Case Study: MPI and the Social Media Guru program for #WEC10

Just wanted to point everyone to a very interesting discussion that played out on Engage365 around the issue of an organization inviting people to feed their social media channels during a conference in exchange for discounted registration.

MPI (Meeting Professionals International) created a Social Media Guru program, asking their members to apply to help lead their social media efforts around the World Education Congress this past weekend in Vancouver.   They promoted the idea via Twitter, and chose five people to be their Social Media Gurus.  Here’s the background, the first in a series of three posts about this process by Vanessa LaClair on the Engage365 blog.  The Gurus were asked to “act as a spokesperson for social media to the members attending WEC” – interpreting that directive however they chose.

Vanessa was quite transparent in her posts about the struggle she was having interpreting those directions – as someone who was already promoting the WEC in all the usual social ways, should she be doing more?  She documented the results of certain specific things she was supposed to promote in part 2 of her blog post series.

Then in the third installment, Being an MPI Social Media Guru Isn’t Without Its Challenges, Vanessa began to ask herself whether the MPI should have provided more direction, more guidelines, and more specifically, where the Gurus should draw the line between personal opinion and following MPI’s lead. She asked, is it ok to report on negative stuff too?

She asked the question directly of Theresa Davis, MPI’s Director of Strategic Communications and one of the Guru program directors. Her response included:

“We’ve developed this program to experiment with giving proven social media leaders within our industry access and privileges that suit their medium, much like what we do for traditional media outlets. We intend to respect the integrity of the social media covering the event as we would the traditional outlets. All we ask for is fair and unbiased coverage.

We certainly make recommendations on what hosted social media promote and discuss, much like when we pitch hosted traditional press on story ideas and potential interviews. It’s up to each reporter to select what they cover and report within the parameters of their hosted agreement.”

This, however, sparked a massive discussion in the comments – specifically about what “fair and unbiased coverage” actually means in the social context. Some people admitted being put off by this in the original Social Media Guru program description and not applying to the program, feeling that the program was trying to “buy the media” – not least because the Gurus had been given discounted registrations to the event.

MPI was able to join the discussion and make their intentions clear, and the whole thing is a very interesting read.

Two separate issues have arisen here – one, the fact that social media is NEVER “unbiased” – it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about the personal take of the individual poster/tweeter/blogger. We tell people every day that in all social media communications you should “own” your own statements online, whether personal or professional. There’s no such thing in social media as an official spokesperson completely devoid of the individual human behind the words.

And two, the lack of disclosure about the relationship between the organization and the people feeding its social channels. The FTC Guidelines now specify that “the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” The MPI could have helped their Gurus by providing simple disclosure statements for them to use, which would also perhaps have helped them differentiate the postings they were making on behalf of MPI and those they were making based on personal opinion.

My personal take is that given the very active Twitter stream from the (presumably successful) event, perhaps the guru program was not really needed, and they could have simply asked some of their known digital extroverts to help them by retweeting and sharing some good stuff. That works just as well! :)

In any event, I love this [currently] closing comment on the discussion thread by John Nawn:

“Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The issues raised here challenge our perception of traditional media, its roles and responsibilities, and our expectations of ‘citizen-journalists’ or whatever you want to call them. One thing is certain, the lines will continue to blur until a new world order takes over – but only for a little while. Social medeites (pronounced ‘mee-dee-ites’ – a word I just made up) can behave like traditional journalists. But I believe their true value lies in presenting a more personal (yes, subjective) experience to the audience. They’re more conversation starters than lecturers (just the facts, Ma’am). And the conversations they start can be as powerful, if not more so, than the facts of a story. That’s always been one of the biggest limitations of traditional media, as far as I was concerned. The facts are relatively straightforward. It’s our interpretation that really matters. Social Medeites are interpreters. And in a world that’s growing increasingly complex – a little interpretation goes a long way.”

Amen, brother!

[UPDATE: Here's Vanessa's fourth post, referencing yours truly, even!  I didn't actually realize the conference wasn't over yet - will be interesting to read the takes on this once the dust has settled a bit.]


