Coverage of this session by Kristen Platt of SocialMedia.org. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

3:10Kurt Vanderah introduces SocialMedia.org’s CEO, Andy Sernovitz.

3:11 — Andy: As a leader of social at a big brand, you’re in this weird position. So how do you know the right thing to do? It’s your job to figure out the FTC rules and follow social media ethics and disclosure online.

3:12 — The job of vendors and agencies are to give you great ideas, but not to give insight on ethics or legal input on a campaign.

3:13 — Andy: But there’s good news! Staying ethical and safe in social is easy. Trust is essential. Social media marketers create great content that others can share — and they will only share if they trust in the content that you are providing them.

3:14 — Andy: If you get in trouble, it probably has something to do with disclosure, or lack there of. The difference between honesty and sleazery is DISCLOSURE. “And now a word from our sponsors.” This clearly separates the message being from a consumer vs. someone selling you something. As long as your audience can tell the difference between your message and your advertising, you’re in the clear.

Disclosure is easy in social. The better you do it, the more people trust you.

3:16 — Andy: This is not my opinion. It’s the law. Advertising and editorial content have coexisted for years. These aren’t new social media laws. The FTC is saying that all the rules that apply to marketers apply to social media, too. It’s always illegal to pretend your marketing is consumer opinion — social media is no exception (consumers always need to know what is marketing and what is not). You would never hire a bunch of actors to give fake testimonials in a commercial about you — social media is similar.

3:17 — The FTC keeps updating their social media disclosure guidelines for brands. Andy shares these simple rules for safe social media outreach:

  • Rule 1: Require truthfulness and disclosure in social media.
  • Rule 2: Monitor the conversation and correct misstatements. This applies to those whom you have asked to blog or write on your behalf.
  • Rule 3: Create social media policies and training for your employees, agencies, vendors, and bloggers. (It is your job to teach Rules #1 and #2.)

3:20 — The bonus rule is Andy’s recommendation: Don’t pay money for social media coverage. When you pay someone to blog for you, it’s not social media anymore, it’s advertising. And when people find out that you paid cash for more word of mouth, they’ll never trust you again.

3:21 — Andy shares the 10 magic words for disclosure: “I work for ___________, and this is my personal opinion.” This creates a habit of disclosure, and it separates employees’ opinions from corporate stances.

3:22 — Those are the basics. Next, Andy explains what you should always disclose:

  • Who are you? What’s your relationship to the company/agency/influencer program? Anytime you’ve recruited people to talk on your behalf, you need to disclose that.
  • Were you paid? This includes any kind of incentive, not just cash. All of this only applies to what you have caused to happen as part of your marketing program — not when customers grab free samples on their own.
  • Is it an honest opinion based on a real experience? If not, it’s false advertising. These are common sense, plain-English disclosures.

3:24 -– Andy: How do we know what’s good enough disclosure? There are two standards:

1. Disclosure has to be clear and conspicuous to the average reader. This means the disclosure can’t be tricky or hidden. If the reader has to go through a series of clicks to reach the disclosure, it’s still not good enough.

2. It has to be obvious and up-front.

3:25 -– Andy shares another test for good disclosure: “Don’t lie to your mom.” If your mom can’t read your paid posts and clearly understand that they’re advertising, you have a disclosure problem.

3:26 -– Andy: In the end, the FTC says, “If you can’t figure out how to do it legally in a clear and conspicuous way, then you’re not allowed to do it.”

3:27 — Andy: Some examples of deceptive practices for disclosure: using weird hashtags (i.e. “#spon”), strange links (ie, “more info” or “native ads”), small print, blanket disclosures, and hard-to-find disclosures. Another example: If you wait to disclose at the end of your content, that’s trickery.

3:28 -– The other big message the FTC is sending us is that your brand is 100 percent liable for anything and everything the agency does on your behalf. (Regardless of whether or not you know about it.) The harder part is, when your junior staff says yes to a new and shiny agency’s program that may not be ethical because they aren’t aware of disclosure rules.

3:29 -– Andy: The biggest current risk in the market right now is a lack of education and training. You get in trouble when there is a lot of staff involved in your social efforts without the proper training to use social the correct way (that will protect the brand).

3:31 -– FTC: “The biggest way to not get busted: Have a good social media policy at your company so that everyone knows your rules.”

Andy: If you’ve made a good faith effort to train your employees, then the FTC won’t come after you.

3:32 -– Big companies have the opportunity to screw up social media or to do something really good. We, as social media executives, have the opportunity to keep social from becoming the cesspool that email is now. You don’t want to be the person who says to your boss, “Yeah, I was trying this brand experiment, and I got us kicked out of Google…”

3:33 -– Andy: Your obligation: Save your brand, save your reputation, save your job.

3:34 -– Andy: Have some brand pride: We’re the greatest brands on earth that have been built over decades. Billions have been spent to build the brand name.

3:35 -– Raise your standards. Anything that makes an ad look like a not-ad is wrong. If you have to disclose it, it’s probably deceptive.

3:36 -– FTC: “The need for a disclosure is really a warning sign that [it] may contain some element of deception. We’re not sayin’, we’re just sayin’.”

3:38 -– Andy summarizes: If you have to ask, the answer is no. It’s easier to be honest. Pass it on.


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