Travel blogs, ethics and the FTC endorsement guidelines

by Susan Getgood on June 29, 2010 · 13 comments

in Blog with Integrity,Blogging,Ethics

IMG_8919This past weekend, I was in New York for the Travel Blog Exchange conference (TBEX). The primary reason I attended the conference was to represent Blog With Integrity on a panel about blogging ethics, but I also got some great tips and ideas for my somewhat neglected travel blog, Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip.

This year, I’ve spoken at a number of conferences about integrity, disclosure and the FTC endorsement guidelines. In most cases, the audience doesn’t know very much about the guidelines beyond whatever version of the urban myths are circulating within the community. This is of course why the conference organizers invite Blog With Integrity and usually someone from the FTC and/or a lawyer.

The travel community  was grappling with the ethical issue of sponsored trips  well before the guidelines were revised last year. Travel bloggers are very passionate about ethics and receptive to the approach of best practices — disclosure policies that go beyond what the FTC minimally requires. In fact, many travel blogs already have published policies.

During the Q&A on Sunday, it was clear that the attendees wanted to comply with the FTC requirements,  but they were struggling a bit with exactly what had to be disclosed and how.

And then I had an “Aha” moment. Hard to believe that after all I have written about this topic for more than a year, there would be something I hadn’t thought of, but lo and behold, there was.

I broke it down to a simple equation for disclosure, which seemed to clear things up for a lot of the bloggers at TBEX.

Endorsement + Compensation = Disclosure Required

How to disclose

The best way to disclose to meet the FTC guidelines is within the post that contains the endorsement: “I was privileged to be hosted by…” “I was thrilled at the opportunity to take a trip to (place) courtesy of (sponsor).” And so on. It is not sufficient to disclose in your disclosure policy or About page.

However, I recommend that you also have  a disclosure & editorial policy on your page:

  • to let your readers know what they can expect on your blog, especially casual readers or folks that find you through a search engine, and
  • to inform marketers and PR people about your interests so they contact you with relevant, appropriate offers.

Relationships and SWAG

Another key point Mary Engle from the FTC and I both stressed on Sunday was the relationship between the marketer and the blogger. If the marketer is reaching out to specific bloggers with sponsored trips and free products, there is a compensated relationship that must be disclosed. If 300 bloggers all get identical SWAG (stuff we all get) at a conference, the reason they received it was as a member of a group, not as an individual. There is no relationship between the marketer and a blogger who got the SWAG. This is still true if distribution of the SWAG is managed using a list of bloggers at the conference entitled to receive it. A list doesn’t create a relationship. Communication between people creates a relationship.

That said, of course, you know my mantra — disclose anyway. The company that provided an item relevant enough that you decide to write about it deserves the props for supporting the conference SWAG bag.

Bloggers, journalists

A touchy subject was the idea that travel bloggers are being held to a higher standard than travel writers for mainstream media who don’t have to disclose. I’ve written about why the FTC doesn’t require disclosure from mainstream journalists many times, and won’t rehash it all again. The brief version is that it’s about the consumer reading the item, not the person writing it. If the consumer would understand that the endorsement was compensated  — in the case of a journalist, by his salary and probably the subsidy of his paper for the trip,  no further disclosure is required.

The predominant sentiment at the conference was that mainstream journalists should be required to disclose as well. I agree. Disclosure is a best practice, full stop, regardless of your publishing channel.

However, I reject the opposite argument, which wasn’t offered by the TBEX audience, but I’ve read elsewhere — if mainstream journalists don’t have to do it, why should bloggers? That’s grabbing the stick from the very wrong end.

I also think it’s counter-productive to worry too much about others. Focus on what you need to do to connect with your readers, provide them good information and entertaining writing, and be honest about any business relationships you have. Compensation or free product may not change your opinion or writing one little bit, but you have to let the reader make that call for herself. You shouldn’t attempt to do it for her.

Twitter?

How to disclose on Twitter always comes up during ethics panels, and Sunday was no exception. It’s also a bit more complex for travel writers taking sponsored trips, as opposed to someone reviewing a single product. A trip occurs over a period of time, and there are only 140 characters. If part of every tweet has to have a disclosure, the tweetstream would get pretty dull.

Mary Engle made an important clarification for us. You have to disclose that the trip was compensated or the product was free in tweets containing the endorsement of the sponsor/advertiser. When you are tweeting about something unrelated to the sponsor — for example,  your experience at a local museum or farmers’ market, there’s no need to disclose because you are not endorsing the sponsor.

Here’s my advice.

  • Start your trip with a tweet acknowledging the sponsor (and linking to a post on your blog with more details if you have one)
  • Be sure to disclose in some fashion in any tweets endorsing the sponsor: “I love my room at the Aruba Marriott #sponsor” “The beach at host hotel Swanky Resort is pristine.”
  • If the trip spans multiple days, make sure you have at least one tweet per day that discloses that your trip is sponsored and by whom. The easiest way to do this is to spread out your endorsements of the sponsor :-)
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