Ethics

PREthics & Native Advertising

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PR Teams – Be On Alert

Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines for native advertising, a topic of much discussion in 2016. These guidelines have implications for public relations professionals to consider. A look at current and past practices, such as product and company publicity, makes this evident.

Product publicists have loaned merchandise to editors for photo shoots in exchange for brand name mentions in editorial features, for example. As this practice has evolved throughout the years, merchandise might become unreported gifts. Some merchandise cannot be returned, such as windows and doors for a home being built at the direction of editors for a feature story.

As print communication has declined in favor of digital, publishers have had to look for new ways to support their organizations. Some editorial features that are expensive to produce have become sponsored features wherein contributors provide both merchandise and cash.

When does product publicity become native advertising? Is it only when it appears as a paid ad opportunity on a rate card, available to any advertiser? Or not, since it is still at the editors’ discretion to choose which products they will include? And how does the publicist assure that the transaction is ethical when not controlling the final product?

As media consumers have realized that even the hallowed halls of editorial independence are sometimes compromised, their trust has eroded. It’s become so complicated to discern what influences may have been brought to bear on a piece of communication that consumers have almost given up. Today, they trust most what friends and strangers say on the Internet. They used to trust publishers to make it clear.

That is why the FTC, which has long enforced its principles of truth in advertising, published its “Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements.”

When could a PR placement be considered a deceptively formatted advertisement, subject to enforcement fines? Say, for example, that a company is reviewed or presented favorably by an impartial editor. If the company pays a service to get that editorial piece linked to a post somewhere else, that payment can be considered deceptive even though the link leads to legitimate editorial content.

It’s no wonder consumers are confused and that PR practitioners can be confused, as well. Here are links to relevant information.

  1. Keep up to date on what the FTC is doing: Understand their guidelines and be knowledgeable of enforcement actions. You’ll find nine pages of detailed information including the explanation of 17 clear, helpful, specific examples in the new guidelines. https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/native-advertising-guide-businesses
  2. Read the recent ESA 19 (Ethical Standards Advisory): published by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) on native advertising. The ESA includes pertinent sections of the PRSA Code of Ethics and provides examples, as well as best practices. http://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/ethics/documents/ethicalstandardsadvisoryesa19.pdf
  3. Work with media you believe are being mutually transparent: Before you make recommendations on specific media activities, be sure to understand how the specific media involved operate. Ask questions and study their past materials.

Communicate ethically and effectively through channels you understand. Time spent studying the principles behind transparent communication, the disclosures that may be required and how to make them is important in this age of media confusion.

Jim Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, added this comment: “Remember, if your tummy feels uncomfortable, even if everything seems to be okay, dig deeper before you proceed. Surprisingly you are very likely to get encouragement from the media. Times and economic necessity are really changing things. You’ll probably have to be the judge of what’s deceptive. You certainly will get the blame.”


Bobbi Johnson Simmons, APR PR Director Arlington/Roe, ex officio member of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), Past President, PRSA Hoosier Chapter. Connect with Bobbi on LinkedIn.

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