The FTC Tries to Quash Sponsored Conversations

In “Sponsored Conversations: FTC Guidelines Impact Companies and Bloggers” by Kami Watson Huyse, a PR practitioner, discusses the change these new guidelines will have on the PR field.

Do your tweet or blog an opinion about a product and service and get paid for it? Do you know you are helping the company advertise and you must disclosure that relationship? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established new guidelines, which outlines if a content creator is being paid or received any type of freebies from the company, as of Dec. 1, 2009, they must disclosure that relationship.

The FTC has laid out new truth-in-advertising guidelines such as:

  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and
  •  Advertisements cannot be unfair.

The new set of guidelines explains that if you are a blogger who writes endorsements or accepts any kind of merchandise/service from a company you must disclose that relationship to your readers.

So how does this affect public relations? The guidelines also say that any business reaching out to content creators– Bloggers, Tweeters, YouTubers, or Facebookers, must be aware of these guidelines and do everything in their power to make sure the relationship is disclosed.

One editorial from The New York Times, said that “deceiving consumers has long been illegal” and the FTC is “concerned over the potential growth of deceptive advertising online” so they amended the guidelines to include blogs, Twitter and other platforms of online communication.

Telling the truth in PR is essential. The truth must exist in the PR field or you and your company will lose credibility.

Bloggers themselves are split on this idea. Some think the new guidelines are pointless, like blogger Katja Presnal, who says that her opinions are not necessarily influenced by these freebies. She points out that ethical bloggers already are following these guidelines of transparency. Others like blogger Bill Sledzik, says that every blogger should embrace these new changes of transparency because readers desrve the right to know if money and/or services exchanged hands.   

As PR practitioners, we should always encourage the bloggers that we reach out to on behalf of our clients to disclose the relationship, if any, they have with the company.  Social media has become a sanctuary for deception because many content creators do not reveal their relationships, therefore, the consumer does not know whom or what to believe.

There may be some bloggers who do not want to disclose their relationships. What can you as a PR practitioner do?  Huyse suggests that you could send the blogger an email reminding them to disclose it in the post along with a quick explanation of the FTC’s new rules.

PR is about building and maintaining relationships and if you deceive your publics they are going to view you as untrustworthy. Be open and transparent with your publics.

The one thing missing in the FTC’s new guidelines is how is it going to be enforced? Is it up to PR practionterns to police ourselves and/or others? Do you think the new guidelines will further place transparency as important aspect in PR? Will the guidelines actually impact change?

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6 Responses to The FTC Tries to Quash Sponsored Conversations

  1. sferrer says:

    Bloggers or any journalist should disclose if they received freebies/samples of products or services. Journalists are essentially not advertisers or advocators. The free gifts should not influence their news content. It makes sense that FTC established guidelines for journalists who use social media platforms as channels of communication. Bloggers use more informal language and follow less strict polices as opposed to a reporter who works for The New York Times publication or CNN TV news station.

    The new guidelines will change the future of the blogosphere. As PR specialists, we have to maintain relationships with the (traditional/new) media and the businesses/organizations we represent for. The press is not very forgiving and if we cause any action that will ruin a blogger or journalist’s reputation; they may never want to work with us again. It’s common for PR specialists to send journalists books, CDs and other freebies to journalists when they are using those items for news content/reviews. These freebies are helpful for a journalist’s research but we can’t forget to ultimately use press releases to offer information about the products/services.

  2. glindsay says:

    Some say this new rule is excessive. I guess I can see that, but they already have rules like this for print and broadcast, I suppose it was only a matter of time before it crossed the digital void and made its way to cyberspace, too.

    I remember reading an article that video game reviewers were getting upset about this because they apparently almost always receive the games they review for free from the producers. However, I don’t see in general how becoming more transparent can hurt anything. A simple statement, on-going editorial or something similar is all it takes to educate concerned users of how you as a blogging or social media user obtain the products you are reviewing.

  3. wwillis says:

    I don’t think I’ve made up my mind on this rule relating to bloggers yet. Like you said, some bloggers aren’t even affected by these freebies. But, on the other hand, I really sort of like the idea. Bloggers get something for free and get to write truthfully (hopefully) about a product. It’s a great way to spread the word.

  4. astrazzara says:

    Stephanie: I agree that not revealing you received freebies from an organization and then blogging about it will damage your reputation. I do think it will be difficult to enforce the new changes because bloggers aren’t held to the same standards as journalists. Bloggers should disclose what they receive and maintain transparency with his or her audiences.

    Greg: It makes sense that the internet would eventually have similar rules like print and broadcast, the laws just haven’t caught up to the online explosion. I agree with you that transparency couldn’t hurt anything—it would only require the blogger to include a simple statement about what they received.

    Whitney: Bloggers are split on the ruling because many think it’s an unenforceable law, which I understand. The internet is such a vast environment that I wonder who’s going to be policing every single blog. There just needs to be a truthful relationship between the blogger and his or her readers. People tend to read blogs because they don’t think the blogger is trying to sell them something.

  5. ecain says:

    I have mixed feelings about this new guideline. Part of me thinks that it is necessary in order to prevent the public from being misguided and potentially lied to about products and services. I think that without these guidelines readers could more than likely continue to be misguided about a certain product by blogger they trust. On the other hand, advertising is really the only way a blog can make any money.

    I do not think it is PR practitioners job to police others. We can be held accountable for our own actions and as a part of our values steer our client away from engaging in such dishonesty, however it is not our place to police the web for bloggers potentially violating the FTC’s guidelines.

    In my opinion I do not think that these guidelines will impact that much change. There are millions of blogs out there and the FTC has no real way to patrol each one making sure they are not advertising a product on their blog without full disclosure. Overall, it will be very interesting to see how strictly enforced these guidelines will be come Dec. 1.

  6. astrazzara says:

    Elizabeth: I also think it will be interesting to see these rules once it goes into effect on Dec. 1. I don’t know if there’s actually going to be any noticeable change. PR pros should be open and clear with bloggers and ask them to disclose the relationship.

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