

No one can disagree that full disclosure and transparency drives trust and understanding. It is when and where that disclosure is needed that is a grey area. It takes work and commitment to flesh out those instances. And we are not going to get it right every time.

What matters is that the dialogue continues, professional communicators ask the questions, collaborate on solutions and work to establish best practices and ethical behavior.

Our world is changing at the speed of thumbs. Our ability to adapt our behaviors in the interest of transparency must keep pace.

- Jess Flynn

 

 

For those in the market that

9 Comments

  1. Jeannette Duwe says:

    Jess – this is an extremely thoughtful article. As a colleague I appreciate your insights. You make some excellent points that we all – as practitioners navigating the ever-changing world of social media – need to be mindful of. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Kelly Cross says:

    Good read, Jess! Thanks :)

  3. David C. Smith says:

    Jess,

    I did see your tweet(s) from the event and noticed the #ad tag. Mind you, I didn’t spend a great deal of time analyzing or trying to determine the significance of this, but I did notice. It stood out to me because I understood there was more to the story than the simple tag. I put it in the “think about that later” file and I guess later is this morning.

    Thank you for disclosing and presenting such a clear view on such an unclear topic. As thoughts on this subject mature we should be aware of where the lines of promotion, transparency, and personal interest intersect and cross. When a person is synonymous with a brand or business the lines, and the awareness, of where they cross are even more important.

    Experience tells us that an act that diminishes trust can be easily done. Recovering that trust cannot. I think your proactive thoughts and actions support that concept.

    I applaud you (and your follow RedSkyers) for recognizing the issue and bringing it into the conversation. Your thoughts and leadership are appreciated.

  4. Dani Grigg says:

    Interesting stuff. I think this was a great idea for Nordstrom. They gave people something to talk about, and they talked about it. The people were being paid, basically, to talk, but they weren’t being told what to say. So Nordstrom was willing to pay both the supporters of and the detractors to their cause. Everyone was, I’m sure, feeling warm fuzzies toward the Rack because of the payment, so that would have skewed their opinions, but these aren’t news organizations we’re talking about. Individual consumers are allowed to be wooed by a company.

    I’m not sure the “ad” tag was entirely appropriate–I think that implies that you’re being paid to say something nice. But I do think it’s good to let your followers know what the situation was. On twitter that’s difficult. If it were a blog post, you could explain that you were invited and received food and drinks and a gift card but weren’t told what to say, but you can’t fit all that info into a hash tag. So I think I’d just start with a tweet explaining the situation and introducing your “rackopening” tag, and then proceed to tweet like you normally would.

    I’d hold people representing news organizations to a higher standard, though. I don’t think payment should influence what they talk about. Where you draw the line is hard, though… don’t they provide drinks and snacks to reporters at the Capitol?

    This is getting too long. I recognize that you’re not the typical “individual consumer” because of your job. But I think if you’re tweeting from your personal account, that brings you close enough.

  5. Scott Nicholson says:

    Interesting case study, ‘eh? Especially since we just touched on this subject at City Club last week. When the issue came up last night, I was a little caught off guard and also intrigued.

    I read the referenced guidelines. I’m no expert (at all) on this subject matter, but I’ve read thousands of state & federal regulations and guidelines before. I have in fact, successfully been an expert witness against federal agencies who have misinterpreted their own regulations.

    In this case, the guideline establishes that (in summary form) advertisements featuring paid spokespeople must have a disclaimer. Payment can be in the form of payments or free products. I found this part of the release to be interesting and pointed… “the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement.”

    I can only speak for myself, but we were not asked to review or even comment on the Nordstrom Rack opening. Could it have been implied? I’m not sure. I saw lots of fun tweets & I saw some critical tweets.

    Could it have been that certain people were invited just for their noise? That’s a little different nuance. It’s not an endorsement, per se.

    I did find it interesting during last night’s discussion that a local sports authority / writer was receiving payment in kind for promoting a local sports bar. That was interesting & it seems that should have been disclosed, but what about when people with a social presence are invited to an event, where the sponsor doesn’t ask for endorsements, but it is reasonable to expect those same people to be actively commenting?

    It’ll be interesting to hear more.

    • Lisa McGrath says:

      Scott,

      As you will find in the language of the FTC Guides below, the mere giving of cash or in-kind payments in order to spur sales and generate word of mouth buzz triggers the requirement of disclosure and the advertiser (here, Nordstrom) must also monitor the endorsers to make sure they disclose. Nordstrom didn’t have to specifically ask people to tweet (even though they did) in order to make them subject to the FTC Guides.

      “Advertisers who sponsor these
      endorsers (either by providing free
      products – directly or through a
      middleman – or otherwise) in order to
      generate positive word of mouth and
      spur sales should establish procedures
      to advise endorsers that they should
      make the necessary disclosures and to
      monitor the conduct of those
      endorsers.”

  6. Brandy Chenoweth says:

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on this, Jess! I certainly did not expect the kind of backlash that this event created. However, like you and Scott, I don’t feel like Nordstrom Rack ever explicitly told someone to tweet about their store, products, or event. I am familiar with the guides (and was before the event), but also had the understanding that the relationship must only be disclosed if content is guaranteed. While Nordstrom did point out the hashtag that they were using that night to me, they never asked me to tweet about it. I don’t understand how this is different than any other community event, such as Ignite Boise.

    This has definitely created some food for thought, though! Thank you again for your insight as a PR professional!

  7. Brian says:

    Really fascinating discussion. I was aware of some controversy over this but hadn’t followed it closely.

    I think the real question is, how is what Nordstrom’s did any different from a regular PR stunt just because Tweeting is now involved? I mean, if it were 30 years ago and Nordstrom’s did the same thing (giving away gift cards/coupons based on customer referrals) would there be a similar uproar?

    If Nordstrom’s had organized tweeters ahead of time, with the guarantee of free products or merchandise upon their arrival and subsequent tweeting, then I could see it being a clear conflict and violation of what I’d consider to be ethical internal disclosure policies (I’m not an expert on FTC guidlines so I’m just going by my own judgment). But to invite individuals without any guarantee of any type of payment, then reward them for tweeting either positive or negative reviews, doesn’t seem like anything but a clever PR move. Perhaps the FTC rules disagree, but that’s my take!

Leave a Comment