Should bloggers have to reveal their true identity?

The introduction of the Unfair Commercial Practises Directive, supposedly in force from May 26th 2008,  opened a can of worms on disclosure in social media and the blogosphere, a realm previously governed by the relative lack of censorship that the internet provides us.

A key component of the Unfair Commercial Practises Directive is that “a commercial practice shall be regarded as misleading if it contains false information and is therefore untruthful or in any way, including overall presentation, deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer, even if the information is factually correct, in relation to one or more of the following elements, and in either case causes or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise.

Blogging and social media in general is now a well-used form of marketing activity – which is indeed used in somewhat more under hand ways by some than others.

We’ve seen huge backlashes against fake blogs, or “flogs”, with companies such as Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and McDonalds finding themselves in a middle of a huge PR crisis when their marketing blogs were exposed to be engineered PR exercises in themselves.

A recent Times article purported, (with not a lot of supporting evidence, mind) that “fake bloggers will soon be ‘named and shamed’ ..”. Under the Unfair Commercial Practises Directive, it can be interpreted that fake blogs deceive consumers … and the authors should be (digitally) flogged until they give everyone who bought something as a result of it their money back, and never allowed anywhere near the internet ever again. (In the interests of disclosure, I admit that last part is not strictly true.)

This blogger is certainly rather sceptical of this directive, as I’ve always considered the internet to be the last bastion of free speech, and I believe that as recent corporate blunders have shown, the online community is fairly capable of spotting a fake blog and discrediting it without the need for more legislation which potentially threatens the privacy and freedom of speech of the average Joe.

Don’t get me wrong – you won’t get much support from me for the short-sighted “guerrilla” marketing tactics of certain PR and advertising firms and the clients they talk into funding this kind of activity. But, we are exposed to false advertising, censorship, media spin and just outright lies on a daily basis in other media channels already, and so I can’t see how this “Directive” will do much to change things, as it will be almost impossible to police while introducing unnecessary red tape to the online media world. So why should bloggers be prevented from hiding their identity, thus protecting their privacy, if they choose?

The real focus of this legislation, however, is not targeting personal blogs but preventing corporate organisations from posing as consumers in blogs and social media campaigns, or publishing material, without associating it with their company or product.

This can be seen as a good thing – although I am still inclined to believe that this sort of thing regulates itself on the internet. It’s much more fun when big corporations with loads of money get brought to their knees by the blogging community when they mess up, and it sends a strong message re-inforcing the power of the consumer. (And this kind of regulation isn’t funded by the tax-payer.)

Corporate bloggers need to accept that in dabbling in social media, you are opening your company up to public scrutiny, and if you behave badly, you will be named and shamed – but it will be internet users, not some regulatory board – that will bring you down first.

Other than getting busted for being a fraud, there are other potential risks in the social media game – including employees speaking out of turn, (do I need to get my P45 ready yet?) and negative feedback from consumers. It goes without saying that you need to trust those responsible for corporate blogging, and that they need to be able to string a sentence together. You’d be surprised who, in an organisation, has a talent for research and writing, think beyond the usual suspects and you might find a rising star.

Once these risks are understood, business blogging can be a very effective (and cost-effective) addition to your marketing communications, helping you gain credibility rather than lose it. If you get it right, that is. Fortunately, the getting it right part is easier than you think – just be honest!