This morning, Len Kendall, past guest on The BeanCast and co-founder of the3six5 project, posed a question on Posterous: Should the need for disclosure also extend to when you discuss a client's competitor?
Len proposed a tag similar to what is currently adopted for clients. When someone posts a positive statement about a client we use the tag #client. So maybe when talking about a competitor we should use a similar tag like #competitor.
It's a great point. But then Matt Ridings, of Social Fresh fame, pointed me toward a post he wrote about how even the basic disclosure is still overlooked. His point is that we need to be more proactive about self-policing all our tweets to be disclosing clients.
That's when it hit me that all of this is madness.
To be clear, I agree in heart with both of these men and I respect them greatly. I also need to state adamantly that active deception is unacceptable. (Matt's example of running both sides of a brand conversation with a fake customer is particular reprehensible.) But are we really responsible for disclosing each and every tweet that comes out?
The guidance from many lawyers is that the safe thing to do is disclose everything. But for me the heart of the issue is whether we should consider Twitter, Facebook or other social venues as a series of independent statements, or a conversation that is being archived on a Web site?
Twitter, even in its own promotional tagline, says, "Join the Conversation." So if this is a conversation, is it enough to disclose once during a conversation or are we responsible for each individual, potentially retweetable statement that we make?
In almost any other media, one disclosure in the course of a conversation would be enough. For instance, on a blog we wouldn't need to disclose our client affiliation in every comment on a blog post that already disclosed the relationship. Or in a TV interview we wouldn't need to do more that state our affiliation up front, at the end of the conversation or just have a lower-third graphic that appears for a few seconds. There is a tacit acceptance in all other media that a conversation is taken as a whole, and a single disclosure per conversation is all that is needed. So why should we treat Twitter or Facebook any differently.
Obviously this is a simplification of a very complex issues. For instance, I wouldn't go so far as to say that one disclosure on your Twitter account is enough, forever and ever, amen. But shouldn't one disclosure per active conversation with another Twitter user be enough?
The current understanding of the FTC's nebulous guidance is troubling and demands some active challenges. To me it's a clear example of a government body misunderstanding the context of what it's regulating, and advertisers being fearful of running afoul of regulations they don't understand.
What are your thoughts on the issue? I'd love to keep this debate going.