Michael McCurry July 27, 2010 at 10:09 am

Hi Maddie,

Nice recap of the issues on the Social Media Guru Program. As you may know I am an advocate of this concept. I think at a deeper level, the SMG idea could be expanded to include many more folks resulting in greater real-time coverage of the events. What is missing from this event is live real-time blogging. Thus far, no blog articles have been produced by the 5 SMG’s in real-time for this event. I think that is because there was just too much going on and they couldn’t carve the time out.

With a larger corp of New media press, that could be easily accomplished.

The “fair and balanced” or “fair and unbiased” caveat to the application process was, I think, a mistake. As you point out, it is literally impossible to express one’s opinion without there being bias. So, in the future, that expectation should be dropped from MPI’s instructions.

Thanks for writing this article and appreciate your perspectives, as always.


Maggie McGary July 27, 2010 at 10:15 am

The disclosure part is the stickiest part, IMO. I don’t mean any offense to MPI when I say that they probably didn’t realize that, as the “brand”, it’s on them to require that participants disclose the material relationship. This is standard with brand relationships–part of the agreement is that you will disclose the relationship. The few times I’ve been sponsored in some way or another, the brand includes wording for me to use to disclose the relationship.

I like that MPI provided discounted registration for their gurus–to me, that’s equivalent to speakers receiving discounted registration.

Jenise Fryatt July 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Great post Maddie. As you know, journalists are used to getting free access to events without being required to disclose this in the articles they write. It hasn’t been an issue, I believe, because all parties took for granted the journalists dedication to “objectivity” .

Bloggers are a different breed however. As you point out, social media is never unbiased. So asking for “fair and unbiased coverage” from the social media gurus seems to demonstrate a misunderstanding.

Also I think it’s always ill-advised for an organization to articulate expectations for any media coverage when they are offering free access or discounts. Unfortunately, it can imply payment for services, not “fair and unbiased” coverage.

This debate has taught me something. The trust of his/her readers is a blogger’s life’s blood. That trust can also make bloggers more influential, in a way, than traditional news sources. I think the FTC foresaw this when it created it’s guidelines for bloggers. So, as a blogger, I will take care to follow those guidelines and disclose ANY free registration, payment, discount or gift I receive from any organization or company I write about.

Theresa Davis August 2, 2010 at 8:59 am

Maddie: Appreciate the recap of this project. I’ve learned through this process that pushing the envelope with projects also often means pushing buttons. And also, the reminder that words are powerful and should be respected and treated carefully. As a representative of MPI I’ve tried to clarify our intent with this project time and again. As a writer I continue to kick myself for using the terms “fair and unbiased” rather than “balanced”. But we live and we learn.

Maddie Grant August 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thank you everyone for your comments!

Theresa, from an outsiders’ perspective this was a really fascinating debate to watch unfold and I don’t believe anyone had any issues with the intentions of the MPI’s guru program. Social media is all about transparency and learning very publicly from mistakes, and in this case I think everyone watching has learned a lot from the conversation. I’m sure you had more than a few headaches along the way but we can all see the conference was a great success and we definitely commend you for being willing to take part in this debate.

And honestly, I think you picked exactly the right people to be your gurus – people who would think about it carefully, take the role very seriously, and talk to their audiences about the questions they had. That’s truly awesome.

Linda Chreno August 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Very interesting discussion, but my mind went in a different direction. If I tried to do this (use social media gurus to post from the meeting), with a medical association or a legal society or an engineering society, more direction about the posts would have to be given because of potential issues with conflicts, CEUs, CMEs, etc. All of these types of groups are using social media and looking to other organizations for best practices – so you are definitely correct, this was a great learning model.


Vanessa LaClair August 10, 2010 at 9:07 am

Maddie –

You might be happy to know that my 5th and final blog on the Guru program has been posted on Engage365.

It really was a great program, and I was honored to be a part of it – and a part of these discussions! I think everyone has learned a lot along the way – and I hope that MPI continues this program in the future. It’s a great way to get members involved as well as teach others about the benefits of social media.

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