Posts Tagged ‘competition bureau’

Disclosure shouldn’t just be for bloggers

Over the last number of years, there’s been a great deal of discussion about disclosure in social media. In fact, the US Federal Trade Commission has had disclosure guidelines since 2000, and revised them just last year. Unfortunately, Canada hasn’t provided people working in social media with such guidelines. The federal organization responsible is the Competition Bureau, and there’s nothing directly addressing this issue yet. The Privacy Commissioner and Industry Canada also have fingers in the disclosure pie, but at this point, anyone in Canada could write about anything for pay and never tell you a thing.

Lots of bloggers I know do disclose, and many quite clearly. For example, Amy Boughner often has blog posts with disclosures like: “Disclosure: I received the OgoSport Ballooza pack from PlaSmart for this review. All opinions are my own.” 

 This is a model to be emulated by people working in social media and receiving products or services or other forms of compensation in exchange for content. I’m far from the only person to be talking and thinking about this. Stephanie Fusco was writing about it in 2012. (and finding great images to illustrate the concept). And it’s a shame that 14 years after the FTC published its guidelines, Canada and the OECD are not there yet. It’s a gaping hole that needs to be filled in.

But two things I ran across by chance recently reminded me that disclosure is important no matter whether you’re a blogger getting a free set of headphones or an organization carrying out an advocacy campaign.

The first was a book excerpt in Maclean’s magazine titled “An outlaw’s vision for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” The excerpt from an upcoming book on the museum by renowned non-fiction author Peter C. Newman and his longtime collaborator Allan Levine profiles the museum’s architect, Antoine Predock, by all accounts quite a character and a much-celebrated architect.

Because I’m a geek, I noted that the book was to be published by a company I hadn’t heard of before — Figure 1 Publishing. So I googled ‘em. Nice site, principal employees with serious publishing chops. But … a 2013 Vancouver Sun article profiling the company after its founding says:

“Figure 1 is operating under a different business model than a traditional publisher. Authors or organizations will pay the costs of production themselves and Figure 1 Publishing will look after editing, design, distribution, sales and marketing of the books they publish. Sales revenues will go to both Figure 1 and the author or organization, Nadeau said, adding the model is a hybrid between trade publishing and vanity publishing.”

So… who paid for the book? Who paid the authors? The printers?

I don’t know, because despite contacting Figure 1 several days ago, I haven’t yet received a response.

Also today I got pointed to an Upworthy video titled “No One Applauds This Woman Because They’re Too Creeped Out At Themselves To Put Their Hands Together.” The video is titled “The Secrets of Food Marketing,” and it’s a TED-style talk delivered by marketing consultant Kate Cooper. Well, actually that should be “Kate Cooper.” Because it’s actually actor Kate Miles playing a woman named Kate Cooper. And there’s no such thing as the TED-style “E-talks.” Well, there are several things called etalks, but this talk isn’t part of any series.

The following text appears if you scroll down below the video: “Original video by Catsnake Film. Full disclosure: The speaker in this video is actually an actress named Kate Miles, but the facts about produce and its marketing are 100% real. The audience is also real, and thus the looks of disgust are totally real too.” And then if you go to the Catsnake Film website, it explains further that the video was made on behalf of an organization called Compassion in World Farming.

I contacted both the film company and Compassion in World Farming to talk about the video. Catsnake Film wouldn’t comment unless I allowed them to vet this blog post. I don’t do that, so I have no comment from them. I sent questions to Compassion in World Farming by email on August 12, but haven’t heard from them yet.

There really aren’t any social-media equivalents to the communications professional associations like IABC or PRSA, which both identify a lack of disclosure as unethical in their codes of ethics. And it’s surprising to me that there is no mention of ethics at all on the website of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

In the unlikely event that anybody will offer me some sort of goodies, I’ll be sure to disclose it here. I don’t believe in not disclosing those things, and I want to know what might be influencing the way a piece of content — whether text, video, or whatever — was created.

And whether it’s a book, a blog, or a viral video, we all deserve to know just who was paying the piper.

Disclosure: A particular thanks to the folks at CIPPIC, an Ottawa organization that does superb work on Internet policy and advocacy, for their help in researching this post. 

