Do People Really Care About PR Disclosure? And Why It Still Matters

Do people really care about disclosure by PR agencies when it comes to activities for their clients?

I don’t mean those of us in the fishbowl or in the PR industry, but the average person on the streets. Do they really care if a company’s representatives are in-house or contracted? Businessman about to reveal identityDo they care if a PR agency (or any other agency) is acting on behalf of a company, if they have the authority to do so?

Does the average person care about disclosure?

Those of us living in the fishbowl (social media and/or public relations) love to discuss the concept of disclosure. I should know – I’ve written about disclosure several times in the past.

A post yesterday from Jason Chupick over a PR agency’s disclosure (or lack thereof) of their role in a video for AT&T, and subsequent tweet by Todd Defren, sparked an interesting conversation on Twitter with Beth Harte, Sonny Gill, Arik Hanson and myself.

Essentially, as Jason’s post put it:

“Last week AT&T responded to criticism about the delays the MMS service for IPhones, as well as the device’s network-hogging tendency by way of a “Seth the Blogger Guy” YouTube video […] Seth is neither a blogger, nor does he work at AT&T. He’s just the face of the team doing the work.”

Our subsequent discussion revolved around whether the average person in the street would care that someone from AT&T’s PR agency starred in the video without disclosure.

My take: if most people in the world don’t have a clue what a PR agency is, or the nature of the client/agency relationship, are they likely to care about disclosure from agencies? Probably not. They’re more likely to care about the quality of the product/service they’re buying or the responsiveness of customer service than about who is speaking on behalf of the company.

Disclosure still matters

As the title of this post suggests, though, I think disclosure by PR agencies is important regardless of the importance the average person puts on it, for three primary reasons:

  1. De-railing your message – whether the average person cares or not, controversy courts the press. There’s no better way to derail your message than to create controversy about the medium.
  2. Industry reputation – controversy over disclosure can haunt you for years. Stories like Wal-Marting Across America or the AllIWantForXmasIsAPSP blog still reverberate around the industry. Is that what you want you or your company to be remembered for?
  3. Ethics – when I finish my work for a day, I want to feel good about it. While lack of disclosure isn’t necessarily the same as deception, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I’m doing best job I can.

On top of these reasons, if I’m right and the average person doesn’t care who’s communicating on behalf of a company, then where’s the downside to disclosing? The main argument for not disclosing tends to be that admitting it’s not the company speaking directly can lessen the effectiveness of the communication. If that’s not the case, then what?

Bottom line: I don’t think most people care about disclosure. The social media/PR echo chamber does, but I’m not sure the concern extends to the broader public. Regardless, though, I think disclosure is still important. We’re firm on disclosing our activities on behalf of clients, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

What do you think?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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  • Dave, interesting I certainly think it’s good practice to disclose a client when you are sharing something on behalf of one. If it stops unethical PR and SEO companies pretending to be customers on forums then that must be a good thing. However, it can be difficult to fit in a disclosure into a tweet when you only have 140 characters anyway. Personally, I would always recommend disclosure to my clients as it’s best practice and then you can’t go too far wrong. That said you are right about the average person not knowing what a PR agency is but that doesn’t mean it should enables us to mislead people – I say be as transparent as you possibly can.

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  • Chris – I completely agree – PR agencies shouldn’t be misleading people. I’m very firm on that.

    I think astroturfing is a separate issue – pretending to be a customer, rather than acting as a representative of the company without disclosure. One is deliberately deceptive, the other is more a sin of ommission. Still, they’re closely related and I think both are a bad idea.

    I gave some thoughts on astroturfing a couple of weeks ago in response to another incident: http://davefleet.com/2009/08/astroturfing-online-reviews-3-reasons-bad-idea/

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  • I think if the campaign goes well, and everyone involved is a hero, then people don’t care about disclosure.

    But, if the sh*t hits the fan, then people search for accountability and look back — ruefully — with hindsight about the disclosure issue.

    By then, of course, it’s too late!

    Cheers,
    @johncarson

  • It might be the nature social circles i revolve at, but my take is that average person especially in North America does care about disclosure.

    Over here we are being bombarded by so many marketing messages in so many different formats that with a time person learns intuitively to distinguish between advertisiment and not. I think nothing pisses person of more than when they found out what was supposed to be an authentic message was just another form of promotion. By providing disclosure you give person a an opportunity to a person to make a “knowing” choice to either buy into your message or not.
    p.s. I personally liked how you guys disclosed Zoompass as your client in your tweets

  • Mark B.

