Coverage of this session by Cale Johnson of SocialMedia.org. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

3:10 — SocialMedia.org’s Erin McDaniel introduces SocialMedia.org’s CEO, Andy Sernovitz.

3:11 — Andy: You’ve got a tough job. The landscape and tools are changing every day. And none of it comes from ethics training. And you’re surrounded by vendors and agencies who just want you to buy stuff. But you’re the one who has to stand up and do the right thing — because you’re the one who’s going to take the call from the CEO when the FTC calls and wants to know what you’re doing. The good news is, it’s not terribly complicated — they’re pretty straightforward, and they feel good (as consumers, we’re all happy these rules exist.)

3:13 — Andy: It starts with trust. As social media marketers, we rely on our fans to relay and repost our messages. So, ethics isn’t that thing you do at the end to make sure you’re not crossing the line — it’s essential.

3:14 — Andy: All the trouble you can get into comes down to this question of disclosure — making it clear what’s advertising and what’s marketing. Now, since the dawn of media, advertising and media have always existed together. The difference between what’s right and wrong is the phrase, “And now, a word from our sponsor.” This difference is what it all comes down to.

3:15 — Andy: Important note: Everything I’m about to tell you isn’t my opinion. It’s the law. This isn’t for a SXSW panel, this is a question for your lawyers. It’s not up for debate. And the bigger the brand, the more they’re looking for you. Google is also watching.

3:16 — Andy: There’s also nothing new about these rules. The Truth In Advertising Act from 1914 says it’s illegal to trick people with your marketing messages. And the rules haven’t changed much since then.

3:17 — Andy: Social media isn’t different. There’s no free pass.

3:19 — Andy: The best news is these are pretty straightforward, and pretty business-friendly. Now, the FTC doesn’t give you explicit rules like what you see on a box of cigarettes — and that’s great. But instead, we get common-sense guidelines:

  • 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.)
  • Andy’s bonus rule: Don’t pay for it. When you’re buying time on other people’s channels, a whole other set of advertising rules kick in.

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.

3:23 — But that’s not enough to cover all situations, so there are three big things we’re always required to 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. This is always illegal. If you’re asking someone to write about your software, your hotel, or your food — they better have actually tried it.

3:24 — Andy: How do we know what’s good enough disclosure? It has to be clear and conspicuous to the average user. That means:

  1. Obvious disclosure.
  2. Up front.
  3. Don’t lie to your mom.

3:26 — Andy: Some examples of deceptive practices for disclosure: using weird hashtags (like “#spon”), strange links (like “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 not good enough.

3:27 — Andy: Brands, you guys, are 100% liable for anything that’s done in your name. If you hire an agency and they screw up. Or you hire an agency who hires an agency who hires a boiler room of people posting iffy things, you’re responsible. Again, this isn’t new — this came out in 2009.

3:28 — Andy: For the agencies you love, which is probably many of them, get a contract, in writing, that they will meet or exceed your ethical standards.

3:29 — Andy: Most of this comes down to training and education. Most people don’t have the tools to filter out all the proposed campaigns against these FTC rules. Now, like a gift, the FTC offers a safe harbor: If you create a formal social media policy explaining the rules, and make it a part of your official corporate training, and you’re making a good-faith effort to teach it and enforce it, the FTC has said you won’t get in trouble.

3:30 — Andy: This is, I think, the 40th time I’ve given this talk. Why? I think we’re at a special point in media. We’re pushing the envelope. But every time we try things that we know just aren’t right, we’re enabling something that is now like spam. Back in 1992 and 1993, the same thing happened with email — where a bunch of corporate marketers who knew they should have had permission to email said, “eh, let’s just try this” — and now, it’s a billion dollar business, built by corporate marketers, and there’s no going back.

3:33 — Andy: And if you don’t believe any of that philosophical stuff, remember that you’ll get busted, it’s illegal, and you’ll get us fired. And you don’t want to be the guy who says, “Uh, boss, I just got us removed from Google for a blog spam experiment.”

3:33 — Andy: And there’s also brand pride. We’ve spent decades building literally the biggest brands on earth — and the idea of hiding our brand in some mom’s blog post just doesn’t make sense.

3:34 — Andy: Finally, if you want to know where the line is, anything that makes an ad look like not an ad, is a problem. If you’re trying to make an ad look like some regular person’s post, tweet, or photo — that’s where the line is.

3:36 — Andy shares a quote from the 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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