FTC-ruling story at Ragan.com

This is a piece I wrote for Ragan Communications:

Published: 10/12/2009

Bloggers, relax—FTC rules aren’t revolutionary
By Ari B. Adler

They’re simple disclosures and easy protocols you should have been following in the first place

“The FTC is coming! The FTC is coming!”

Like some kind of modern-day Paul Revere, bloggers have been preparing their lanterns. They are ready to hang one if by e-mail and two if by snail-mail if they are hit with the highly touted $11,000 fine for failing to disclose compensation for a post about a product.

Enough already—this is nothing worthy of a revolution. The Federal Trade Commission ruling doesn’t appear to be all about levying massive fines, trying to make mommy bloggers choose between some cool free products for the home or their kids’ college education.

The basics behind the new guidelines are as follows:

  • Endorsers and advertisers can now be held liable for false claims;
  • Endorsers and advertisers must disclose material connections with their sponsor;
  • Bloggers are now considered endorsers if they receive compensation, including free products;
  • Firms that engage bloggers with any form of payment in order to receive endorsement of a product must disclose that relationship.
  • Celebrity endorsers must now disclose advertising relationships;
  • The “results not typical” or “results may vary” caveat is no longer a defense for advertisers when their product doesn’t work the way they said it would; and
  • Sponsorship for research cited in advertisements or endorsements must be disclosed.

As a former journalist and one who still believes in the journalistic code of ethics, I’ve been frustrated for some time now how bloggers are posting their opinions with a smattering of facts and expecting the world to take it as gospel.

When I write blog posts, I think it’s clear they are my opinion. They are based on facts but also are influenced by my personal opinion, and I don’t hold back when commenting on the facts I’ve uncovered.

It’s been liberating, actually, to be able to write about things and offer some analysis and a few snarky comments. It’s something I was unable to do as a journalist, because back then it really was just about the facts.

I learned the hard way that no matter how well intentioned you are as a writer, if you are given special treatment, provided a product or compensated in any way, it will influence how your story is written.

When I was a young editor at a weekly newspaper, a trip to Mackinac Island, Mich., to check out a refurbished hotel came across my desk. I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a trip north as I hadn’t been there in a while, and I was determined to give a fair and accurate review of the facility. I took the free trip, spent a couple of days gathering notes and came home to write what I thought was a great travel piece. It was factual. It was fair. It was positive about some things and critical of others. I was very pleased with myself for having pulled off a junket and still managing to write an ethically acceptable news story.

Then the story was printed, and I got a visit from our publisher. His first words were, “I hope we got something for that Mackinac Island story.” I explained that we weren’t a pay-to-play publication so, of course, there was no advertising connected to it, but that I did get a couple of days on the island for my efforts. “Ah, OK, he said—well as long as someone got compensated in some way for that promotional piece.”

See, it’s not that the FTC or the buying public don’t want journalists or bloggers to get free stuff. It’s not that people don’t trust your ethics. It’s that they understand that no matter how objective you think you can be, there is no doubt you are going to be influenced by compensation in any form when you sit down to write about your experience.

In the textbook “Mixed Media,” by Thomas Bivins, it’s noted: “The subjective view of reality is relative to the observer. …We must remember that, as human beings, we still tend to view the objective world through a subjective lens. The trick to being objective is to recognize this inclination and understand that there will be different accounts of reality that must then be judged as either adequate or inadequate based on facts and reason, not on personal perspective.”

How are we, as readers, expected to be able to judge adequately what your perception of reality is if we don’t know all the facts about how you may have been influenced in your writing?

If you receive a free product in order to review it—take advantage of the opportunity. But be forthright enough to admit that it may influence your opinion.

After all, your hard-earned money isn’t on the line if the product works like a charm or not quite like you expected. If your readers are going to spend their money based on your review, you owe it to them to be as transparent as possible on how you arrived at your opinion.
In the end, the FTC rules boil down to being upfront about what you are doing, why you are doing it and whom you are doing it for—whether you’re a journalist, an advertiser, a public relations professional or a blogger.

In a memo to members of the Public Relations Society of America, PRSA Chairman & CEO Michael Cherenson wrote: “From an ethics perspective, the new guidelines parallel key transparency principles in the PRSA Code of Ethics, as well as Professional Standards Advisory PS-9 condemning ‘pay for play’ practices. However, for practitioners, the guidelines go beyond ethics to recommended practice to avoid legal liability. While the ethics are clear, the triggers and nature of adequate disclosure are not fixed. As I recommended in a recent PRSAY post, thorough understanding and self-regulation can help public relations professionals avoid legal repercussions.”

In short: Do the right thing and do it where everyone can see it, and you’ll avoid any trouble. Now there’s a revolutionary concept.

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