I was on the Today show last Friday in a segment about negativity in the parenting blogosphere. My thoughts on the show are over at Snapshot Chronicles.
There’s still a great deal of misinformation about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guidelines for Endorsements and Testimonials (FTC Guides or Guidelines) wafting around on the Internet, and from time to time, it makes its way into mainstream media stories.
We’re trying to chip away at it. Blog With Integrity did the two free Disclosure webinars last year. My colleagues and I leave comments with accurate information when we find posts and articles with errors. Just about every blogging conference since the beginning of the year has had a session about the Guides, and we’re doing the Bridging Brands and Bloggers webinar for PR, marketing and advertising professionals next Tuesday.
But the misinformation persists. So, it seems like the time is now for a little debunking of the urban myths about the FTC Guidelines.
MYTH: There’s an $11,000 fine for violations of the Guidelines.
FACT: The Guidelines explain how the FTC would apply Section 5* of the FTC Act to endorsements and testimonials. They are not rules or regulations, and there are no fines. Any penalties would be assessed by the courts as the result of a legal enforcement process during which the FTC would have to make its case for deceptive advertising.
* Section 5 broadly prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce.”
MYTH: The FTC dictates how you should disclose.
FACT: There’s no checklist of “approved” ways to disclose. The Guidelines simply require “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of material relationships between sellers and endorsers when those relationships would not otherwise be clear to the consumer. The FTC Guidelines do include examples to illustrate the conditions under which disclosure would be required. However, there are no specific prescriptions as to how the disclosure should be done.
If you are interested in best practices for disclosure, take a look at the slides from the general session I did at BlissDom in February.
MYTH: The Guidelines were revised because bloggers are unethical.
FACT: They were revised because it had been 30 years since they were first published. It was time for an update. Initially because it had become clear that the way disclosure was being handled in traditional media for certain types of products (like weight loss) wasn’t working as it should. In the process, it became clear that changes in the the media landscape, and specifically, the rise of social media, needed to be addressed.
MYTH: Mom blogs have been singled out for special scrutiny.
FACT: Absolutely not. This was confirmed by Mary Engle, the FTC’s Associate Director for Advertising Practices, during the Blog With Integrity webinar on November 10, 2009.
The FTC Guidelines apply to endorsements and testimonials in all types of marketing including viral, WOM, blogs, TV, radio and print.
MYTH: Bloggers are being held to a higher standard than journalists.
FACT: The issue at hand isn’t standards or even ethics. The Guidelines are all about making sure that the consumer has enough information to evaluate the endorsement or testimonial. If she would not reasonably expect a material relationship to exist or would not understand it without the disclosure, the endorser should disclose. If the context is clear, disclosure is not required.
In the case of the mainstream media, consumers generally understand that the reporter didn’t buy the item or choose his own topic, and can evaluate the report accordingly. We make different assumptions about people “just like us,” thus disclosure is necessary. A blog or website that operates just like a magazine would be treated like a mainstream magazine because the consumer, or reader, would have the proper expectation. More on this topic in this post.
MYTH: Celebrities are not subject to the guides.
FACT: There are specific examples about celebrity endorsements. The litmus test is the consumer’s expectation. If we would understand the relationship — for example a celebrity athlete wearing logo gear — no disclosure is necessary. We assume a compensated relationship. If the consumer wouldn’t understand the paid relationship, disclosure is required. More on this topic in this post.
MYTH: The FTC said that X was (or was not) a violation.
FACT: The FTC does not speak about specific cases. This could compromise ongoing investigations. More importantly, if it were you, or your company, would you want the FTC passing comment before a full investigation had been completed? I wouldn’t.
MYTH: The FTC is gunning for bloggers.
FACT: The FTC has stated on more than one occasion that its enforcement attention is focused on advertisers and companies, not on individual bloggers.
MYTH: The FTC guidelines violate the 1st amendment.
FACT: The FTC guidelines apply to commercial speech. Compensated, material relationships. They do not apply to opinions where there is no material relationship. If you are paid for your opinion — even if you can say whatever you want — it’s commercial speech. Commercial speech is paid speech. Not free speech.
Free speech is still free. And protected.
MYTH: All you need is a disclosure policy.
FACT: A disclosure (or editorial) policy is a best practice. You still must disclose within the post or tweet if you have a material relationship with a seller.
MYTH: The FTC guidelines will destroy the blogosphere.
FACT: So far, not so much.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and do not play one on the Internet. This post is my opinion based upon analysis of public records, including the FTC Guidelines.
Back on the speaking circuit…
Tuesday April 6th is the Blog With Integrity webinar on best practices for blogger outreach. We’ve got a great blogger panel who will share their experiences working with brands — Beth Blecherman from TechMamas, Michelle Madhok from SheFinds and Tim Hurst from ecopolitology.
Saturday April 9th I will be at BlogPaws in Columbus Ohio speaking on a panel about best practices for doing reviews on your blog.
