Posted by Tom Gable
PR firms are often the driving force behind helping clients build buzz, brand identity and even sales volume through promotional blogging and tweeting, Facebook pages, product reviews, restaurant and hotel tips and more. Beyond advancing the art of social media, firms need to ensure that they are equally up to speed on FTC guidelines or face possible legal action, according to two lawyers from Davis & Gilbert, New York, during a presentation to a quarterly meeting of IPREX recently in Toronto.
The lawyers, Michael Lasky and Gary Kibel, told the PR pros from more than 40 firms on three continents that the FTC has continued to update its guidelines about bloggers and others being truthful and reliable.
“And this isn’t just a feel good; it’s a legal requirement,” said Lasky, who chairs the PR practice at D&G. He provided a handout that summarized the FTC guidelines, including this summary:
“The Guides have been updated to ensure truth in all media, including blogs, social networking sites, and other new media. The basic principles of the Guides remain the same — endorsements must be truthful and not misleading and if there is a connection between the endorser and the marketer that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed.”
Clients and their PR firms can be held liable for unsubstantiated claims, so Lasky and Kibel stressed that PR firms need policies and procedures about expectations for proper behavior on both the agency and client side of the equation. This includes working with third parties, such as hiring people to blog and tweet about a company and its stock price, services or products, or take negative shots at its competition as well.
The lawyers provided an example in one of their publications about complaints being filed against Ann Taylor for giving gifts to bloggers and asking them to blog about an event. The FTC found that several bloggers posted about the event without disclosing the gifts. No action was taken because Ann Taylor had created a written policy stating that it would not issue gifts to bloggers without first instructing them they must disclose the gifts. There was a sign at the event instructing bloggers to disclose the gifts if they posted about the event. Case closed.
Lasky and Kibel outlined several top blogging practices clients and their PR firms should follow:
- Have a policy.
- For bloggers, be forthright — disclose any material connection.
- For clients and their agencies, monitor their bloggers to make sure they make the necessary disclosures. If you see something misleading, unsubstantiated or not reported accurately, take action.
- In hiring a blog service, companies and their agencies must provide guidance and training about the necessary disclosure.
- Employees of the marketing or its PR firms should clearly disclose relationships. Such as PR firms blogging about a product from a client.
- Even street team members who get consideration (reward points, etc.) for their work must disclose the details.
- When celebrities are paid, they must disclose (Lasky and Kibel provided the example of Armstrong Williams, commentator, who was hired by a PR firm to promote the “No Child Left Behind” program on CNN).
- Have spokespeople go through extensive media training to ensure they understand the disclosures.
- On level of disclosure, analyze the audience.
- You don’t know it all. Seek legal assistance.
In another case, an agency was hired to endorse a client’s gaming application. Its people gave the game high ratings. The agency failed to disclose that it received a percentage of sales of the games as compensation.
Disclosure can be as simple as adding parenthetical notes in the copy (“Company X gave me this product to try.” “Product Y was sent to me by the manufacturer.” “Wineries whose names are preceded by an asterisk * provided samples.” “Agency Z is providing blogging and other services for Client A.”).
Some use hash tags in their tweets and Facebook posts, such as #ad, #paid and #sponsored.
Bottom line: disclose, and have the disclosure displayed where it can be easily found. The lawyers said trouble awaits when the disclosure is buried three levels deep on a website.