Gini Dietrich

New FTC Guidelines Should Affect All Who Review Products

By: Gini Dietrich | October 12, 2009 | 

This won’t come as news to most of you: Last week the FTC released its new disclosure guidelines for bloggers. I don’t have a vested interest in this as I don’t make money from blogging. And I do believe there should be disclosure and honesty for anyone who writes a review for a product, including affiliate marketers, paid tweeters, and bloggers. This isn’t news to you, either as I’ve blogged about this before.

But what is of interest is what other non-paid bloggers are saying about the guidelines.

Paul Holmes, last week, wrote that bloggers are now held to a higher standard than traditional journalists. Then Davina Brewer wrote that she agrees disclosure is key and this is a no brainer for bloggers (plus it’s worth the read just to see how she uses “glitter-farting ponies).

Which I agree with.

But, to Paul’s point, why are journalists held to a different standard? As PR pros, we send products to reporters ALL THE TIME for review. They don’t have to disclose whether or not they received the product free-of-charge, nor if they kept it for personal use. Some media outlets do have no soliticitation rules in that they either can’t accept products or that they donate them to charities. But some outlets don’t have those rules.

Think about all of the DJ drops you’ve done in your careers. Think about all of the elaborate media kits you’ve produced. Think about how many green rooms you’ve sat in while you waited to hand off your client’s next best thing. How many times has the reporter said, “This review was made possible by the free-of-charge drop from XYZ client’s PR firm”?

Sure, a few years ago we had to stop doing video news releases without attribution to the client and most advertorials now say PAID ADVERTISING across the top of them. But there are some bloggers who are MUCH MORE influential than some journalists, yet the guidelines are different?

Shouldn’t journalists be held to the same FTC guidelines as bloggers?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Journalists don’t have final editorial control, unlike bloggers.

  • Caitlin – Fair. But would an editor change a review?

  • Gini- Check out this story (via @BethHarte @CubanaLAF) about a paper ASKING for samples rather than PR pitches. The editor’s argument was that publishing a press release was free advertising; if someone wants coverage for their product, they should put their money (product) where their mouth is.

    Back to the FTC: It is a double standard. Some of it comes from the standards that journalists are held to regarding truth, accuracy, accountability in reporting and what people expect from ethical journalism.

    The FTC assumes it’s understood that Walter Mossberg is being paid by the paper to use, review and write about products. If Microsoft or Apple were paying his salary, different story; if he got to keep the new Macs rather than returning them, different story.

    One thing these rules are designed to do is crackdown on the payola, pay for play, astroturfing and other unethical practices.

    But regarding legitimate bloggers and citizen journalists, perhaps the FTC thinks people need more warning when they read a blog reviewing the latest iPhone app, Spanish wines or lipstick. Does it matter if that app or lipstick or book was a freebie? You bet. It matters more that you say so, one way or the other.

    I posted on @dmscott’s blog today, that I’d respect a blogger AND/or journalist more for being upfront as to why and how they came to post a review. I’m with you: disclosure should apply to anyone reviewing a product, not just bloggers.

  • My head hurts thinking about all this. I’m for honesty, and disclosure and stuff like that. But I happen to think the FTC went too far.

    “Blogger” – does that mean micro-blogger? LinkedIn poster? If I post on LinkedIn that I, say, recommend someone, and they recommend me in return, isn’t that payola?

    WTH, listen to morning radio, when the “paid endorsement” line gets blurred like crazy. Paul Harvey pioneered this approach: where it doesn’t sound like he’s giving a commercial. Miss the “now this” and you miss the fact that he’s now peddling Craftmatics.

    I need some wine — which, full disclosure, I bought at Costco, though first learned about it when being compensated to go to Costco to talk up someone else’s wine.

  • Perhaps I’m being too idealistic, but I firmly believe in full and open disclosure in all written and verbal communications. Period.

  • Many years ago when I was a managing editor of a small daily newspaper, the local restaurants would send over a pizza or a dessert to me. These went to the newsroom staff. Scouts honor.

    I would discover in this role the public’s perception of the power editors have is distorted. If the restaurant’s owner had steered his car into a pedestrian the next day or had poisoned someone with one of his pizzas, I would have been duty bound to print the story, and I would have. If I had buried the story or held it, I would have been clearing out my desk the next day.

    The smallest of news organizations work diligently at building credibility with the public. Many if not most have strict policies regarding gratuities. The easiest policy to enforce apparently was the one that required the least supervision. These policies usually stated that in no circumstances were newsroom employees to accept gratuities or payment. The woman who hired me into my first reporting job had ascended to her job after she ratted out the managing editor. The ME had attempted to keep an unfavorable story about a friend out of print.

