Time to regulate paid Aussie blog comment – and to penalise the offenders

In this guest post, Daniel Young of PR agency Burson-Marsteller Australia argues that marketers and bloggers who make undisclosed paid comments should be fined

From December 1, bloggers in North America will be required to disclose ‘important connections’ with advertisers as a result of new guidelines governing ‘endorsements’ and ‘testimonials’.  

Daniel Young BMThe Federal Trade Commission guidelines apply to ‘bloggers’, ‘consumers who join word of mouth marketing programs’ and ‘postings by participants in network marketing programs’.

This raises the question: Should bloggers and individuals active in social media in Australia be required to reveal their commercial relationships?

 The debate that has followed the FTC announcement included many objections, including a potentially negative effect on the evolution of the blogosphere and social media. Many questioned the Government’s right to challenge free speech and called for a voluntary approach.

The Web has shown that it has the ability to self-govern when it comes to spam comment, sock puppets (vested interests acting anonymously in forums) and flogs (fake blogs), but the whole area of endorsements and pay-for-post relationships is a lot murkier. Savvy readers will detect a significant but undisclosed connection, though many may not.

The sheer volume of posts and participation presents challenges for the agency applying guidelines. The task of assessing endorsements online will continue to be reliant on vigilant readers.

A set of clear rules governing relationships between marketers and bloggers and consumers in social media would be a positive move, within reason. Excessive rules and regulation would obviously be a bad thing – no one wants to stifle the creativity and free expression that lives online.

Marketers that consistently abuse – in a substantive way – the innate trust that we have in each other should be pulled up, named and shamed. Warnings should be given and penalties issued to the very worst offenders.

The difficulties of monitoring the Web should prevent overzealous application of the rules. The FTC Guides are pretty vague in places despite the scenarios that are provided. Locally developed guidelines would ensure that the bar is not so set too low for the reasons I’ve mentioned. The Australian blogosphere should be widely consulted on the development of the guidelines to ensure consensus and achieve self-regulation.

The blogosphere has emerged, in part, as an antidote to an increasingly distrusted and aloof mainstream media. The value and opportunity of social media resides in its authenticity, personal tone and objective voice. In an ideal world, we could relax in the knowledge that no-one would do anything to devalue these interactions.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Clear guidelines would prevent commercial entities riding roughshod over these principles for their own gain. For that reason, any regulation of social media should hold both the paid endorser and the marketer to account, which is one of the strengths of the FTC Guides.

Codes of ethics are hardly in short supply. The Australian Press Council, The Public Relations Institute of Australia and The Australian Interactive Media Industry Association all administer clear rules and regulations for their members concerning management of relationships and business practice.

Nothing has been developed in Australia that specifically addresses social media and blogs (and this is a point of vulnerability for an emergent form of media). Social media still requires legitimisation in the eyes of the business community. The introduction of enforceable guidelines managing relationships between marketers and bloggers would instil confidence in corporate Australia and most importantly in Australian consumers.

Trust is the currency of social media; it forms the basis of our relationships (virtual and real). It is worthy of protection.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.