How not to hold a press conference, CREA edition

It’s easy to snipe from the outside. But having watched and read coverage of yesterday’s announcement of new rules around the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) system by the Canadian Real Estate Association(CREA), I can’t imagine this is the way they would have wanted it to work out.

Some quick background:

In Canada, the MLS system is operated by CREA, and until yesterday, nobody but a realtor could put a listing on that system. This upset people who wanted to sell their house on their own, or who wanted to use services such as Grapevine or Property Guys. The proprietary nature of MLS data also led to disputes between CREA and people who wanted to mash up MLS data with Google Maps. One example of a failed mashup venture was housing123.com, which was shut down last year.

The federal Competition Bureau has been involved in a longrunning dispute with the association, arguing that the MLS system as presently constituted wasn’t open enough to  competition. In February, the Competition Bureau moved against CREA, saying

For example, under CREA’s rules, agents are prohibited from offering consumers the option of simply paying a fee for an agent to list a home on the MLS system. Instead, all consumers looking to list a property on MLS must purchase a pre-determined set of additional services from a real estate agent, such as the presentation of offers and negotiation of a final deal.

“The Bureau is focused on striking down these anti-competitive rules, so that real estate agents wishing to offer innovative services can do so, and consumers can benefit from greater choice,” said Commissioner Aitken. “While the market will ultimately determine prices for residential real estate services, we expect that if the Tribunal strikes down the anti-competitive restrictions, there will be downward pressure on real estate fees in Canada.”

CREA strenuously objected to that characterization. Here’s what CREA President Dale Ripplinger told the Globe and Mail at that time:

CREA president Dale Ripplinger said the decision was “surprising and disappointing.”

“We do not agree with the Bureau’s position that certain CREA rules are anti-competitive, either as a matter of fact or as a matter of law. CREA’s rules allow for innovative business models and provide a broad range of choice for consumers,” Mr. Ripplinger said in a statement.

Which brings us to yesterday, when CREA announced a number of changes to their services and held a news conference. Normally, I would have added “a news conference to explain the changes” to that sentence. But I didn’t for a specific reason — they didn’t want to explain, as this CBC News report will make clear:

The next blow came when the Competition Bureau dismissed the changes in no uncertain terms, saying in this statement:

“There is nothing in these proposals that we haven’t seen before and they do not solve the problem,” said Melanie Aitken, Commissisoner of Competition, “They are a step in the wrong direction. These amendments amount to a blank cheque allowing CREA and its members to create rules that could have even greater anti-competitive consequences.”

In February, the Competition Bureau filed a challenge to CREA‘s rules regarding the use of the MLS. The Bureau has concluded that these rules restrict the ability of consumers to choose the real estate services they want, forcing them to pay for services they do not need. The rules also prevent real estate agents from offering more innovative service and pricing options to consumers.

“We have repeatedly advised CREA‘s leadership that these amendments do not solve our ongoing competition concerns and I reiterated this directly to CREA as recently as last week in a letter to the President,” the Commissioner said.

So you hvae a news conference where the President flees from the media without answering a single question, then your “enemy”, rather than acknowledging things as a step forward, says it’s a step in the wrong direction. This didn’t go well.

So what went wrong? From the outside, my guesses would be that there was some combination of:

  • insufficient thinking through the news conference. If you weren’t going to talk to media, why invite them at all? Send out a statement.
  • a lack of consultation of the Competition Bureau. If this was going to poke the hornet’s nest, why do it?
  • an overall lack of attention to communications. The CREA web site has far from a state-of-the-art media room. It needs some serious upgrading. Furthermore, there’s a wordpress-based CREA News blog, but that site has nothing about the new rules CREA’s proposing. Last year, when I wrote a couple of blog posts about the lack of mobile functionality on real estate sites, I didn’t find CREA tremendously responsive.

There’s no doubt that CREA is facing a difficult issue. But communications could have a positive effect on the issue. Right now, I don’t think that’s happening.

Photo is licenced by Creative Commons: CC BY-NC 2.0; post inspired by Sarah Stewart