FTC and Social MediaBy Gini Dietrich

Allow me to set the stage.

You work for a company with lots of employees. Your company participates in social media and you often share the work your organization does on your personal social networks.

No harm, no foul, right?

One day, a colleague sends a company-wide email encouraging everyone in the organization to share the latest product, widget, client campaign, or even hashtag contest. You share on your personal networks and, two days later, your boss calls you into a meeting.

You didn’t disclose your relationship with the company when you shared that information. But everyone knows you work for the company. It says so in your bio. What’s the big deal?

It IS a big deal to the FTC and you could cost your company a lot of money without disclosing your relationship.

The FTC Guidelines Are Clear

This is exactly what happened at Deutsch L.A. when, in 2012, an assistant account executive sent a company-wide email encouraging employees to share positive statements about the PlayStation Vita with the hashtag #GameChanger.

Many obliged the request on their personal social networks, but didn’t disclose PlayStation was a client.

This violates the stance the FTC has about brands that have full disclosure on marketing materials no matter where it is shared.

And they got fined.

They ended up settling the case because they didn’t want to sit through months—or even years—of lawsuits (and who can blame them?), but it definitely raises questions about guilt versus innocence.

There is a lot of conversation about whether the agency deserved it. After all, we all get excited about the work we’re doing and want to share it with our friends and family.

But the FTC guidelines are very clear: In any advertising medium (and they consider social media advertising), you must disclose your relationship with (c), #client, #sponsored, or similar identifier.

Once you are paid by an organization, according the FTC, you now have a conflict of interest. Even if you were a fan of the company, product, widget, or service before you were working with them, you still have to disclose during the tenure of your work together.

Stay Up-to-Date on the FTC Changes

It’s a scary place—the social networks. I often panic about someone on my team doing something completely innocent that would get us in trouble.

But it’s my job, as the leader, to be sure my team is educated on the constant changes and ebb and flow of the guidelines.

Following are the things you can do:

  • Social media policy. Our social media policy is pretty simple: Don’t swear online, live the Golden Rule, and always disclose your relationship when sharing client information.
  • Share articles. When I read an AdWeek article about the Deutsch case, I shared it immediately in our Facebook group and asked everyone to read it.
  • Write blog posts. I often write blog posts about topics I need my team to be familiar with…and that will also help all of you (case in point, this very piece).
  • Discuss in staff meetings. We have a standing section on our staff meeting agenda for social media. This is where we discuss the latest and greatest.
  • Send company-wide emails. Once a quarter, it’s not a bad idea to send a company-wide email that reminds everyone about your social media policy and the big dos and don’ts.

If, as the leader, you do one or all of these things and can prove a history of educating your employees, it’s unlikely you will be responsible if they still don’t disclose.

If, as an employee, you don’t heed the advice of your organization’s policies, you could be responsible when the FTC comes knocking.

Mary Engle, director of the division of advertising practices at the FTC told The Wall Street Journal that, “while this was the FTC’s first case regarding Twitter and misleading behavior, it’s unlikely to be our last.”

Always err on the side of caution and disclose. Always.

photo credit: Shutterstock

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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