What do new FTC blogging rules mean for press trips and fam tours?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued clarification on new rules designed to force more complete disclosure of payments, freebies, endorsements and product review procedures on blogs. Here is the FTC file (a PDF) for download. The rules take effect on 1 December 2009 and involve fines of up to $11,000 for violators. Yes, of course enforcement seems impossible, but the rules are there.
From a CNN/Money article on the FTC guidelines:
“The test here is, if the relationship were known between the blogger and the advertiser, would that affect the credibility of the endorsement?” [emphasis mine] FTC assistant director of advertising practices Richard Cleland told CNN. “That question has to be determined on a case by case basis. What we have produced is a general guidance that says in certain cases receiving a free product is not any different than being paid directly for an endorsement.”
Is a free press trip/fam tour – with lodging, meals, attraction entry fees and transportation all provided by a DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) – considered “payment in kind” and does going on such a trip and writing positive words about what you experience there a form of paid endorsement?
My personal belief….you bet it is.
Other writers and bloggers disagree vehemently with me, and they say that they can maintain their objectivity on such trips. That’s great; more power to them as long as they disclose. The press trip model works well for a lot of interest groups and I don’t see the market for it going away, although I’m certainly not the first writer to feel uncomfortable about it.
I personally have a harder time with the vaunted objectivity goal, because while it’s easy to write superlatives when you have nice experiences, it is much harder to be critical when your experience is lacking. What ends up happening is that most writers simply don’t write about “the bad stuff,” out of understandable concern and respect for their kind and generous hosts.
The problem is – just like making no decision is, in fact, a decision – it is in those unwritten posts, those criticisms left unsaid, where at least some of the travel truth lies. I addressed such issues in detail in one of this blog’s most highly-trafficked posts: Are blogger fam trips a good idea, or are they Jurassic PR?
I’ve been on three press trips myself: to Williamsburg VA, Hutchinson KS and to Hawaii along with my son. They were well-run tours, I enjoyed myself and I met many marvelous, hard-working tourism professionals. I disclosed my compensation for each trip to the best of my ability, although I probably need to go back and re-check all of my posts (on two different travel blogs) to make sure I was clear, and add a disclaimer if I wasn’t.
Here’s one version of what I put on every post from Hawaii: Just So You Know Disclaimer: The Hawaii Tourism Authority through Cilantro Media is paying my way to Hawaii, and also paying most of my expenses while I am there including lodging. I am contributing to my son’s expenses. The point of the trip is to bring experienced bloggers and communicators to the islands to talk about what we see; my primary focus will be on travel with kids. No one has told me that I cannot post negative information. No one has told me that I must say positive things. I will be as objective as I can possibly be.
After putting a lot of thought into the topic while writing the “Jurrassic PR” post, here’s where I stand right now on press trips:
“For myself; I am willing to consider going on future blogger fam trips, but I won’t seek them out. I will still produce content (print/online articles, blog posts, photos, videos) from the Virginia, Kansas and Hawaii trips, and I will still clearly disclose when my travel was paid for, but I now plan to redouble my efforts to make enough money through my consulting and freelance work so that I can pay for my travel on my own.”
I’ve also proposed a blogger ethics panel (Can They Buy Your Voice?) for the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) tech conference in March 2010; we’ll know soon whether it was approved or not. If it is, I predict a lively discussion, which is perfect. The more open discussion, the better.
Meantime, tourism organizations need to take a hard look at how their press trip hospitality is disclosed by the journalists, writers and bloggers that they invite. The days of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge – don’t ask and don’t tell” may soon be over. I’m not so naive as to think that current arrangements won’t persist; I just want disclosure of those arrangements.
Ironically, this means that bloggers now have more stringent disclosure rules than almost any magazine or newspaper I’ve ever read.
Tell me your biases and good deals upfront, and I’ll judge your content worthiness for myself. I’d rather see honest blog posts than pretty magazine words and pictures that came from tourism board hospitality, but no one will confess to it.