April 20-23 I’ll be out at New Comm Forum in San Mateo California. On the 20th, I’m teaching part of the full-day Intro to Social Media for Business pre-conference workshop, and later in the week, I’m doing two conference sessions — a panel on Social CRM and a session on the impact of the FTC Guidelines on Endorsements and Testimonials on businesses. Added attraction: Dave Carroll of United Breaks Guitars fame will be speaking at lunch on Wednesday!
I’ve got discount codes for all three events. Drop me a note at email@example.com or @sgetgood on Twitter with your email address and the event you are interested in.
I am beyond busy trying to wrap up Professional Blogging for Dummies and prepping for some speaking engagements, including the April 6th Bridging Brands and Bloggers session.
But a few things crossed my desk this week that reminded me how far we STILL have to go in creating authentic relationships with our customers. Normally, I’d pull screenshots and stuff, but we’ll have to do without this week. Chalk it up to my overall exhaustion. And trust me, copies of the pitches referred to here ARE in my inbox.
That’s taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and yes, we all do it to some extent. But seriously, issuing press releases and doing blogger outreach on the back of another company’s recall? Ambulance chasing. Gross. Don’t do it. Build your story on your features, not on another’s shortcomings. The saddest thing? The brand in question has a lot going for it. Good PR counsel? Not so much.
If you represent a fiber cereal, or related product, you’ve got a tough road. No one really wants to write about bowel movements, not withstanding the stereotype that mom blogs are about pampers and poop. You’ve got to be far more creative than the average bear.
Alas, the pitch that hit mom bloggers this week wasn’t creative. In fact, it was disingenuous. More than one mom blogger I know was confused. Was the company looking for consulting services? Participation in a focus group? Or, as it turned out, simply looking to ship product and get reviews.
Be upfront. Don’t send a pitch asking for “insights” and advice when what you want is a review. Especially to bloggers who do not do reviews. Target appropriately and communicate clearly.
It’s not enough to know who to send the pitch to.
You’ve got to get to know the person.
These are the issues we are going to discuss in the April 6th Bridging Brands & Bloggers webinar. If you work with pr and marketing reps, tell them about it. If you are a pr or marketing person, tell your boss you want to attend.
We’ll give you the inside scoop on what works, and what doesn’t, when reaching out to bloggers.
Between the book, travel and work, my blogs have been a bit neglected this year. So, I’m really glad that I can finally take the wraps off the Blog with Integrity projects we’ve been working on since the beginning of the year.
Advisory Board: We are honored to welcome Liza Barry-Kessler, Gwen Bell, Isabel Kallman, Lisa Stone and David Wescott to the team as members of the Blog with Integrity Advisory Board.
New website: We’ve updated the website with more information about the team, our mission and upcoming events. We also added an Organizational Pledge so companies can show their support for the principles of the pledge.
Bridging Brands & Bloggers webinar: We are very excited about this webinar for PR, marketing and advertising professionals to be held on April 6th from noon to 1:30 eastern. We’ll talk about best practices for blogger outreach and the impact of the FTC endorsement guidelines on brands and bloggers. Plus an exclusive panel of influential bloggers will share their experiences working with brands. More details and registration information are on the website. Please spread the word!
Bridging Brands & Bloggers is sponsored by the Council of Public Relations Firms, and we are very grateful for their support.
On the road: We’ve been taking the Blog with Integrity message on the road. In February, I spoke at BlissDom about best practices and disclosure, and at Mom 2.0, my colleagues Liz Gumbinner and Julie Marsh were on a panel about the FTC guidelines. In the coming months, I’ll be on panels at BlogPaws, TBEX and BlogHer talking about disclosure and ethical best practices. I’m also doing a session for for marketing professionals about the impact of the guidelines at New Comm Forum.
And then there’s the book. Professional Blogging for Dummies (Wiley, July 2010). As my Facebook page says: “I used to have a life. Now I have a book.” If you have a few minutes in the next few days, I would so appreciate it if you would take the blogger survey for the book. I’ll probably close the survey next week. Here’s the link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8GY3Z2F
BlissDom and Disclosure
As promised, here is a PDF of the complete slide deck from the “You Should Know Better” general session on Friday morning. Kristen Berman from Intuit covered best accounting practices, Liza Barry-Kessler gave an overview of the legal issues facing bloggers in their small businesses, and I talked about disclosure as a best practice and the FTC guidelines on endorsements and testimonials.
We were lucky that Stacey Ferguson was in the audience. She is an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission advertising practices division and was able to help answer a few questions.
I don’t want to dive too deep into disclosure in this post but one thing most definitely bears repeating: the FTC does not dictate how you should disclose other than it must be “clear and conspicuous.” There are many ways to be clear and conspicuous. For example, put the disclosure at the top of the post, at the top of the blog sidebar or within the text of the post as you write about whatever it is. All pretty clear. You just have to be sure that the reader has an opportunity to see the disclosure without searching for it. But… there is no checklist that says the FTC approves these five ways to disclose and does not approve these other five.
That’s why best practices are so very very important. Also common sense. For example, if you have written a long, long blog post, putting the disclosure at the bottom of your post, and only at the bottom, isn’t too conspicuous. No one says you can’t put it there — not even the FTC — but I will tell you that it’s not a best practice.
