What the FTC’s Guidelines on Native Advertising Mean for PR Professionals

12.30.2015 | Richard L. Tso

The heyday of native advertising is over. Even before the ornaments are taken down from the tree to be placed carefully into dusty boxes marked “Xmas,” the Federal Trade Commission released its new guidelines for native advertising that are sending people into a tizzy and forever changing the way publishers and brands leverage the controversial medium. Native advertising – the inclusion of sponsored brand content within existing editorial formats – will be virtually obliterated since the new FTC guidelines require native advertising to abide by stricter guidelines and in many cases, disqualifies how native is practiced today.

As media journalist Bob Garfield wrote, “The action will be devastating to advertisers, agencies and mainly publishers, but it cannot be surprising to anyone.”

Given the rise of digital formats and consumers’ dwindling attention spans, publishers have been under the gun to stay afloat. Over the last several years, publishers have faced stiff competition from content aggregators, social networks, and blogs, searching for novel ways to present information that drives page views and attracts advertiser dollars.

As Walt Mossberg of Re/code mentioned on stage in late 2014 at the Geekwire Summit, “It’s a great time to be a writer. But it’s a tough time to be a publisher.” Re/code’s parent company Revere Digital, was wholly acquired by Vox Media earlier this year.

Native advertising, a format that emerged five years ago, has allowed advertisers to heavily influence content on publisher sites through sponsored posts and in-stream ad units. Native was thought of as a shiny new revenue channel for publishers, a way to seamlessly fold in branded content within the confines of a publisher’s existing editorial flow – a nod to the advertorials of yesteryear but without the stigma.

And advertisers were jumping on the bandwagon since publishers weren’t always explicitly required to identify native ads from other content on their site or in a publication. But several outlets had opted to do so. But the free ride is over.

The newly released FTC guide for native advertising is an 11-page framework that crushes the ability for publishers to surreptitiously include ad content without the public’s knowledge and requires publishers and brands to clearly disclose whether content is a paid placement.

According to the guidelines, “Terms likely to be understood include ‘Ad,’ ‘Advertisement,’ ‘Paid Advertisement,’ ‘Sponsored Advertising Content,’ or some variation thereof. Advertisers should not use terms such as ‘Promoted’ or ‘Promoted Stories,’ which in this context are at best ambiguous and potentially could mislead consumers that advertising content is endorsed by a publisher site.”

Putting on my writer hat, these guidelines make complete sense since consumers have a right to know if a publication is compensated to create content on behalf of a company.

But for those in the marketing and public relations industry, the question remains – what does this mean for agencies that create and secure coverage on behalf of their clients? A publication, say The New

York Times, clearly has an ethical obligation to report the news without bias and accepts story ideas based on news value, then researches and writes independent articles. But what about agency blogs or other publications?

With editorial departments being slashed to pieces within news organizations, where will content come from in the future? Editorial is still revered by many, in fact the entire concept of native advertising stems from advertisers trying to mimic the quality and thoroughness of premium editorial content. But how will these publications source more and more articles as the writing profession becomes commoditized with the goal of pumping out more and more stories and clicks?

One answer is through the acceptance of contributed articles written by company executives and PR professionals. But this places the tedious task of quality control on publication editors to properly vet and decline pieces that include overt marketing messages and content. Will the role of journalists morph into that of content marketers, to help publications manage the influx of content indirectly submitted by brands? Hopefully not, and many of my journalist friends would scoff at this very notion.

This question has become more and more relevant as PR professionals are becoming immersed in the industries they represent, have a penchant for writing, and are starting to blur the lines between PR and journalism. With a plethora of publishing channels at their fingertips like LinkedIn Pulse and online blogs, agency executives are feeling the desire to write, and shouldn’t writing be encouraged within the broader communications industry? Aren’t the tenets of journalism to accurately report the news and to present ideas that encourage new ways of thinking and spark intellectual discourse?

While the indirect impact of native advertising on PR agencies has yet to be clearly defined by the FTC, moving forward, a good rule of thumb for any communications firm or marketing professional is to disclose client relationships in published pieces that include clients, especially for pieces bylined by PR personnel that are placed within independent media outlets. This helps preserve journalistic integrity, highlights the values of your firm, as well as informs the public about unseen influences that may be at play.

However, the medium should also dictate the message. It is my belief that marketing agencies and PR firms are generally known to be paid by their clients and therefore should be able to publish posts about said clients on agency blogs, on LinkedIn, and via social media. Especially if clients are clearly listed on an agency’s website.

And regarding how these new FTC regulations will impact traditional publishers and brands, only time will tell.

What do you think about the new regulations? How will they impact your business?


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Filed under: Media, News, PR trends, Strategy

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