Will the updated FTC rules change the way you work with bloggers?

Access Communications' Susan Butenhoff and MWW's Joe Becker enter debate.

Yes

Susan Butenhoff
CEO, Access Communications
Decades of experience working in tech PR

The short answer is yes, but it's more complicated than that. As communicators, we deal in the realm of earned space - we're paid to advocate and influence. Pay-for-play is anathema to the PR discipline and regulation was bound to come, but shame on us if we haven't already been diligent self-regulators.

We've been well schooled in the separation of church and state in media, and that standard remains largely intact. Review copies of products will continue to be made available to journalists and bloggers without cost, but we will be more generous with loaner copies for those bloggers that have the greatest reach and influence. More agencies are also going to require bloggers to sign disclosure agreements for such activity.

What will change most on a day-to-day basis is the level of scrutiny we apply to each and every blogger relationship where product sampling is involved. Staying on top of which bloggers are following the new guidelines and which aren't will require heavy lift- ing from our people. Excel target lists that are outdated the minute you hit 'save' don't cut it anymore given the real-time nature of the Web and the explosive growth of the blogosphere.

Because we are frequently in charge of setting a client's blogger-relations strategy, the question has now become: Is it truly worth it to engage with a blogger who's not completely transparent about his or her practices? It's our job to counsel a client on those bloggers who require some "extra reasons" to feature a product or perspective.

The fact is that trying to buy a review was a dumb idea even before these new guidelines went into effect. It is imperative that communicators fully understand a blogger's rules of engagement, which can be less than transparent. It now becomes more critical to monitor all of this: pay/no pay for play; visibility at trade/industry shows; editorial tone; history of brand relationships; and visitor metrics, among many other criteria, to ensure an accurate profile of the blogger.

No

Joe Becker
Group leader, MWW Group's Dialogue Media practice
Devises the agency's digital media programs

For companies and firms that conduct business in the online community in a transparent and ethical manner, the new FTC rules will have little impact on their work. The on-line landscape has changed in recent years; blogs' influence has caused many to be inundated with product and PR pitches.

Still, the core tenets of disclosure and accountability through that process should remain the same. The same considerations that shape interactions with print and broadcast reporters - objectivity, accountability, and transparency - should be seamless for companies and PR firms working with bloggers.

Some might say the updated FTC rules will create a more formalized approach and, thus, more red tape while working with bloggers and other word-of-mouth marketers. Some suggest that these precautions could limit future participation by marketers and bloggers. The fact is that the updated FTC guidelines are long overdue. They will only serve to promote a higher level of honesty and accountability when it comes to marketing and disclosure.

A big question for PR pros is how product reviews will be managed. Typically, I don't allow bloggers to keep product. Rather, they can sample it for a set period, at which time, they can buy it at a discounted rate (with proceeds going to charity) or return it. Meanwhile, working with platforms that allow participants to dialogue openly is advantageous to disclosing details about the program.

I also believe that when a blogger is planning to write about my clients, asking them to be open about how and why they are writing is prudent.

Lastly, fundamental to successful PR is monitoring; compiling results for clients, yes, but we must also ensure accurate representation by the bloggers with whom we work, something we already do. I'm a fan of the Blog with Integrity pledge, which asks communities to declare a certain degree of appropriateness online. As part of the growing group of social media PR pros, my job is to demonstrate respect for these online communities and simply ask the same in return for me and the brands I represent.

PRWeek's view
Though many PR professionals were already abiding by these rules per internal standards, involvement by the government is going to force a higher level of scrutiny and training on blogger relations industrywide.

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