    I worked in recruitment advertising, often writing about jobs which, in all honesty, I hadn’t the slighest clue about what the work entailed. All advertising is based on some form of lie. PR is no different. It’s a game of deception. That’s the number one rule. Ethical deception? Nice one, that’s got me giggling.

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  • Overall, I don’t think the average consumer cares whether the person is disclosed or not, they ultimately want good service and a good produce. But, that doesn’t mean they want to be mislead. So regardless of the nature of your consumers or the social space, disclosure is important and unintentional or not, misleading either group isn’t a healthy diet.

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  • Dan Rosenfeld

    Does the public care? As you were getting at – how could they care about something that they don’t know about? They can’t. So I think you are right – they don’t care.

    Does disclosure still matter? Again, I agree with you. It does. Take Michael Vick who has done some good PR recently. If the public, as a whole, knew that it was PR pros putting words into his mouth, they may think differently about his sincerity. It’s similar for companies and individuals, though it feels different. Maybe disclosure “lessens the effectiveness of the communication.” Maybe not. Regardless, it should be up to the public to decide.

  • Dave,

    Taking off my hat as a PR professional and putting on my customer hat… While interested in the quality of service provided to me by an organization, I feel disclosure is important for the simple fact of being honest and up-front. Nobody likes to be misled and I want to be associated with authentic brands. Maybe that’s just my personal values…

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  • Good read, I will say that disclosure should matter to one’s on integrity, without disclosure you open yourself to be considered less trust worthy. We all know companies didn’t get it in the beginning, but I’m sure they understand the backlash now.

  • No, it does not matter IN ADVERTISING. It DOES matter in social media. In other words, if AT&T hires an outside agency to talk to “fans” on Facebook, then it should be noted, otherwise it becomes disingenuous. If it is an actor on TV, people understand that it’s an actor. Besides, most people (and not saying “in the world” because my opinion is only that of an American consumer) don’t believe commercials anyway, and know it’s only actors.

  • I think disclosure matters. No, it doesn’t matter to the average consumer very often — probably rarely if ever. But as professionals, it should matter to us, and that’s what’s important. It’s our responsibility to make sure we do disclose when we are working for/promoting someone.

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  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but there was disclosure. He says his name is Seth and he is with AT&T. Both of those things are true. He is paid by AT&T albeit through FH, and the fact that he is an AT&T advocate seems pretty clear to me. So are people saying he should say,”I’m Seth and I’ve worked on the AT&T account for 8 years here at Fleishman-Hillard?” PR people are quite often quoted as spokespeople for a company.

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  • Looking back to a discussion the community had in 2005 the evidence and research suggests disclosure is the right action to take, both from an ethical perspective and from a business case.

    Dr. Walter Carl, then of Northeastern University conducted a word of mouth study on disclosure. The study results revealed that people were more likely to recommend a product when it was revealed there was a connection between the person making the recommendation and the organization that benefits.

    BzzAgent a WOM company changed its rules for disclosure and WOMMA updated their rules. Not quite related to PR I know, but I think the research does have some interesting bearing on this example.

    The study was conducted with a lot of ordinary people, so I think that it does address some of the issues you discuss here.

    BzzAgent to Agents: Spill the Beans, Or Else
    See http://www.clickz.com/3568651

    the tell or not to tell report.
    http://wom-study.blogspot.com/2006/01/to-tell-or-not-to-tell-research-report.html

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  • Definitely agree with you on the need for disclosure. Coming from the research side, the information needs to have a reference point for audiences to connect with. Whether that’s the brand equity of my research organization or the disclosure that it was done on behalf of a company, that statement needs to be shared so that the content is being distributed honestly and openly to the media.

  • Two questions on disclosure I’ve wrestled with:

    1) How do you handle it if you don’t have permission to reveal your client’s identity–even outright prohibited–and that company’s name comes up in an online discussion you’re having?

    2) For how long after an engagement ends must you continue to disclose that relationship in an online posting? For example, if Molson was last your client 3 years ago but you’re blogging about them today–and on an issue not materially connected to your work 3 years ago–do you still need to disclose?

    Curious for your or others’ take, Dave. Great topic!

    Bryan | @BryanPerson

  • I think there should be disclosure in Social Media. Just because you are communicating more one on one and no one wants to talk to a logo. They want to know who they are talking too.

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