Ethics and Compliance are Central Themes of New USC Annenberg Center for PR Report

Seventeen of the 30 essays in this year’s Relevance Report 2020 from the USC Annenberg Center for PR deal with ethics and compliance issues public relations professionals face as a result of technology.

There are anecdotes about corporations going rogue, marketers ignoring disclosure regulations and app makers violating privacy law.

Truth in Social Advertising

Let’s start with the rate at which influencer marketers are ignoring disclosure guidelines set by the Federal Trade Commission, the US Government agency that brought us truth in television and radio advertising.

The FTC’s “Dot Com Disclosure Requirements [PDF]” are supposed to help make sure you know whether or not someone endorsing a product online was compensated.

If you want to make sure you’re up on these requirements, I produced a free course on social media disclosure compliance with integrated assessment questions you can test yourself on.

But ignorance does not appear to be the cause of these violations.

“According to a study conducted by influencer marketing agency Mediakix, only about 7% of endorsements on social media from the top 50 celebrity influencers comply with FTC’s guidelines of appropriate disclosure verbiage,” writes Cathy Park, a second-year strategic public relations graduate student at USC Center for PR in the 2020 Relevance Report.

“Furthermore, Harvard Business Review reported that 28% of influencers were requested by the sponsoring brand to not disclose the partnership. It seems like the ability to deceive has somehow become tied to an influencer’s worth,” Cathy says.

More than 1 in 4 posts by online influencers ignore their duty to disclose.

These are deliberate, profit-motivated acts of defiance.

Lassiez-Faire Regulators

In February, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the FTC fined $5.7 million for failing to restrict adults from messaging minors in their popular Tik Tok app.

COPPA applies not just to child-directed websites, but to apps and voice over IP services as well.

In 2013, the FTC expanded the definition of children’s personal information to include persistent identifiers such as cookies that track a child’s activity online, as well as geolocation information, photos, videos and audio recordings.

“For months before the FTC fining, many politicians commented negatively about the platform.

However, other politicians-turned-presidential-candidates have used TikTok to garner intel and help reach younger voters.

Andrew Gauthier, former head of BuzzFeed Video and head of digital content on the Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign says, “It’s almost like a look into the teenage id,” according to Tyler Stevens who leads operations and communications at Kinwoven and Patrick Mazuca, creative director at Shareability who wrote an essay on Tik Tok, the video sharing site with 500 million active users, two-thirds of who are under the age of 30.

But some believe the FTC is over regulating here. It was argued nearly two decades that parents, not the government, should be protecting their children’s rights.

Speak No Evil

Corey Dubrowa, vp global communications and public affairs at Google makes a compelling case for the search engine’s corporate citizenship.

Each of our products is designed with an emphasis on privacy and security, including easy user interfaces and features like Privacy Check-Ups, which allow people to control their data and keep their accounts safe and secure.”

But there is one stark omission in his essay.

Project Dragonfly, leaked through a Google employee who blew the whistle and which last July they confirmed had been terminated at a senate hearing, showed a side of the company that puts profit potential before privacy.

Dragonfly is an Internet search engine prototype Google created to be compatible with China’s state censorship provisions and which also provided the government with a means for retrieving a users search history by searching their phone number, essentially abandoning their “don’t be evil” motto.

Interestingly enough, in another recent development, Instagram made a suspicious product change that may also have personal privacy implications.

“Instagram recently limited its users’ ability to view “likes” on Instagram posts.

They did this supposedly to reduce the potentially negative effect of their platform on the mental health of young consumers.

But more likely, they were motivated by the ability to sell the now hidden information to those who need to benchmark the effectiveness of their social media communication efforts,” writes Ulrike Gretzel, Ph.D., senior fellow at the USC Center for Public Relations in her piece on social media addiction, driven by platform providers, influencer marketing agencies and public relations professionals.

Will they “… be made accountable for their role in promoting social media addictions?” she asks, citing a growing resistance to social media dependency.

Algorithmic content is tough to resist but we are beginning to appreciate the toll it takes on our ability to relax.

Add to that an environment where advertisers buy attention from social networks that use algorithms to hide opposing viewpoints and cable news broadcasters that use political polarity to drive ratings, and it appears the gap between what organizations say and what they do is widening.

“You should take…care in deciding which tools you allow to claim your own limited time and attention,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

Artificial Intelligence and Bias

With interest in artificial intelligence peaking, the Relevance Report also explores the notion of human-guided, ethical machine learning.

“…AI algorithms can also lead to false conclusions. In the Facebook example, this is due to the common practice by social media companies to deploy technology that is half-baked, at best,” writes Burghardt Tenderich, Ph.D., associate director of the USC Annenberg Center for PR and former vp public relations at Siebel Systems, which was acquired by Oracle for $5.8 billion in 2005.

“At the core of an ethical examination of AI is the desire to understand how decisions are made and what the consequences are for society at large. For that reason, policy makers are calling for AI to be explainable and transparent so that citizens and businesses alike can develop trust in AI,” says Tenderich.

It’s one thing to move fast and break things when you’re scaling a start up.

It’s something else when the technology you’re developing has the potential to enforce laws and decide on the distribution of government-funded resources.

Societal Impact

Given the tribal nature of the social media echo chamber, the divisiveness of the news media and just how far corporations are willing to go to justify profitability and growth, is it any wonder people are anxious and depressed?

The Relevance Report doesn’t link these factors to the mental health of young people, but the opening essay does focus on changing the conversation about mental health, and are discussed concurrently in the same report.

“The situation is particularly acute in younger populations like Gen Z, where rates of anxiety and depression are rising at an alarming rate.

The Child Mind Institute reports that “at some point, anxiety affects 30% of children and adolescents, yet 80% never get help.”

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among adolescents and young adults, the suicide rate has reached its highest level in nearly two decades,” writes Willow Bay, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in the report’s opening essay.

She calls universities — where the informed public is breed — “ground zero” in the mental health crisis and says we need to confront the “stigma associated with mental health.”

But reducing the stigma treats the symptom, not the cause. While diffusing the issue by normalizing as a topic for discussion is helpful, it stops short of dealing with the causes of these conditions, which I suspect has a lot to do with living in a time where fewer and fewer organizations and individuals mind the gap between what they say and what they do.

One of the strategic advantages of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is that it instructs on the practice of investigation journalism and advocacy under one roof.

But if objectivity is relevant, a more balanced study that reconciles corporate spokespeople say against the public record — perhaps by making it a collaborative effort with the journalism school — would certainly, in my view, add much more relevance.

The 2020 Relevance Report also includes a survey conducted late August 2019 “reflecting a US census snapshot of 1,106 Americans” which found also found Donald Trump to be the candidate most likely to be retweeted, comedy podcasts most likely to heard during commutes and Disney the brand most likely to be tattooed onto peoples’ bodies.