A clear call to action for social media guidelines and training

3t A couple of days ago, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published new guidance and use of testimonials and endorsements in advertising. It’s prompted quite a bit of critical commentary and opinion by many business influencers in the US.

While this addition to an existing legal framework is obviously focused in the US, I think it has implications for businesses everywhere. More on that in a minute.

At the heart of the FTC’s guidance (download an 81-page PDF with the full texts), and the area that will be of keen interest to any organization using social media as part of the marketing and communication mix, is that organizations will be held accountable if social media outreach and word-of-mouth campaigns are not conducted in an atmosphere of truthful disclosure.

(It sounds similar to me to what the European Union already has in place regarding online marketing and unfair business practices. Or is that a different thing?)

And looking at it from a blogger’s perspective, the FTC’s guidelines say that the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product or service is considered by the FTC to be a sponsored advertising message and, therefore, must be disclosed or be subject to enforcement.

I’ve done such reviews in the past (examples here). I always disclose what my relationship is with the company or PR agency for the product or service I’m reviewing.


While I’ve never received outright payment, ie, money, for publishing a review on a blog, what sometimes happens is if I’m reviewing a product, I can simply keep it, return it, give it to a charity, whatever I want. Or if it’s a service – a conference, for example – I get to use it for free or at a discounted cost. Not always the case but sometimes.

So to reiterate, I always disclose my relationship. And, I never write pay-per-post, just to be clear on that related point. Heck, I don’t even take ads on my blog (but in the spirit of disclose and truthfulness, I have paying sponsors for my podcast).

An online discussion last night with some of my new colleagues at WeissComm Group got me thinking about the FTC’s guidance and what’s clear in three things organizations must do in their social media outreach and word-of-mouth campaigns:

  1. Make full disclosure and be truthful.
  2. Monitor the conversation and correct misstatements.
  3. Create social media policies and training programmes.

To my mind, these are already common-sense approaches where it’s hard to imagine any organization setting out on a path of engagement with online influencers without such behaviours.

Yet clearly many do either by design or, I believe, more likely through ignorance.

This is to the point I made earlier that the FTC’s guidelines have implications way beyond business practices in the US alone. Look at them as a wake-up call to ensure everything you do in your outreach accords with the spirit and letter of such guidelines whether it’s a legal requirement or not. Isn’t it about doing business in an ethical manner?

If you don’t have your own guidelines in place that state clearly what the rules are that you follow – either stand-alone or as integral elements of broader policies or codes of conduct – as well as illustrating how your activities do comply with laws and guidelines like the FTC’s, now’s the time to put those in place. Accompanying your guidelines plan should be a plan to help everyone in your organization be clear on what they mean, why they’re important and how they should follow them.

What you’re really looking for is agreement by everyone in your business to follow consistent behaviours that are aligned with your good behaviours wherever you do business, online or offline.

As more of our activities is online, and as it becomes ever more easier to create content and share opinion that may influence others, being able to place trust in such behaviours (and opinions) for their truthfulness and transparency is essential.

That’s how I see it (and, no surprise to you, how my colleague Bob Pearson also does). Simple really. Isn’t it?

Communication Leader, Social Media Leader, Consultant, Digital Change Agent, Speaker with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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