Bell Pottinger Business & Brand managing director Kevin Read speculates whether the OFT ruling means the end of the paid-for expert commentator

Consumers do not deserve to be misled – on or offline. Paid-for endorsements that are represented as spontaneous comment, especially in the Twitter and blog worlds, do no favours to the advertising, PR and marketing communities. 

In the US, the issue is an obligation to publish the #AD or #SPON tags clearly. In the UK there has been some recent use of similar tags but these are far from universal. This at a time when endorsement Tweets can run at £2,000 a Tweet and specialist social advertising businesses are sprouting up all over town.

However, the UK’s Wild-West approach is about to fundamentally change following recent regulatory rulings. The OFT’s Handpicked Ruling in December that paid-for blogs, posts and micro-blogging that are not disclosed fall foul of fair trading laws was unambiguous. Henceforth, being paid to endorse (whether you are a celebrity or not) has to be publicly identified. The clarity and forcefulness of the ruling has sent shivers down the spines of many digital houses who, to date, have had a relatively free run with Twitter and blog endorsements.

Many are wondering how the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will take up the reins in March this year. Some quietly fear onerous new regulatory frameworks with detailed instructions on how interests will need to be described.

By insisting that paid-for endorsements are disclosed, the OFT has thrown out a blanket net that requires the marketing and advertising communities to respond immediately. Swift action may avoid an over-prescriptive approach being laid down. However, the rulings also reach out in to the PR world by suggesting that comments included in editorial content must also be addressed.

So does this spell the death knell for the paid-for expert commentator? Will a cottage industry that has emerged over the last two to three decades quickly retrench, and the use of celebrities in many areas of PR dwindle? It is hard to imagine – ‘spon’ or ‘ad’ – featuring in the middle of editorial copy.

Other questions that spring to mind are:

1. Should journalists in the future be forced to check that their expert comments do not come from anyone financially connected with a business? A new job for the subs maybe?

2. Can we imagine a new cadre of officials constantly checking for comments and whether interests have been properly declared?

3. Will this ruling mark the first part of a longer journey to rein the PR world in – and require all PROs to be sensitive and compliant with ‘Fair Trading’?

4. Perhaps what needs to occur is for the ASA to sit down and to commit to a review with the PR industry and examine the best ways in which the management of endorsements, on and off-line, should occur. If the rules are meant to govern celebrities making undeclared comment then relevant advice needs to be prepared to this effect.

Some simple guidelines are vital if we are to avoid a very confusing period for PR and social media practitioners.

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