Fashion PR pros see wake-up call in Loft-blogger controversy

NEW YORK: Following the controversy around an Ann Taylor Loft blogger program, other marketers are considering their gifting strategy with bloggers just in time for Fashion Week.

NEW YORK: Following the controversy around an Ann Taylor Loft blogger program, other marketers are considering their gifting strategy with bloggers just in time for Fashion Week.

As previously reported, Loft faced media backlash after sending out a summer collection preview invite offering an incentive program linked to online coverage, a strategy some outlets and communications professionals are calling pay-to-play. The incident also exposed the bloggers that did not disclose the incentive.

“I think this is an honest mistake in [Loft's] zeal to get these bloggers engaged,” said Paul Wilmot, president of Paul Wilmot Communications (PWC), which worked with the Loft until last year. “But in terms of bloggers failing to disclose, that's [also] a mistake.”

Loft confirmed that it currently handles PR in-house, but declined further comment. The affiliated Ann Taylor brand continues to work with AOR Shadow PR.

Though Wilmot said he acknowledges the value of blogger coverage and the necessity of gifting, he noted that disclosure is essential and marketers should take some responsibility.   

“We would have probably put up some sort of [statement] in the invite saying please make sure to include in the review that we provided the incentive,” he said.

Other PR pros steeped in the fashion world, such as Pierce Mattie, president of Pierce Mattie PR, said as the agency continues to gift, he believes the onus lies with the blogger to disclose freebies.

“It's setting a bar of standards,” he said. “Maybe bloggers have a separate tab on a blog where they keep a running list, rather than have it mandated at the end of every story.”

He added, “I believe in gifting, not incentivizing.”

Loft president Gary Muto told WWD that he didn't believe the company had run afoul of any ethical or other marketing protocols.

 “They could write whatever they want. Obviously, there's freedom of speech,” he told WWD. “We treat bloggers more as potential clients. We don't believe bloggers to be the same as the editorial community. We don't incentivize the press. We would never do that.”

But a number of PR pros counter that the promotion contradicts blogger relation best practices, particularly in light of the FTC's new guidelines that require bloggers to disclose free product samples or other compensation.

“The counsel we're giving clients is we've got to make sure that we're requesting of any blogger we work with, if there's any material exchange, that they disclose it,” said Stephanie Smirnov, president at DeVries PR. 

For example, in the case of promoting a grocery client, she said the agency would encourage full disclosure of any gifting.

“We don't compensate bloggers to review products, but if we're inviting them to create recipes based on food at the store, and we give them a gift card to buy the food, we instruct them to disclose that the food was purchased with the gift card,” she said. 

In general, Smirnov believes that since the FTC ruling, marketers are taking a more cautious approach.

“People are more thoughtful in their outreach,” she said. “They're taking steps making it clear to the bloggers how we as an agency on behalf of the marketer expect them to disclose.” 

The FTC declined to comment for this story, saying in a statement that it does not “comment on whether or not individual companies or advertisements are in compliance with the Guides on Endorsements and Testimonials or with the FTC Act.”

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