Ensuring Integrity When Engaging Social Media Influencers

Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released “Disclosure 101 for Social Media Influencers,” which made it mandatory for influencers to disclose paid partnerships with brands. So, what does this mean for influencer marketing in 2020? It means an even greater responsibility to be transparent and forthcoming with partnerships.

Social influence is nothing new. Since the late 1920s, companies have used the clout of prominent people to change social norms or to persuade the masses to buy products. For decades, companies used models, actors, and athletes to sell products through commercials or print ads.

Today, with the rise of YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat, companies are using ‘everyday’ people to sell their products online. These ‘everyday’ people are social media influencers, who obtain their status through likes, views, and followers—which, in some cases, can count more than actual credible experience in a field. So, it’s not surprising to learn many are paid for plugging products or companies into their content. Hence, the FTC’s new guidelines.

The FTC’s guidelines for influencers who work with brands to sell goods and services are intended to stop deceptive ads. The FTC recently condensed the extensive guidelines into a concise brochure and video that influencers and those who hire them can easily reference.

The main takeaway of the guidelines is that disclosures should be made anytime a person endorses a product and has a relationship (e.g. employee or relative of an employee, received payment, received gifts) with the advertising company. The disclosures must be upfront and clear, not buried in the post or at the end.

As PR and communications professionals, there are several rules of the road we should consider when identifying and engaging with influencers on behalf of our clients.

  • Thoroughly research potential influencers – The FTC recently brought action against a company that sold fake followers, subscribers and views to influencers across various social platforms including Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. These metrics falsely identify people as credible influencers when they may not have the influence for which marketers are paying. When searching for influencers, check to ensure that engagement metrics (e.g. likes, comments) are in line with the number of followers. Also review the person’s past posts for sentiment and history of endorsements and disclosures.
  • Be upfront about incentives – Have a conversation early regarding the expected compensation for the influencer and what he/she will provide in exchange (e.g. the influencer will receive a free product in exchange for four social posts over the month and a blog post). Also, be clear if you are engaging them for a one-time collaboration or a long-term relationship. If no incentive will be provided, then be sure that is known to the influencer and keep in mind that this collaboration will likely not require a disclosure for the FTC.
  • Institute a monitoring and compliance program – Have a written policy in place with plans for reviewing posts by influencers to ensure that disclosures have been properly included. This policy should also include a plan for reaching out to influencers to ask them to update posts as necessary. This plan helps to cover you and your client should an influencer be investigated by the FTC.
  • Be mindful when promoting client work – There is nothing wrong with promoting your clients’ work, if you are clear about the relationship. The FTC recommends going beyond simply using #client at the end of posts and suggests using language that is crystal clear about the relationship. This could include: “I’m a paid consultant to XYZ brand” or “I work with XYZ brand.”

Influencer relationships can be extremely effective when it comes to promoting our clients’ messages. We’ve had success with both paid and unpaid outreach here at JPA for numerous clients. Whether on a national or local level, influencers have helped us get our clients’ messages and/or products in front of the right people.

Regardless of whether you are looking to conduct influencer outreach for the first time or if you are already a pro, understanding and following the FTC’s guidelines will help ensure integrity is at the core of your influencer outreach.