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The Ethics of Influencer Marketing; FTC Guidelines

The Ethics of Influencer Marketing; FTC Guidelines

Long gone is the “smile and dial” world of PR professionals reaching out to journalists to pitch their stories. Today, advertising and public relations overlap in more ways than one. Chances are that working with influencers has become part of your PR plan and with that comes a whole new set of rules.

The journalist’s code of ethics is one thing, and it looks nothing like what influencers do. Why? Because influencers willingly accept something no journalist in his or her right mind would take for a story – money. Working with influencers means you’ll enter a world of “pay to play,” and there is a pretty clear set of guidelines that cover this.  They are called the FTC Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements or Testimonials in Advertising, FTC Endorsement Guidelines for short.

What follows are insights from my PRSA International Conference presentation, “The Ethics of Influencer Marketing.”

You don’t want to be “that” person. Namely, that agency that ends up on the front page of the New York Times showcasing your client in a bad light.  Lord & Taylor suffered that fate in March of 2016 when they gave a bunch of Instagram influencers the same dress, along with cash payola and failed to get the influencers to disclose that they were paid.

It used to be that you could count on the FTC to crack down on brands alone, but in April of this year, they sent 90 letters directly to influencers, warning them (cough, the Kardashians and a few others) to adequately disclose if they have a “material connection with the brands they appear to be promoting on their Instagram channels. The FTC continued to monitor said influencers, and just last month sent another series of warning letters to the likes of Lindsay Lohan and supermodel, Naomi Campbell.

Unfamiliar with the FTC guidelines? They’re available online. In essence, FTC guidelines require the “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of factors “that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give an endorsement.” This could be the result of, “a business or family relationship, monetary payment or the gift of a free product.” Please note that the FTC guidelines don’t just cover cold hard cash.  They also recognize a connection could be promoting my client’s product or free goods on their behalf.

The FTC has done an amazingly good job of educating the public about the guidelines. Just two weeks ago, they hosted a Twitter chat for influencers where they answered all sorts of questions. It pays to become familiar with the guidelines, and it pays to use common sense.  Mary K. Engle, the associate director of the FTC, reminds us that they are “not prescriptive” of every case – they just ask that brands and influencers are “clear and conspicuous” in their disclosures. To a certain degree, we as PR professionals have to make judgment calls.  Here’s a good rule of thumb: Ask yourself, would the common person, who does not work in this field, understand clearly that a post was sponsored with the disclosure you are using?

Here are some dos:

  • Make sure your disclosure is in proximity to message.
  • Use #AD or #Sponsored
  • Place the disclosure before you can navigate away from the post
  • Feature your disclosure with each & every message
  • Feature it visually & spoken for video

Here are some don’ts:

  • Bury the disclosure in a string of hashtags
  • Place disclosures in small print or at the bottom of a post
  • Feature your disclosure in profile or use an umbrella disclosure
  • Make readers or viewers look too hard

And here are some absolute no-nos:

  • #SP, #Collab, #Partner

Why? Well, for all I know “SP” could mean Spanish, “Collab” could be a fun event, and partner could mean someone I’m seriously dating but not marrying.  It’s just not clear and conspicuous.

There are a few steps agencies venturing into influencer marketing should take.  Most importantly, make sure your entire team is educated on the ethics of influencer marketing.  The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) offers excellent online courses that are priced affordably (roughly $95.00 a pop.) They can be found here.

WOMMA Ethical Use of Social Media

Additionally, seek the guidance of an attorney who actually knows what the heck you are talking about when you say FTC Guidelines.  I’ll be frank. Smart legal guidance in this arena can be hard to find. You really don’t want to have to be educating your attorney on what influencers are and how the FTC governs it.

We like working with Hashtag Legal because the founders of this firm are former bloggers themselves. Both have worked in the influencer space as players and even run campaigns.  They recently ventured out to form their own firm.

The full PowerPoint presentation from the PRSA International Conference can be found here: The Ethics of Influencer Marketing.


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