According to the newly revised Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Guides, employers may face liability for employees’ commenting on their employer’s services or products on “new media,” such as blogs or social networking sites, if the employment relationship is not disclosed. Potential liability may exist even if the comments were not sponsored or authorized by the employer.
The revised Guides took effect December 1, 2009. They address the application of Section 5 of the FTC Act (15 U.S.C 45) to the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising and provide examples of the application of Section 5, including examples that could lead to potential employer liability. One such example specifies liability for an employee’s blog posting concerning his employers’ product, where the employment relationship is not previously disclosed:
An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.”
In comments to the proposed revisions, the Commission agreed that the establishment of appropriate procedures governing “new media” would be a factor in its determination as to whether law enforcement action is appropriate. Tellingly, the Commission stated that it has brought enforcement actions against companies “whose failure to establish or maintain appropriate internal procedures” had resulted in consumer injury. However, the Commission refused to spell out the procedures companies should put in place to monitor compliance with the principles set forth in the Guides, leaving companies to determine for themselves the process that would best fulfill their responsibilities.
In light of the FTC’s clear recognition of “new media” and enforcement goal, employers should adopt social media and blogging policies as soon as possible. Employers should consider policies and procedures which address employee use of blog or social networking sites. Those policies, like this sample policy, should articulate the types of disclosure employees must include when they discuss their employers or their employers’ products or services.