This space not for sale

NoSaleSignThe Federal Trade Commission this week jumped into a controversy that has been swirling in social media circles: “Pay for play” – the practice of companies or PR agencies paying bloggers, Twitterers and other online “influentials” to endorse or mention their products or services.

This FTC action focuses on people selling products – not pitching stocks. But the intervention in the online marketing world has important implications for online promoters of investments, as well. More on the investor relations side in a moment.

What the FTC did was announce new guidelines requiring disclosure if companies pay online chatterers, or give them free products, for endorsements. (FTC announcement here, old media take on it here.) So faking a word-of-mouth or “viral” phenomenon gets a bit harder. FTC explains:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. … And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

For the record, this space is not for sale, regardless of FTC guidance. I have, in fact, received a couple of offers from IR service providers – but getting a paycheck isn’t the reason I’ve chosen to take part in the conversation through IR Café.

My ethic comes from years of working in the Old Journalism of daily newspapers. When I was a young reporter, one of the newsroom characters was a City Hall reporter known for, among other things, refusing to take a donut at the weekly City Council meeting because he never wanted to place his objectivity in doubt. A journalist who accepted freebies from someone he covered would be drawn and quartered, usually in a public flogging through a news story about his termination.

So I got the message: Journalism is about delivering information for the readers’ benefit; advertising is about being paid to deliver messages for advertisers’ benefit. Publishing ads is all well and good. But if you want credibility, the lines should not be blurred – as they increasingly are, both online and in traditional media.

I value credibility more than a buck, which is why I headline a post “This space not for sale.” If our firm tries to sell you something, you’ll know it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the FTC sticking its nose into what has been a wide-open space on the Internet. Does freedom of speech extend to someone tweeting “Wow U have to try this new digicam from CoolVideo.com, best ever and an awesome Christmas gift, too!!!!!”  I don’t know, that’s marketing … or maybe constitutional law … a question above my pay grade, as the President says.

When it comes to investor relations, I have a clear opinion: Pay for play is not a good idea. Investors are smart enough to see through a paid profile in a publication or website aimed at investors, and it can hurt rather than help the company’s credibility. And people shouldn’t be touting stocks online (or touting the short side) for pay, period. Companies and IR or PR firms should steer completely clear of that practice – regardless of regulation. It’s a matter of integrity and credibility.

Securities laws outlaw market manipulation and misleading information, of course. I’m no expert on the Securities and Exchange Commission, but as interactive media play a growing role in capital markets, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the SEC take direct action to require disclosure of payments to bloggers or other online chatterers – just as analyst reports must disclose the i-banks’ interests in companies covered. It might even help clean up the markets.

What’s your opinion on the integrity – and freedom – of online discussions?

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