The blogosphere has largely operated as journalism’s Wild West, a virtual boomtown in which individuals have laid claim to online publishing “territories” as readily as forty-niners staked claims to California’s gold-rich rivers and streams. All the while, regulators have been pondering fundamental questions of jurisdiction, motivation and standards. That is, until now
In its recent review of rules governing advertising endorsements and testimonials, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cast a critical eye on the rapidly growing instance of bloggers reviewing products and services provided to them at no cost by public relations professionals and other product marketers. The practice, known as “blogola,” sparked the proposal of new FTC guidelines that would require bloggers to disclose any exchange of value that results in editorial coverage, so that readers can assess for themselves the information’s bias, accuracy and usefulness.
The proposed rules mark the first time that a regulatory body has waded into the blogosphere to try to control what bloggers say and do, a move fundamentally questioned by many. The FTC’s assertion is that traditional advertising principles — like honesty, transparency and accountability — should apply to social media in the same way that they apply to traditional media.
Bloggers could face censure under the new rules, if their receipt of free merchandise is not disclosed. Issues of personal liability might also arise, which could dampen the popularity of “grassroots” product and service reviews that marketers and consumers alike have come to depend on.
That is, unless advertisers, marketers and bloggers show that they can regulate themselves.
The FTC has long believed that “industry self-regulatory codes play an important role in consumer protection,” and that “the development of ethical standards emphasizing transparency for marketers who engage in new forms of marketing is an important step to this end.”
The PRSA Code of Ethics offers instructive guidance in this area. In a recent practice advisory to its members and the broader public relations industry, PRSA spoke out against the custom of “pay-for-play,” a first cousin to blogola. PRSA members are now advised to disclose any exchange of value intended to garner or influence editorial coverage. The key is intent, and the ethical solution is disclosing the value and its source.
PRSA’s code stipulates that is unethical to knowingly fail to “request disclosure of confidential compensation to a communication medium for placement of specified editorial content.” The Code also calls for professionals to “encourage disclosure of any exchange of value that influences how those they represent are covered.” The compensation can take the form of cash, travel, gifts or future favors.
Public relations professionals who adopt these basic principles of communications ethics would go a long way toward helping bloggers comply with the proposed FTC mandates. With the FTC clearly open to transferring traditional ethics rules seamlessly from traditional to social media, the PRSA Code of Ethics can be a model of self-regulation for bloggers.
That “pay-for-play” has not bubbled up into the FTC’s proposals is perhaps evidence that the public relations profession has shown an ability to regulate itself. For an exploding new medium at the crossroads of government attention, it may be worthwhile for the blogosphere to view the PRSA Code as a model worth emulating.
Michael G. Cherenson, APR, is PRSA 2009 Chair and CEO.