Two years ago Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s respected technology correspondent, was causing a stir in the digital marketing community by exposing the murky waters of fake Facebook likes. Agencies and brands watched the news with concern and scanned the flow of related stories in fear of being named and shamed in the drama.

I have a real fear that the industry is building another expose worthy of Panoroma’s attentions. I worry about the issue of disclosure and working with small and part-time publishers; with bloggers.

Disclosure is not optional

Most markets have laws and regulations around disclosure. In the States the Federal Trade Commission is increasingly strict in warning brands and site owners to disclose any commercial relationship and to make sure that disclosure is crystal clear.

In the United Kingdom the ASA has issued several statements warning bloggers that suitable disclosure is a requirement for taking money from brands. The OFT even issued formal warnings before being replaced by the Competitions and Markets Authority.

Some have even wondered whether a significant failure to disclose a payment might be considered a bribe. That is a thorny legal area but a valid concern.

The rules are simple. If a blogger has a commercial relationship with a brand (or agency) then they must declare that when writing about the brand or related product and service.

Who is at fault?

In my experience small and part-time publishers – let us just call them bloggers – are not very good at suitably disclosing relationships with brands. Some are. There are plenty of bloggers who are perfect sticklers for the spirit of the law, of regulations and even of best practise guidance from powerhouses like Google and Pinterest. There are just as many bloggers who forget to disclose when a party dress has been provided free of charge for review, when a night out at the local restaurant was paid for or even when a “guest post” for publication in conjunction with a payment.

I do not blame the bloggers. Okay, maybe I blame them a little and the situation is certainly frustrating. However, I am not sure it makes any sense to expect a busy young parent to write her mum blog while also reading up on the amendments to The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 act in the UK.

I blame the agencies and the brands who work with these bloggers. The reason too many bloggers do not know or do not prioritise suitable disclosure is because too many agencies and brands fail to demand it.

I blame the agencies and brands who actively encourage bloggers to omit the required disclosure. This goes beyond paying a blogger for an advertorial and sponsored post and encouraging them to forgo the “nofollow” and “rel” pairing on any links, a move that puts both blog and brand at risk for future Google penalties. This is about actively encouraging bloggers to break the law or risk encounters with official regulators.

This happens. I run a number of blogs. I am sadly accustomed to agencies (or in-house teams) seeking sponsored posts but backing out when a disclosure becomes a requirement of the post. Here is a snippet of an actual, agency written, response to such a conversation from my inbox. I had already said I was reluctant to negotiate with a Gmail address and asked the “freelance PR” to use their agency email address instead:

The quality of English from the “freelance article writers” may make you shudder but this is far from the worst example in my collection. The agency is based in Leeds.

A lack of innovation

Brands and agencies have been told that true digital marketing success comes with building meaningful relationships and connections with customers. They have been seduced by phrases like “storytelling” or “content marketing”. I have stood on the stage of digital marketing conferences and talked about the common evolutionary path of brands, agencies and publishers. So I have been part of this too. These statements are not wrong, they represent best practice and they have encouraged so many agencies to give blogger outreach, pitching editorials and proposing advertorials a shot.

Just as the BBC and Rory Cellan-Jones discovered with the Virtual Bagel experiment there can be a fine line between “best practice” and a race to the bottom. Relationships with bloggers cannot be bought. They must be earned. At least, if you want quality relationships and access to bloggers who will keep their blogs on the right side of the quality line.

Processes and payments cannot substitute for innovation. If bloggers are not writing about a PR stunt/social media campaign/linkbait then an attempt to fake editorial coverage through rubbish payments to mediocre quality bloggers may seem like a quick fix. Such a process, part of the race to the bottom of digital marketing quality, is also part of the problem.

The fact that so many take this route, rather than solve the challenge of engagement through innovation, has made the lack of disclosure phenomenon an industry wide embarrassment.

Here in the UK a newly revitalised Advertising Standards Authority has said it will be more proactive in seeking out problems and abuses rather than waiting for complaints. In a speech at the Advertising and Marketing Law conference this year the ASA’s Chief Executive, Guy Parker, called out bloggers not disclosing payments for coverage as one of the new trends of note in the rapidly changing media landscape.

Let us hope agencies and brands suddenly get better at demanding fully disclosed posts when they secure sponsored or advertorial coverage with bloggers and small publishers.