Addressing Conflicts of Interest

It's common sense: third-party validation is generally more effective at convincing someone to support an organization or purchase a product than a pitch from the seller itself.

This is precisely why the creation of the biased validator has been so detrimental.

Anyone who has had a bout of insomnia can attest to the steady stream of infomercials that cloud our late night TV. These snippets regularly feature someone from "outside the company" selling you on a product's value. Nearly every broadcast features a caveat at the top of the segment that identifies the celebrity or presenter as a "paid spokesperson."

Advertorials came into the mainstream several years ago. These are paid placements online and in print that look like news articles, with small language at the bottom stating that the content is "sponsored." This has begun a confusion of the line between advertisement and editorial, and in my opinion does a disservice to both.

Consultants will often disclose that they are paid when promoting an issue. And they should. Selling products is not my expertise, but public affairs and advocacy is. When I am proud of a client's accomplishment or want to highlight their work, particularly on social media, I tag the post with a hashtag identifying the group as a client. This makes clear that I am not an outside observer and in fact am invested and engaged in this work. I wish I could take credit for the practice, but it was used long before me.

Reporters are rightly criticized when they do not disclose ties to stories they report. This includes donating to candidates or failing to highlight a personal relationship.

Far less often, however, is a reporter criticized because of a personal motivation to pursue (or create) a storyline.

Whether you believe in the "Liberal Media" or a "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy," it is hard to get through many cable news segments without questioning if there isn't some bias driving the latest "scandal." Why does one network mention "Bridgegate" nearly every day, while another can't get through a 12-hour period without a mention of "Benghazi?"

In recent months, Dr. Mehmet Oz's reputation has swung from inspiring revolutionary to snake oil salesman. Under the headline of "better late than never," his endorsement of and bias for products he was paid to endorse has come to the forefront. It is a testament to the need to disclose at every turn the personal biases, advocacy and engagement that inform our behavior.

It's about the integrity of the process. And it's just good business.