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Getting Paid to Tweet and the Ethics of Doing So

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A new trend in public relations firms is beginning to catch on in which Twitter users are being paid to send tweets about specific things or with specific messages. PR firms around the world are capitalizing on the potential power of Twitter with this tactic, attempting to do everything from promote products and brands to swaying voters towards candidates.

One PR firm here in South Florida has been doing this recently by exploiting the tight community that took years to build, and offering money to tweet events to their followers. The practice has raised some questions about the ethics of sending tweets without disclosing that you're being compensated for it.

I will admit up front that I have been paid to send tweets once at an event that took place in Palm Beach County for Greg Norman. At the time I didn't think to disclose the nominal payment, since it never dawned on me back then. When doing it for pay, except as a journalist, I know always make sure to disclose somewhere in that stream that I was being paid for the tweets I was sending outside of these events.

The conundrum here is that some marketing and PR firms will not hire you or will rescind payment if you do this. Especially those attempting to create a "meme" or a "buzz" about a specific subject by having several local Twitter users send tweets during the same few days. Does this create an ethical dilemma for people?

I asked a few local Twitter users what they think about this question. When asked "Do you think that tweeting for payment ethically requires that you disclose to your list that you are being paid to send the tweets?" they gave the following responses:

@Nate_Cousineau: "Twitter is a forum for opinions (among other things), so when someone's opinion is being financially influenced they owe it to their followers to disclose this. Not to do so, in my opinion, would be disingenuous and misleading. The importance of disclosure is obviously increased when you're dealing with people of greater influence, such as celebrities."

Anonymous: "nope it is not important because these people follow me and I do not tweet about things that are not something I believe in to begin with. I see it as I am being paid to talk about something I would have talked about anyways. BONUS!"

@stacismail: "I do not believe it needs to be stated that you are being paid to tweet. Aside from assuming there is obvious compensation ($$, pizza, whatever) based on the hashtags, content & volume, some tweeters are polite enough to inform their followers in advance that they will be bombarding their timelines."

@greenarchitect: "Anytime people are being paid to do something they may be persuaded in a way that they wouldn't if there was not a financial motivation. They may back a product or an idea just because they are getting paid to do so, not because they believe in it."

@dromannn: "There should be like a universal hashtag that users use to indicate this."

It's funny that @dromannn should mention that. The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines for commercial speech and disclosure on the Internet. They specifically address Twitter and suggest the hashtags #paid ad and #paid #ad. Another common one they don't list is #affil (short for affiliate).

Of course, the question is where the line is drawn. Does hosting a #tweetup and giving free pizza and soda count as compensation or just courtesy (especially when it is disclosed everywhere that attendees get free pizza)? Certainly if this is only offered to those who are talking about the event, then it's obviously an inducement that could be considered compensation, but if everyone at the event is eating with you, then I would say it's not.

There's a fine line between talking about something as a citizen journalist and being paid to mention something on someone's behalf. Whether or not there are FTC rules about it, it's just plain honest for people to be up front about these things.

Another side of this disclosure coin is the businesses paying for the tweets. An event host, for instance, that is paying attendees to talk about the event on social networks like Twitter has, I feel, an ethical duty to disclose that fact. Many do not do this.

In talking with friends on my network, it's become clear that people generally expect those who are being paid to disclose that they are being compensated. Does the same go for those who are paying for the service? I would think so, but others may not agree.