Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Playing by the Same Rules

The FTC's new blogger rules have been in effect for a couple of weeks, so I'd like to affirm that I'm abiding by them.

"Bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service," the agency states. I found that quote through Google, the greatest Internet tool ever (full disclosure: Google owns Blogger, which publishes and hosts this blog for free).

OK, I stretched things to make a point: the new guidelines are open to wide interpretation.

For one thing, they apply only  to "bloggers or other "word of mouth" marketers." Talk about semantics! 

The difference between a blog, and let's say, an online newsletter is often in the eyes of the beholder. Indeed many online news sources can also be received in blog form. Take the many wonderful newsletters at MediaPost (very full disclosure: I have provided editorial services to MediaPost in the past, for which I have received compensation, and my wife currently works there, also in exchange for cash payments).

The point is that the average Internet user, having found something through search, often does not distinguish -- or care -- whether it's technically a blog post, a newsletter writeup or a newspaper review.  So why should the FTC make such distinctions?

After all, scores of smaller trade magazines and community newspapers (think restaurant reviews) have run editorial in exchange for advertising (or meals) for many decades (not-quite-disclosure: I've worked for a couple of the former, but this is definitely not an endorsement of such practices, so they shall remain nameless).  It's how such publications managed to survive, even when there was no recession underway.

Today, amidst the overall advertising downturn, these media outlets are moving online. You could argue that the FTC should be totally fair to other online journalists and force these print publication offshoots to also provide full disclosure. But why should they be forced to change their longstanding policies?

When I worked at such publications, I fought voraciously against providing special editorial favors for advertisers. But there's a difference between press ethics and freedom of the press.  The former is something  journalists and publishers should strive to achieve; the latter is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

So, rather than government regulators, let's depend on ethics: of individual bloggers to do the right thing, and on advertisers (and yes, PR folks like me) to make sure of it. For bloggers who instead violate the public trust, the Internet provides plenty of tools for people to spread the word about the violators.

In any case, I vow to continue abiding by full disclosure. So any advertiser who would like me  to endorse something, please send it along :)  Tis the season, after all!

"Oh, publishers are such interesting people;
It could be press-titution, I don't know.

Ting-a-ling-a-ling, advertising.
Ting-a-ling-a-ling, circulation,
Get that payoff, keep those readers;
What a headache, what a mess.
Yes, publishers are such interesting people;
Let's give three cheers for freedom of the press."
- written by Vern  Partlow,  late 1940s

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