Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Gerber.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why we add “(client)” to the end of certain tweets.

In 2009, when the FTC revised their guidelines for online endorsements and testimonials, there was a lot of discussion on how this affected PR agencies and brands when working with bloggers. Not a lot of discussion, however, involved how it affects PR agencies endorsing their clients on social networks.

From time to time, we share a client’s blog or promotion when we know it will add value to our audience. In compliance with FTC guidelines, it is an Arment Dietrich policy to add “(client)” at the end of any communication we conduct on behalf of them.

The question arose because it isn’t an affiliate link, and if we don’t benefit directly, why add it, when our readers are less than likely to click on it?

The FTC Guidelines on Internet Advertising Disclosure specifically state that organizations, experts, consumers, and celebrities must disclose any important connections between advertisers and endorsers.

When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.

In the spirit of broad sweeping regulation developed by government agencies, the guidelines leave a lot to be interpreted.

FTC guidelines are designed to prevent misleading communication. Regardless of the language, why wait for the law to dictate how we should behave? Instead of splitting hairs let’s voluntarily do what is right.

It sets the stage for open and honest communication and it protects the brand from backlash (think Facebook smear campaign and Burson Marsteller).

Ethical online communications involves full disclosure and transparency in relationships of which consumers should be aware.

If we are sharing information on a client, be it a blog post, a promotion, or a contest, we are required to disclose we have a relationship with that brand or organization.

A quick review of how the FTC guidelines affect PR

  • It’s unethical and therefore illegal to write positive reviews on behalf of a client, for example, on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other user-generated content sites.
  • It’s unethical, therefore illegal, for a blogger to write about a product or service without disclosing if they’ve been paid or provided the product in-kind.

What isn’t clearly stated but is certainly implied

  • It is unethical, therefore illegal, for a PR firm or third-party to share or promote information online about a client without disclosing the nature of the relationship.

WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) has implemented a Don’t Tell, Do Ask campaign in support of the guidelines and to protect the integrity of word-of-mouth marketing.

To marketers

  • Don’t tell people what to say. In other words, don’t tell influencers, bloggers, and journalists what to say.
  • Do ask them to disclose the relationship.  Do ask people to disclose if they have received cash or in-kind in exchange for the coverage.

Earning the trust of the consumer is no small feat. The FTC leaves room for a lot of (mis) interpretation with its guidelines. Let’s not get mired in semantics. Simply disclose relationships clearly and openly, and keep word-of-mouth marketing trustworthy.

If you don’t, rumor has it PR Prison is a place without Internet, tablets, and smartphones.

For some excellent bedtime reading, enjoy the full FTC Guidelines on Endorsements here. I assure you it will cure your insomnia.

Thanks to MaximumPC for the image.