    Maintaining credibility with the general public is a hard-fought war. Sure, there are instances when individuals step across the line. I hope they are dealt with in traditional fashion. There is much discussion in the news profession. The matter is hashed and rehashed at length. But, the practice of accepting pay for content that is not disclosed as advertising has little debate. It is not done.

    I would wager that most journalists would not accept payment for stories, even if it meant the survival of their employing organization. A belief that the newsroom must function apart and without regard to the business side is vital to the integrity and credibility of news organizations. It is not that surprising to see an example where an editor has attempted to influence advertising purchases – not these days. It is not surprising to hear tell of executives trying to influence editorial decisions. It is a constant war. By the way, it is not the job of an editor to influence advertising.

    I congratulate the FTC for taking this step without extending the law to news organizations. The blogger community could have applied whatever pressure they could muster on individuals themselves to encourage disclosure. I think self-policing is the preferable way to handle this kind of matter.

    Traditional news organizations long ago established parameters. The important difference between a legitimate news organization and everything else is the former earnestly struggles to self police.

    Recall that the reason for the existence of many of these blogs was to take pay for product endorsements. With the advent of AdSense, bloggers were given an additional revenue source. That happy circumstance has not encouraged disclosure, not enough to suit regulators.

    News organizations employ professionals with a dedication to fighting for content devoid of outside influence. You’ll find reporter arguing on behalf of integrity as frequently as you find editors doing so.

    Admittedly, news organizations are under more financial pressure these days, and some may take drastic steps as one editor seems to have done. If it comes to a point where enough newspapers adopt undisclosed pay for words as general practice, then I think that would be the appropriate time to review the FTC regulations. For the small portion of the news operation that are dedicated to writing reviews, be assured there are stated policies regarding the disposition of products submitted. For legitimate news publications, payment for stories is not even a consideration. These are ads. Until that changes, you most likely will find the advertising department on a separate floor from the newsroom.

  • I think the FTC will find this extremely difficult to implement – they are, after all, attempting to regulate the internet, and, while it definitely needs some sort of regulation, I cannot see how they will be able to monitor, track and punish breaches of their code.

    What constitutes a breach anyway? A blogger receives a product for free, finds it to be a good product, writes a good review. Doesn’t say where they got that product. Is this a problem? Surely it’s only the misleading reviews of products that should be met with punitive action – and how will the FTC know what’s misleading?

    If, indeed, this covers any post – Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, MySpace, YouTube, personal blogs, corporate blogs, special interest sites – how is it going to be enforced?

    Of course advertorials should have ‘advertising feature’ written on them. VNRs should be clearly labelled, in terms of their provenance. If hard cash has changed hands, or been involved in the process of achieving coverage, then that should be flagged up.

    But the industry has been sending product to journalists since time began and, generally speaking, you get the coverage your product or service deserves.

    By which I mean that high-circulation gossip magazines aimed at a young female audience tend to review cosmetics and clothes in a brief and reasonably dispassionate manner, but if you want to get your stuff on the Jonathan Ross show (in the UK) the product has to be something he really, really likes and is happy to endorse. (And that’s very rare.)

    Finally however, it must come down to caveat emptor. I think – especially in this new digital age – that it has to be down to the individual consumer’s judgement. I think we (speaking as a consumer) have to be trusted to know what’s hype and puffery and what isn’t.

    If we read a review of a product or service – well, that’s a good thing, because perhaps we didn’t know about it before, and it might be something that we’d be interested in. We’re not, however, automatically going to think it’s great because a magazine or TV station or celebrity told us so. At least I hope not. I think people are more media-savvy than that.

    Given that the FTC guidelines on blogging are probably unenforceable, and given that there’s probably nothing wrong with how (the majority) of journalists work now – it would seem a bit harsh on journalists (and on us as PR professionals) to subject them to similar guidelines which, in the case of traditional media, could actually be enforced.

  • Great points here Gini – especially the one about bloggers being held to a higher standard than traditional reporters – my question is this – why are they – if traditional journalists are not to be?

    Initially weren’t all traditional journalists clammering that “bloggers” or “citizen journalists” and their credibility – when it comes to all of the issues outlined in this post shouldn’t traditional journalists be holding themselves to this new “benchmark”?

    I don’t think you’ll ever get consensus on this topic but the one thing I would add is (especially to Davina’s comment) regardless of who you are – the standards either apply to all or they should apply to none. Cheers,


  • Good points, Jeremy et al. It really does come down to credibility. Traditional journalism has taken public steps to separate its advertising from its journalism in an effort to remain credible, and has been VERY successful at it. If bloggers don’t do the same thing, their value as information sources will rapidly and inexorably diminish. Fool me once, etc. etc.

