Raising the Disclosure Standard

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today that raises interesting questions about bloggers who have advisory or financial relationships with the companies they write about. The question is whether there is or should be a duty to disclose that relationship.

Obviously there is a duty to disclose this stuff, particularly when the relationship will or could result in financial gain for the blogger. The blogger has a duty to his or her readers and the company has a duty to potential investors and customers, especially if the company is encouraging the bloggers to write helpful stories (and merely putting a blogger on some board would be considered encouraging).

While as far as I can tell most of the folks in the FON situation did disclose their relationship with the company, some are being criticized for not going far enough to explain the relationship. I suspect that any failure to clearly explain the relationship was not the result of a desire to conceal, but merely an oversight. That’s why it’s good to talk about this issue so we’ll all remember to make clear disclosures in the future.

Because if we don’t we will and should be criticized.

Speaking positively on your blog about a company you have a financial interest in without disclosing it is no different than hiring people to post positive stuff on a message board. It’s probably worse, since many bloggers are considered to be authorities on the stuff they write about.

Not to mention that bloggers are often the first to call someone out for not doing the right thing. If we want to be a check, then we have to be balanced.

We can’t have it both ways. The Goose and Gander Rule applies to everyone.

Mark Evans agrees. Paul Kedrosky sums up the issue very well:

[T]his is serious stuff, and it is a reminder to all of us that whether you call yourself a pro or not, with a large online audience comes responsibility. You’re kidding yourself — and playing fast and loose with your readers — if you think otherwise.

Darwinian Web has a survey of posts by the FON Advisory Board, and concludes that while none of the members did anything wrong, we need to strive for clearer disclosures. I agree on both points. If we want to be read, we have to be trusted. If that means we have to err on the side of too much disclosure, so be it.

I think the old media will try to make a mountain out of every molehill (witness the huge effort to make a scandal out of the understandable and appropriate censoring of the Stones’ half-time show during the Superbowl). So while I’ve seen no evidence that anyone has done anything intentionally wrong in the FON case, now that we’ve talked about it, the disclosure standard has been raised a little.

And that’s a good thing for everyone.

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