Social media disclosure and ethics for big brands — Live from Member Meeting 35

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

3:10Kurt Vanderah introduces's CEO, Andy Sernovitz.

3:11 — Andy: As a leader of social at a big brand, you are the steward for your brand's role in social media.

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. 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.

3:13 — Andy: But there's good news! Staying ethical and safe is 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.

The first step of a social campaign/program is securing the trust of those who are engaging and reposting.

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.” 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.

3:15 — 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).

3:17 — Andy shares three rules for safe social media outreach:

  • Rule 1: Require truthfulness and disclosure in social media.
  • Rule 2: Monitor the conversation and do a good faith effort to correct whatever goes wrong. This applies to those whom you have asked to blog or write on your behalf.
  • Rule 3: It is your job to teach Rules No. 1 and 2. Create social media policies and training for your employees, agencies, vendors, and bloggers.

3:20 — Andy: The bonus rule: 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: “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? 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.
  • 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: 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. The FTC requires obvious, up-front disclosure.

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.

In 2013 the FTC issued a new warning that can be summarized as:

  • Stop ignoring us
  • Stop faking it
  • If you can't be honest, don't do it.

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, and hard-to-find disclosures. Another example: If you wait to disclose at the end of your content, that's trickery.

3:29 -– The other big message the FTC is sending us is that your brand is 100% liable for anything and everything the agency does on your behalf. (Regardless of whether or not you know about it.)

3:30 -– 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.”

3:32 -– At, we encourage brands to use our Disclosure Best Practices Toolkit. It can be found here: This toolkit contains a bunch of checklists to help create a customized social media disclosure policy for your team.

3:33 -– 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. 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 a sign that [it] may contain some element of deception. We're not sayin', we're just sayin'.”

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