If A Quarter of a Million Dollars Isn’t Enough to Make You Behave…

This blog post originated on PRSAY, a forum for PRSA members and other public relations professionals to engage in a dialogue with PRSA leaders, exchange viewpoints, and share perspectives on issues of concern to the Society and the public relations industry as a whole. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of PRSA.

With all of the noise the FTC’s “blogger rules” made when first introduced in late-2009, you would think that most marketers and agencies would have gotten the point by now the FTC is serious about cracking down on bloggers and companies posting fake reviews. Apparently, there are a few who still haven’t gotten the message.

That looks to be the case following news of a $250,000 fine the FTC slapped on Legacy Learning Systems Inc. for bogus product reviews it procured from affiliate marketers and bloggers on behalf of clients.

If a quarter-of-a-million dollars isn’t enough of a punishment to make us behave, I don’t know what is. With a fine that big, the FTC is sending a serious message, and it’s time we take notice and learn the laws that govern the blogosphere.

Experts are speculating that there will be more cases like this in the pipeline, but the FTC legally cannot disclose what it has in the works.

In its recent ruling against Legacy Learning Systems Inc., the FTC said that “Anyone that uses someone else to promote their products would be wise to put in place a reasonable monitoring program to verify . . . that they follow the principles of truth in advertising.”

Let’s say your client or employer gives a gift to a blogger and expects a review. Tell — don’t ask — the blogger to disclose that fact in his or her review. Otherwise, you’re risking the review to be considered fake and putting yours and your client’s reputation at stake.

According to the FTC, “Bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” This is the same whether the blogger is given cash payment or a product to review.

In April 2010, Ann Taylor Loft was investigated by the FTC for potential infringement of the new blogger guidelines. No fines were levied because the company clearly told its bloggers to disclose the fact that they were given gifts. Ann Taylor had no control over the fact that a few of the bloggers didn’t disclose it in their blog posts reviewing the products. Lucky for Ann Taylor Loft, it had a sign posted at a product event stating that all gifts must be disclosed by bloggers.

Just seven months ago, this issue came to a boil when Reverb Communications settled charges with the FTC over fake online product reviews some of its employees were writing on behalf of clients. As my PRSA Board of Directors Colleague Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, wrote on this blog at the time, “Consumers have a right to know that the information they read online is accurate and truthful. They also have a right to know if a product ‘reviewer’ has been paid to offer a positive opinion of a product or service.”

Isn’t it time for this madness to end? It’s unfortunate that the disreputable work of some firms continues to cast doubt across an entire industry.

As these examples of unethical practices illustrate, the correct course of action is always full disclosure and transparency, no matter if you’re engaged in blogger relations or more traditional offline marketing. Whether your aim is to avoid a $250,000 fine or to practice ethically, it’s the right thing to do.

Author Info.: Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA, serves on the PRSA Board of Directors and is president of CIM Incorporated, a Southern California-based public relations firm. She is a co-founder of PRConsultants Group Inc. Follow her at www.facebook.com/CIMIncorporated,  http://www.linkedin.com/in/marisavallbona, and Twitter: @mvallbona.

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