«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Blogging, like any public relations tactic, must be part of a broader plan for effective communications and, most important, pursue and uphold ethical standards” (2005, p. 38). When considering bloggers who review products for companies, the practice of relationship building between consumers and public relations practitioners is both complicated and enhanced by the presence of a blogger as an intermediary. While public relations practitioners may lose some control over the message, they also benefit from the credibility of bloggers whose readers might describe them as “people like myself.” Public relations practitioners must manage the relationships between themselves and bloggers just as bloggers must manage the relationships between themselves and their readers.
The present study explored reactions to the FTC guidelines, changes to the practice of blogging, and the ethical responsibility of both bloggers and public relations practitioners. The
following questions were addressed in this research:
142 RQ1: How did mommy bloggers respond via their blogs to the FTC guidelines?
RQ2: How and why do mommy bloggers engender trust and credibility among their readers and maintain transparency?
RQ3: What recommendations can be provided to the public relations industry to maintain positive relationships with bloggers?
To address the research questions, the 15 “Mom Approved” blogs of Nielsen’s Power Mom 50 were analyzed to determine how they specifically addressed the FTC guidelines on their blogs. The Power Mom 50, compiled in 2009 by Nielsen Online, is described as “a collection of leading voices in the mom blogosphere based on a blend of blog posts, comments, and link love developed through ongoing monitoring of more than 10,000 mom and parenting blogs as tracked by Nielsen Buzzmetrics” (Nielsen Online, 2009). Furthermore, “in addition to site engagement, number of Twitter followers, ratings, and other metrics were included in the calibration to provide a comprehensive sphere of authority and influence.” The 15 “Mom Approved” bloggers are described as “mom bloggers who trial, sample, and review product (often brand-sponsored).” These bloggers were selected as the focus of this study based on their level of expertise in the area of product reviews and the potential impact of the FTC rules on their blogging practices.
The 15 blogs are listed below:
This second part of this study involved structured interviews with mom bloggers. All 15 “Mom Approved” bloggers were contacted via e-mail in early 2010 and asked to answer 14 questions focusing on ethical responsibility, reaction to the FTC guidelines, and their relationship with marketers and public relations practitioners. The interview guide is included in Appendix 1.
Of the 15 “Mom Approved” bloggers, interviews were conducted with seven bloggers including two who wished to remain anonymous (Anonymous A and B).
Analytic induction was employed to analyze the qualitative data. The process involved reviewing transcripts and blog posts for themes and categories, creating a schema from the initial interviews and posts, and then refining the themes and categories based on the final set of interviews and posts (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984).
Response to FTC guidelines A total of five of the 15 “Mom Approved” Power Mom 50 bloggers specifically discussed the FTC guidelines on their blogs. These blogs included Mom Start, The Dirty Shirt, Robyn’s Online World, Jolly Mom, and From Dates to Diapers. When asked why they discussed the guidelines, answers ranged from it being a current topic to needing to express an opinion about the issue.
I did discuss it on my blog, so that I could vent. My blog is where I can express my voice and I just needed to get out my opinion so that I would feel better.— Louise Bishop, Mom Start, from interview The following sections analyze and categorize the nature of discussion about the FTC guidelines on these five blogs as well as the responses to the interview questions. These sections discuss the general reactions by the blogging community, the opportunity to use the revised guidelines as an opportunity to educate readers, and several items creating confusion.
Reactions by blogging community. Although bloggers may have had some initial reservations, those who believe they were already blogging ethically are generally not expressing strong reactions to the FTC’s guidelines.
I have always tried to let my readers know when I received something in relation to my post, but the FTC just wants to make sure everyone is very clear about it. I have no problem with that at all since I have never tried to hide it to start with.— Robyn Wright, Robyn’s Online World, from blog I was concerned at first, but after I read them I realized that while it affects me being a product and brand reviewer, I was already letting people know that I received free products.—Jennifer Leet, The Dirty Shirt, from interview
Ethical bloggers perceive that disgruntled bloggers are the ones who have not been disclosing relationships and free products. Themes of free speech rights are also prevalent.
Some bloggers are complaining about free speech and the right to say what I want to say. I think those are the ones that are overreacting. And maybe also the ones that aren’t following the rules already. You have the right to say what you want to say. Consumers just want to know if you were influenced to say that.—Louise Bishop, Mom Start, from blog Some bloggers consider the new guidelines as a positive change. As Christine Young of From Dates to Diapers explained on her blog, “The Federal Trade Commission sees us as real and positive influencers.” Others had stronger reactions, thinking the guidelines were too extreme or that they singled out certain groups of bloggers.
