Updated FTC guidelines spur a review of digital strategies

This summer, marketers and bloggers were on alert about the proposed changes to FTC guidelines on disclosure.

Updated FTC guidelines spur a review of digital strategies

This summer, marketers and bloggers were on alert about the proposed changes to FTC guidelines on disclosure. When the new version of "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising" was released on October 5, many communicators were pleased, but still began to look at how the rules would affect business practices.

"If you look at many large companies, the heads of PR or PR teams are often providing direction and counsel to the actual brand leaders," says Paul Rand, president-elect of WOMMA and president and CEO of word-of-mouth agency Zócalo Group. "Those folks are now in a really good position to ensure that this is one of the things they are helping their brands do. For the agencies and partners, it's hopefully a chance for them to provide additional value and leadership to their brands."

To help PR pros, WOMMA planned to offer educational sessions about the new guidelines, with leadership from the FTC, at the annual WOMMA Summit in November. It also plans to release best practices to help understand the literal changes that need to be made.

"The guidelines are providing good direction, but now we have to get to the literalness of 'If I am a brand, what am I actually saying as I'm communicating with bloggers and others?'" Rand says.

Relief to some
For more homegrown blogging communities, such as mommy bloggers, the guidelines are a relief, says Nancy Martira, senior interactive strategist for Ketchum, as they can help them navigate issues of transparency.

"I think a lot of our clients got a little spooked, especially this summer when they weren't sure which way things would go," Martira says. "Now that the guidelines are out, this is an opportunity for not only the bloggers to educate themselves, but also for us to educate our clients as to what is and what is not permissible."

Sony interacts with dad bloggers with its DigiDads program, among others, and not only loans products, but also provides bloggers with language to include in blog posts, disclosing the relationship and program.

"We actually, with bloggers, have let them know that they do need to disclose the relationship now, especially with the new guidelines," says Marcy Cohen, senior manager of communications for Sony. While the company has had its own practices in place for a while, "we just want to make sure we're covering all of our bases," she says.

Additionally, Sony is updating its blog guidelines for its employees, keeping all staffers informed of the FTC changes and what the ramifications are for their jobs.

"I think ethical PR agencies have already been doing this," says Shel Holtz, principal at Holtz Communications. But, he adds, some not-as-ethical firms "are the folks you have to worry about. These are the folks I hope the FTC will focus on."

The FTC does plan to shine most of the spotlight on the advertisers and the companies, rather than on the individual bloggers, says Richard Cleland, assistant director of the division of advertising practices for the FTC.

"You have to look at the whole set of circumstances of the relationship between the endorser and the advertiser or the ad agency," he suggests, explaining that the problem comes when there is a long-term relationship and not necessarily a one-off free product for review.

Onus on marketers
So while bloggers will need to disclose relationships, free gifts, and payments, the bulk of the responsibility will lie with marketers, who must clearly communicate to all journalists, bloggers, and online influencers, that they must disclose relationships in all communication.

"It can either become complicated or it can be really simple," Rand says. "If indeed a PR pro is working with a blogger or other online influencer, and they are sending them something for opinion, it's simply saying, 'If you happen to comment on this or review this, just let them know that the company provided them for your consideration.'"

Main points from the FTC

"Material connections"
Disclosing relationships between endorsers and brands that consumers would not expect is now something bloggers and other word-of-mouth marketers must do

In addition to endorsers and bloggers, celebrities now also have a duty to disclose their relationships with brands

"Results not typical"
This is no longer an acceptable disclaimer. If an ad or endorsement features a personal experience, advertisers must describe the typical results

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