Is there a Facebook next to your blog?

In the absence of a blanket approach to legal work, freelancers can take legal issues into their own hands.

A couple of my freelance clients recently visited my blog to discuss “innocent bystanders.” This term is used by journalists in conversations about protecting their sources and clients from legal responsibility, and it refers to anyone who didn’t directly participate in the crime in question. For reporters, the term is still formally embodied in publication bans, while for bloggers the more recent, but still entrenched, concept is to affiliate.

The idea is that from the client’s perspective, being affiliated with a blogger helps protect their reputations and their sources. Having to deal with a writer whose blog posts they are part of will be more daunting if it will be clear if the blog has predetermined a set of policies that define how that writer acts. In most cases, such policies will only apply when a dispute arises.

On the other hand, if a writer invites a source to read her blog, it only guarantees that the writer has provided that source with a message from the writer, while making it difficult for the writer to defend a relationship that might seem reckless.

“One theory is that most of these conflicts are caused by ‘innocent bystanders.’ A reader comes across a note from a journalist that protects them and they decide to use that source for a story, not knowing that the person at the center of the story was actually used in the story.”

The understanding that “the source was at the center of the story” is a concept that my clients both love and love to hate, and one that is, to be sure, philosophical as well as practical. For some sources, wanting to be affiliated with a blog is very satisfying; it encourages them to see themselves as someone who is important in the public’s interest. Many sources just don’t care what the ramifications of that association might be. Even if the site had some sort of written policy regarding sharing between a reporter and a source, that in itself might not be enough to deter someone from being inappropriate.

For my clients who do want to be affiliated with a blog, they must be able to vet the writer who is dealing with them and hope that the writer takes that ethical responsibility seriously. That means choosing the right blogger. For some writers, being associated with a strong website will put some added shine on their brands. For others, it will not. Depending on the level of fame or celebrity a writer has, a blog that exposes their work may actually raise their profile, or the example that the blog makes to lesser-known writers will drive their reputations upward as well.

What is the ideal arrangement for those publishers who hire freelancers as experts in their fields? Can we at all pick a writer and stick with them? Or should we seek to segment our clients, for instance by publishing the first few stories only on a partner site, or by publishing pieces only on a site where the content is explicitly linked from the homepage? The answer depends on the nature of the job and the clients.

One of the most important things that I love about being a freelancer is that I can take whatever I do on and advise clients. I can speak at conferences. I can put together a press release. And I can consult with friends and clients on their legal problems. These can be services that help clients stay in business, including retaining attorneys for libel and other similar matters.

Though I can often see the positions taken in the blog’s quarterly newsletter, in practice, it’s a team effort. When I started blogging for my clients back in 2007, I had no idea that my blog was anything more than a pulpit. But after I helped my mother find and start her blog, even she was shocked to realize that she could be in this business. For today’s writers, we can’t afford to think of ourselves as having all the answers.

Thanks for reading!

Simon Anderson is the author of “The Internet Doesn’t Love You” and www.saosocialmediasexperts.com. He is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, publicist and social media strategist for professional and non-profit clients.

Follow me on Twitter: @simonndavison

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