Responsible Blogging And FTC Guidelines

by , Jan 13, 2010, 10:46 AM
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Like everyone else in the social media space, we've been closely following the Federal Trade Commission's recent changes to blogging policies and disclosures, as it revamps 20-year old guidelines. The FTC now requires all bloggers to disclose any products or services given in exchange for a blog post. We agree with a need for transparency and authenticity but express concern over many unanswered questions.

Bloggers have become a significant marketing phenomenon for products and services, based on what we call their "sphere of influence" -- the extent to which and how big an audience feels connected to them, follows their posts and trusts their perspective. Bloggers also have gained prominence thanks to how search engine algorithms highly rank and favor blogs.

Because blogs offer the potential of powerful first-person brand ambassadorship, they have emerged as a key way to ignite consumers. More and more brands want to expose bloggers to their products and services in the hope they will post favorable reviews.

With blogger's increased rise in audience and sway comes increased FTC scrutiny. While we laud the FTC for promoting transparency and any potential bias, their first change-up of the guidelines fall short. Here's why:

1. Value What about items that may fall into a grey area?

a. A Mom blogger gets offered an interview with a celebrity endorsing a product, but not the product. Was the interview itself incentive for positive coverage?

b. Or perhaps she gets a free sample of a new beverage at a local town fair -- along with 500 other people attending. Or a coupon to try that beverage free from a marketing direct mail firm. Disclosure?

2. Online versus Offline Regulation Though the FTC is tasked with balancing regulation and transparency, it has been reticent to extend, and enforce, the disclosure regulations to other media:

a. Product placements in movies: Will the FTC require disclosure each time brands feature prominently in a blockbuster movie?

b. Tweets by celebrities: are Ashton and Kim Kardashian disclosing?

c. Magazines and newspapers: Will the FTC require disclosure of press lunches, dinners, or trips? Thus, each "Travel Section" article would begin by alerting readers that the journalist was flown free to the Bahamas or other destination prior to writing an article?

3. Mom Bloggers as Journalists

The rise in power of Mom bloggers encourages debate about how they should be categorized. Are they personal journalists, brand enthusiasts, diarists or columnists? Many buckets emerge for multi-dimensional bloggers. Each rises on the strength of what they have to say, how they say it, and how they bring that passion alive with their growing audiences.

4. Legal Ramifications by Industry

Prior to becoming a Mom blogger and CEO of Mom Central, I was an attorney and spent more than 10 years at Harvard Law School. This background has proved helpful when navigating the FTC guidelines and when working with legal departments across client brands. In our experience, most legal teams hesitate to leverage social media because of a perceived lack of control about what consumers will say to them or about them, particularly in the context of a regulated industry such as pharmaceutical, where all adverse-use mentions involve a full report to the FDA.

Of note, we provide all our bloggers with mandatory disclosure language. We proactively audit all blog posts to ensure that bloggers have complied with this requirement, contact any bloggers who have not disclosed, reminding them to do so, and dismiss bloggers from subsequent tours for non-compliance.

In our next post, we'll present "Part Two: FTC Guidelines from the Mom Blogger Perspective": Our survey of Mom Bloggers' thoughts on the FTC guidelines, how they changed their blogging habits and how brands can best work with them to connect with Moms.

0 comments on "Responsible Blogging And FTC Guidelines ".

  1. Susan Getgood from GetGood Strategic Marketing
    commented on: January 13, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.

    Most of these questions are answered by a close reading of the guidelines and the Blog with Integrity (blogwithintegrity.com) webinar with guest Mary Engle of the FTC held on November 10th (replay on Vimeo http://vimeo.com/7646201). I've also written about this *at length* on my blog, Marketing Roadmaps (http://getgood.com/roadmaps/category/ethics/)

    Neither of the situations on question 1 are relevant. There is no compensation in the interview with the celebrity, and the mass distributed coupon is not subject to the guidelines, per the examples and explicitly addressed in the Blog with Integrity webinar.

    The issue of celebrity endorsements in social media is covered in the guidelines, as is the issue of mainstream media. Product placement in movies is not relevant to these guidelines.

    Finally, this is not about mom bloggers. The issue of ethics in the blogosphere extends to all blogs, all bloggers.

    In the end, isn't the goal honest and authentic communication with our readers? In which case, disclosure of our material interests and relationships is simply best practice, regardless of any governmental guidelines.

    This issue is only fuzzy if you want it to be. From where I sit, it's pretty clear.

    Full disclosure, I am one of the co-founders of the Blog with Integrity project.

  2. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc.
    commented on: January 15, 2010 at 1:49 p.m.

    Responsible and blogging in the same headline. Hahahaha.

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