I thought it was a bit much at first, and not clearly laid out, but now I just go with it.—Anonymous B, from interview My initial reaction was anger, but then I realized I was already doing it. I sort of jumped on the bandwagon that most moms were on. They felt singled out, but the rules are for all blogs, and there are a lot of bloggers out there that go on trips, get free games and game consoles and never mention that in their review.—Louise Bishop, Mom Start, from interview I think it’s a crock – there are lots of other “groups” that get things all the time and they don’t have the same type of rules.—Robyn Wright, Robyn’s Online World, from interview Educating readers. The FTC guidelines have prompted some bloggers to educate readers about the freebies or compensation they receive as a blogger. Robyn Wright of Robyn’s Online World
explained the practices of marketers to her readers:
Generally it means that a company has sent me a free product or coupon for a free product because they want me to review it for them. You see my reviews here on my blog and the types of items I review - we aren’t talking about things that cost thousands of dollars or anything - mostly just household stuff, food items, gadgets, games, etc. Sometimes there is a promotion that does not involve an actual product, but rather a service or something and for those sometimes I get small gift cards as thank-you’s or a small gift item.
Sometimes you will see that notation but only because the company is giving me a prize to give to a reader. In these cases I am not even getting the product - but instead just sharing some goodies with my readers. —Robyn Wright, Robyn’s Online World, from blog Issues creating confusion. Most bloggers acknowledge that the FTC guidelines work for certain straightforward situations. For example, if a blogger receives a free product and discusses it on her blog, she can easily add a disclosure statement that the product was provided free by the company. Other situations are not as straightforward. For example, Louise Bishop of the blog Mom Start describes a relationship with a company where compensation in the form of travel expenses were provided and then disclosed in a blog post. She continues by describing her lack of understanding of whether she should reiterate this compensation in subsequent mentions.
Also, let’s say I went on a blogging trip for a company like Sara Lee. They wanted me to fully disclose everything. I did, once, but I’m continuing to work with them without further compensation. I just really liked what I learned from them. Do I need to disclose every detail of that one trip (I’m not sure I even disclosed EVERY single detail of the trip the first time around), every time I write about Sara Lee, because what if you are a new reader and you didn’t read about my trip? The same thing goes for Marshalls and Sears. Does this mean that they bought me and own me now in the eyes of the FTC?—Louise Bishop, Mom Start, from blog Some have noted that the guidelines do not apply to traditional media. One blogger explains why social media are held to a higher standard. Furthermore, other bloggers felt that the guidelines were specifically targeting mommy bloggers.
Our blogs and Twitter streams are where moms are looking for honest opinions on the best strollers on the market and whether or not kids really do like V8 VFusion. Why? Because we are real parents and are trusted voices.—Christine Young, From Dates to Diapers, from blog While the new FTC guidelines do not bother me in the least bit – in fact I think it’s great to have a regulatory body and a set of standards – I do think there is a double standard. What about newspapers, magazines, movie ad placements, and so forth?—Piera Jolly, Jolly Mom, from blog The only thing I am concerned about is that it seems bloggers are being treated a bit harsher than other forms of media. Especially “Mommy Bloggers.”— Anonymous B, from interview Engendering trust and credibility through transparency
cultivating trust among readers. The next sections discuss the notion of ethical responsibility by bloggers, disclosure practices, and honesty in reviews of free products and services.
Ethical responsibility. When asked about their ethical responsibility to readers (the first question of the survey), three participants explained how they disclose relationships with marketers, one described blogging honestly about products, and two spoke more generally about how being honest leads to having loyal readers. Words like honesty and transparency were prevalent in the responses.
It is the bloggers responsibility to inform their readers that they received a product for free. I have always felt that telling my readers “I received this product” was telling them that I received it for free.—Louise Bishop, Mom Start, from interview My personal guidelines and my ethical responsibility to my readers is to be as honest and as transparent as possible. I discuss the pros and cons of products as I or members of my family sees them and require a hands on approach to testing a product out. I don’t just say something is good or something works without actually knowing if it is or does.—Jennifer Leet, The Dirty Shirt, from interview I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility! I am a person who stands behind my word and would like to be considered an honest person. I believe that I have loyal readers because of this.—Anonymous B, from interview I believe that my readers come first. Without them, my blog has no value. As a result, I am always honest with them about all of my relationships.—Piera Jolly, Jolly Mom Disclosure practices. Three words of advice are provided by Piera Jolly of Jolly Mom on her
blog: “Transparency. Disclosure. Honesty.” She continued by making a case for disclosure:
This (disclosure) is important for several reasons. One, your readers. They need to know how you acquired the product, if you have a relationship with the company, and so on for there to be a trusting relationship. Trust and mutual respect is paramount in every relationship—including the one that you have with your readers. You lose your readers’ trust—you lose your readers. —Piera Jolly, Jolly Mom, from blog Some bloggers were already following the guidelines of the FTC and no changes were necessary. Some are displaying new practices that emerged as a result of the guidelines.
Many bloggers are adopting a blanket disclaimer to address the practice of accepting free products or services. This disclaimer is often available on a tab of the blog or in the sidebar.
See Table 1 for a summary.
A brief statement of disclosure is also sometimes attached to blog posts. Jennifer Leet of The Dirty Shirt created logos to indicate in a post when a product was provided free (“Product Provided” logo) and when she was compensated for the post (“Compensated” logo). Another ends each post with the message “This is a sponsored/compensated post”. A final recommendation is to disclose the relationship in the text of the blog post itself and to place a standard disclaimer at the end of the post.