On the other hand, if you write snappy short product bits that fit in the first screen (“above the fold”), a disclosure at the bottom of the post is pretty conspicuous. It’s simple common sense – just ask yourself, if I was reading someone else’s blog, where would I want to be informed about the endorsement or material relationship?
Stacey also made it clear to the audience that the FTC does not require that blogs have a disclosure policy nor does a blanket disclosure policy cancel out the need to disclose in your posts.
Best practices demand that you do MORE than the FTC requires. A disclosure policy is a best practice that helps your readers understand your point of view, your relationships and your biases. Use best practices and common sense, and you should be fine. The slides from the BlissDom session have some suggestions, and Blog with Integrity will have more free webinars on this and related topics like copyright and fair use.
Super Bowl Ads
Liked: Snickers, VW, Clydesdales [Updated 2/9 to add that I also liked the NFL, Google and HomeAway ads, all of which were spot-on in their branding]
Didn’t like: All the misogyny (Dodge, Bridgestone, Dove, Go Daddy), creepy eTrade babies, people acting like dolphins, stuffed animals acting like people
Survey for Professional Blogging for Dummies
I’m heads down most days on my book right now, and I’d like your help. A key feature in the book is case studies, anecdotes and tips from successful bloggers. I’d also like to have some trend data about professional blogs. How are people making money? Do they have a business plan? What sorts of opportunities have bloggers gotten as a result of their blogs? So, I’ve got a little survey up on Survey Monkey. If you write a professional or small business blog, I hope you will take it.
2009 has not been a banner year. The economy really impacted my business, as it has so many. Among other things, the competition for projects got quite fierce. When full-service agencies slash their fees to the bone, it is pretty hard for an independent to match it. And the projects that did come in tended to be smaller than in previous years.
Things seemed to pick up a little toward the end of the year, which makes me hopeful for 2010. I’m also always looking at all my options. If you’ve got something in which you think I might be interested, whether a project, long term assignment or full-time job, please never assume I am too busy or wouldn’t be interested. I am always interested. Always.
There were some highlights over the year:
But no lie, I am ready to kick 2009 to the curb and say hello to 2010. There’s a lot to look forward to. I’ve just started work on some challenging new client projects and as I mentioned above, we’ve got good stuff in the works for Blog with Integrity. And of course the book. I have to write a chapter a week every week until mid-March. Doesn’t sound like much until you start to do it, and then it’s a bit like having a term paper due every week. Worth it in the end though.
I’m also honored to have been invited to speak at a number of conferences over the next few months, starting with the Consumer Electronics Show next week in Las Vegas. Here’s the schedule, through April 2010.
CES, Las Vegas, January 8, 2010 —
BlissDom ’10, Nashville, February 4-6, 2010 —
ETC 2010, Providence, Rhode Island, February 6, 2010 —
Mom 2.0 Summit, Houston, February 18-20, 2010 —
BlogPaws, Columbus, Ohio, April 9-10, 2010 —
New Comm Forum, San Mateo, California, April 20-23, 2010 —
If you have a moment over the next few days, please take my blogger survey about marketing pitches and Facebook contests. Only 10 questions! Results will be reported here and on the Blog with Integrity Facebook page early next week.
I’d like to end the year with the lyrics from Louis Jordan’s holiday classic May Every Day Be Christmas (listen to it on Last.fm). Sums up my wish for all of us in the coming year:
May every day be Christmas
And every day be blessed
Let the end of every day be filled with happiness
And may the Lord be good to you with every rising sun
All through the day have a smile for everyone
[repeats] At night time comes a longing to be with ones you love
To sit around the fireside and dream of stars above
So may God bless you and keep you, come what may
Then every day will be a happy day [end repeat]
May good times come to you every day.
We are fortunate to have a top notch pair of Washington lobbyists, Elizabeth Frazee and Sharon Ringley of TwinLogic Strategies, helping Blog with Integrity on a pro bono basis. They made the initial connection to the FTC for the Town Hall webinar on the 10th, and earlier this month when I was in DC on other business, they set up a day of meetings on Capitol Hill.
Our goal was to let policymakers know that, at the grassroots level, bloggers are committed to transparency, disclosure and self-regulation.
We also wanted to show our support for the common sense approach of applying existing law, combined with self regulation, to new technologies, rather than rushing to new, possibly unnecessary legislation. Only if the existing laws cannot adequately address the public’s interest, should we look to new laws.
This is exactly what the FTC has done with the endorsement guidelines. It intends to apply existing law about a certain type of content — a commercial endorsement — to a new form, blogs and social media. We need to let it play out.
On the Hill, we met with staffers for key congressional committees, including commerce and small business. At the FTC, we met with members of Chairman Leibowitz’s staff, and were honored when the Chairman made time to spend a few minutes with us as well. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in the campaign and our ongoing educational program.
Of course, the cynic in me knows it didn’t hurt that we weren’t actively lobbying for something specific. Most of the time, congressional and agency staffers juggle meetings with interested parties looking for a specific outcome.
We just wanted to make the connection.