The Federal Trade Commission Ruling
According to an article I read recently (http://daneblogger.com/bloggers-disclose-reviews/), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has revised its guidelines, and has determined that bloggers who review products, receive payment for it, and then fail to make a disclosure about it, face a fine of up to $11,000.
There are a few sticking points here, specifically:
1. How will they enforce it on overseas bloggers?
2. What's the position of someone who reviews products on their blog, on behalf of a magazine or website? Every time I've reviewed a product for a magazine or website, I've been allowed to keep it, except for hardware. That hasn't influenced my review, and it's just normal for that to happen anyway. Do they count such software and books as 'gifts'?
3. As above, but when it's on your own behalf. Whenever I review software, or a website that is subscription-based and fee-paying, I usually insist on having access to the real thing. I cannot in all honesty review the free, trial version, and then on that basis recommend the paid-for version. For all I know, once the 30 day free trial period is over, everything goes haywire. By the same token, it would be unfair on the company for me to dissuade readers from buying it on the basis of my experience with a trial version.
If you don't think this is the right way of looking at it, and that trial versions are OK to review, consider this: would you think it acceptable for me to recommend, or not recommend, a book on the basis of having read a few pages on Amazon by clicking the 'look inside the book' link?
4. Do the same rules apply to journalists?
5. If you write a blog about films or theatre, are you supposed to declare that you were given a press pass to see the production? It should be obvious to anyone with common sense that that is probably what you've done, especially if you write several reviews a week.
Is the FTC ruling a good thing?
Notwithstanding those questions, I think it's a good thing for the FTC to insist on bloggers (and other writers) being 'clean' in this respect because I for one am pretty sick and tired of constantly having to declare that I am not on someone's payroll. It's very tedious, when writing a positive review of a product, to have to say, "By the way, I'm not being paid to say this."
I have to say, on the whole I try to resist the temptation to write something like that because I know I'm honest and have integrity, and if someone else doubts it, I think that's their problem. (I'd be interested to hear what you think of that way of looking at things.)
I think there is actually nothing wrong in paid to write a review, as long as it is agreed that the fact of payment, and the content of the review, have no relation with each other. As that is impossible to prove, I think it better to avoid that situation altogether, unless there is a disconnect between you and the article under review. For example, if a magazine, or a website specialising in product reviews, pays you to write reviews regardless of what the product is, or what you say about it, that's fine. At least, that seems fine to me. It's probably not fine from the FTC's point of view.
If you're a blogger, how can you act in a way that is not only above board, but seen to be so? I would recommend the following:
If you are asked to publicise an event in return for a free ticket to attend, that places you in a very difficult position, potentially. Try saying this:
Send me the details of your conference. If it is (a) about the subject I write about and (b) looks like it will be of interest to, and benefit, my readers, I will probably give it a plug on my blog. If you then choose to send me a free ticket, that's up to you, but I will plug it, or not, regardless of your intentions in that regard.
The important point here, in fact, is that it's the 'seller' who creates the potential problem, albeit inadvertently.
How should you respond if you receive emails from companies or their PR agents asking you to publish details of their latest offering? They may even offer to write an article for you, including case studies.
I suggest the following. Firstly, check whether their product or service is something you would actually wish to publicise. Use this rubric, or something like it:
1. Is it to do with, or involve, the subject I write about?
2. If 'yes', is it likely to be of interest to my readers and RSS or newsletter subscribers?
3. If 'yes', is it OK, ie above board, and useful (ie not a solution seeking a problem)?
Assuming those criteria are met successfully, why not tell the company that it has three options:
1. They can send you the product for you to review. The review may be good or bad, as your obligation, in my opinion, is to your readers, not to the company. It's a risk they take.
2. If they don't like the sound of that, inform them that they can place an advertisement. Tell them that it will be clearly signposted as an ad, and that they have to agree that their ad will meet the Advertising Standards Code in the country in which the blog is published (disclaimer: everything in this article, including this, is my understanding of the situation, but I'm not a lawyer so don't take my word for it!).
3. Alternatively, suggest that they write an article or case study, which will be clearly labelled as a sponsored article (ie advertorial), and for which they will pay you.
In the case of book reviews, if you know the author, declare that to be the case, especially if you end up recommending the book. In the UK, the ICT (educational technology) scene is tight-knit enough for it to be reasonably likely that you will know, or at least have had dealings with, an author of, or contributor to, a book. I think it's sensible to make that clear if it happens to be the case. (See, for example, my review of Information & Communication Technology: Inside the Black Box http://terry-freedman.org.uk/artman/publish/article_1292.php.)
I don't know about the legal aspects of these suggestions, but they just seem to me to be eminently sensible. I think it's a great shame that, by implication of the FTC's ruling, some bloggers have been ill-advised enough to receive payment to write positive things about a product without declaring their (conflict of) interest.
What do you think of such matters?