Yesterday I ran across a story about a recent Federal Trade Commission settlement with Deutsch LA, an advertising firm, regarding their social media marketing on behalf of a client.
Long story short: Deutsch LA a) tweeted information for a client and b) encouraged employees to do the same on their personal accounts, c) without disclosing the business relationship between the client and the company or the employee and the company. The FTC ruled this a violation of their disclosure rules. These rules state that if you promote something for which you have a vested interest (including, but not exclusively, a monetary interest) you must disclose that fact. This is one reason, for instance, I always state in my book reviews if I received a free review copy — that fact may color my perception of the book and readers should be aware of that fact.
Similarly, if an employee tweets or blogs something on behalf of their employer, they have an interest in it and that fact should be disclosed. These rules have been in place for years, but with the advent of new media the boundaries are a little blurry about what constitutes adequate disclosure.
This got me thinking about implications for employees of Catholic parishes, schools, and other ministries who use blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media to promote their activities.
(Here’s where I add a disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and don’t play on on TV, so don’t take any of the following as legal advice.)
I regularly tweet and blog about the activities of my diocese. As I read the issue (and the original FTC rules about disclosure in social media), I should be disclosing in the tweet or blog post (or whatever social media I’m using) my relationship as an employee of the diocese. It’s not enough to state in my bio or elsewhere on the page that I am employed by the diocese, since this does not meet the FTC’s “proximity and placement” rule. (I also don’t see any exemption for nonprofit organizations.)
So, for instance, this tweet would be a violation of the rule, because “our” does not clearly name the relationship between myself and the diocese:
— Jonathan F. Sullivan (@sullijo) September 24, 2014
But this one would include proper disclosure, since it references “our office,” making it clear that I work for the sponsoring organization:
— Jonathan F. Sullivan (@sullijo) October 8, 2014
Obviously this has big implications for those who work in Catholic ministry and how they promote their ministry’s events and interests. Our diocese is already working to make sure we can give good advice to help priests, deacons, consecrated religious, and lay employees follow these disclosure rules in their blogs and other social media.
In the meantime, I would recommend everyone keep an eye on their use of social media to promote their ministries to ensure that we are following “best practices” and not inadvertently misleading people regarding our relationships with them.