Protecting blogger ethics without the FTC

PR practitioners know that secretly paying for editorial placement or editorial influence and failing to disclose the exchange of value or "quid pro quo" flouts fundamental tenets of truth and transparency.

PR practitioners know that secretly paying for editorial placement or editorial influence and failing to disclose the exchange of value or “quid pro quo” flouts fundamental tenets of truth and transparency. Known as “pay for play,” this practice also runs afoul of specific tenets of the PRSA's Code of Ethics.

The rising influence of new media, though, has muddied traditional roles and responsibilities in the communications hierarchy. The definition of “journalist” is evolving, as citizens assert their points of view via blogs, tweets, and message boards. Marketers, too, are forming new kinds of partnerships that blur the lines between advertising and editorial.

The principles remain clear, but today application can be a moving target. Even accepted practices are taking on a different cast in the evolving media environment. A case in point – marketers who secretly supply free products and services to bloggers in exchange for a favorable review.

Print and broadcast product and service reviews have become standard fare. After all, what film critic buys a ticket to the opening-night premiere? Conversely, what automotive reporter gets to keep the $45,000 car that he just reviewed?

Yet, bloggers who accept free gifts in exchange for exposure are now in the crosshairs as purveyors of “blogola.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), revisiting 30-year-old rules on ad endorsements and testimonials, has cast its regulatory eye on the blogging set. A final ruling is expected later this year, but the proposed guidelines impose personal liability on bloggers, along with marketers, for false advertising. That is, unless they clearly disclose the nature of their relationship. Significantly, this move would mark the FTC's first regulatory foray into the blogosphere.

The FTC has said it strongly supports self-regulation, and industry groups have been coming forward with potential solutions. The National Advertising Review Council (NARC) has plans for a self-regulatory alternative that calls for clear disclosure when a company is sponsoring a site or paying for product reviews. The PRSA submitted comments on the proposed FTC rules calling for further clarity and also beefed up its stand on transparency with a new PRSA Code of Ethics provision, Professional Standards Advisory PS-9.

A ready option for bloggers would be to adopt the Code model. In PS-9, PRSA clarifies how transparency bars pay-for-play, blogola's first cousin. The advisory details the need to disclose any exchange of value that influences coverage. The key is intent, and the ethical solution is disclosing the value and its source. That value, notably, might be cash, travel, gifts, or future favors.

Right now, you might say bloggers are caught between a rock and a soft place. Some who accepted small sums have recanted. Others criticized them for “selling out” and jeopardizing the medium's populist roots. Some marketing firms openly defend the practice of paying for blog reviews, while Google has punished offenders by lowering paid bloggers in its page-ranking algorithms.

Self-regulation would sustain a higher degree of independence than FTC regulation. Those intent on preserving the medium's free spirit should take comfort in the autonomy that self-regulation would protect. One way or the other, the FTC spotlight will likely lead to a trimming of blogging practices, while self-regulation could sustain independence that would otherwise be lost.

Michael Cherenson, APR, is the PRSA's 2009 chair and CEO.

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