    I really could care less if a blogger said up front he or she was reviewing something for a fee. But if I found out later, then I would never believe another review that blogger wrote. What would be the point in that? Blogging career, OVER.

  • Paul Holmes

    So, if I might paraphrase and abbreviate Raymond Alvarez’ post, we should have one law for people he doesn’t trust and another law for people he does.There may be some legal system or some ethical or philosophical principle that espouses this approach, but where I come from we are supposed to treat people equally under the law.

    Especially since I am not nearly as sanguine about (mainstream) journalistic ethics as he is.

  • I am not even that sure it should all be codified in any way except in the marketplace, are you all? Trust gets broken, people bail. Trust gets codified, it’s not really that legit either. Can we count on folks to do the right thing because it’s in their best interests in this case, or am I being massively naive and idealistic?

  • @Gini, If an editor thought the reviewer was influenced by freebies, they would pull or change a review and there would be serious repercussions for the reviewer’s career.

    Also, my point is also that it is the publication that sets the rules on disclosure. For example, I’ve worked for a publication that allowed journalists to accept press trips from technology vendors but the editor had to approve it first. The stories always disclosed that ‘Joe Bloggs travelled to San Francisco with assistance from Widget Vendor” at the end. But it was the publication’s choice whether or not to accept the trip and whether or not to print the disclosure. The journalist might have an opinion about ethics but it wasn’t really up to them.

    @Jeremy, you said “What constitutes a breach anyway? A blogger receives a product for free, finds it to be a good product, writes a good review. Doesn’t say where they got that product. Is this a problem?”


  • Lon

    Raymond made many good points, to which I would add the following based on nearly 20 years of newspaper, radio and PR experience. This whole issue is one of my pet peeves and I could write far more than I will submit here.

    In most journalism programs a lot of time is spent on ethics discussions, i.e. what’s right and what’s wrong.
    Journalists are taught to value their independence and at least try to be objective.

    With the advent of web communication, anyone with a computer, web access, and a desire to blog can do so. No training, no knowledge of objective values, no checks on their output.

    This is certainly not a criticism of blogging, just an illustration of the difference. A publication or public media outlet has at least some checks and balances built in because of the number of people involved in decision making. When I blog, no one reads the final product but me before it’s put on the web.

    Blogging is a media frontier. We all are wrestling with what should and shouldn’t be done. Is there a code of ethics for bloggers? I think there should be if there isn’t. Are there training courses in the the ethics of blogging? If there aren’t there should be. If bloggers made attempts to police themselves, the chances of governmental interference lessens.

  • I agree with Jeremy that the FTC will find great difficulty in implementing this regulation. Tuesday’s F.I.R. podcast touched on the issue from an international perspective that I believe has been neglected during the analysis of the FTC’s new regulation.

    I know enough about the new regulation only to be dangerous, but from what Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson were saying, I got the impression that in order for the law to be effective on a global scale, all countries would have to implement similar rules. How will this law effect bloggers in countries outside of the U.S.?

    Perhaps a representative were to send a product (let’s say it’s a consumer tech product) to a blogger in Eastern Europe. That blogger then decides she likes the product and writes a positive blog – in English – without expressly disclosing the free sample. A reader in the U.S. then reads the post, sees the positive review of the product and buys the product because of it.

    I agree that disclosure is the foundation of ethical communications – both on the part of organizational communicators and those reviewing the products. Holmes makes an interesting point about bloggers being held to a higher standard than journalists. Take writers for magazines, for example. Am I expected to believe that the writer of an Esquire article focusing on an Ermanegildo Zegna suit priced at $3,000 paired with shoes that cost $2,000 actually went out and spent such a substantial portion of his salary to review the products? I don’t – I’m sure Zegna provided him with these products. Perhaps the magazine footed the bill. But I’m inclined to believe that the product manufacturer provided it. Based upon the new guidelines provided by the FTC, a blogger in the same position would have to disclose, while the Esquire writer would not. Interesting situation, to be certain.

  • Does anyone else think Ray saying “Scout’s honor” make you think he sometimes ate the pizza all by himself?!?

    I’m far behind on getting back to people on comments, so I apologize.

    I love the debate that is going on here. I’m not sure I disagree with anything being said.

    I think the bottom line is that EVERYONE (not just bloggere and reporters) need to be honest in all dealings. If you receive a product free-of-charge to review, say so. If your dad is on a company’s board and you mention the company, disclose the information. Disclosure is key here. People will be angry if they find out later and you’ll have a crisis on your hands. Avert the crisis. Be honest. Always.