Some of a brand’s best advocates are often their own employees. But with the complicated FTC regulations around endorsement and disclosure, many employees are hesitant to participate in brand discussions online, and many brands are hesitant to encourage them.

In part one of this interview, Andy Sernovitz, an expert on word of mouth marketing, gave tips on engaging external influencers while staying within FTC restrictions. Today, he answers some questions about encouraging employees to participate in social discussions around your brand, while guiding them on regulations. Andy is the New York Times bestselling author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking and CEO of SocialMedia.org and WordofMouth.org. He is also on the Bazaarvoice Advisory Board. You can listen to Andy’s full comments in this webinar.

What counts as an employee or paid endorser?

You’ve compensated them somehow to go and write that review, or in any way they’re pretending that they’re not really independent people – they’re an employee or they work for the agency. So as long as it’s a real consumer writing a real review on your website, that’s all good and wonderful.

If an employee purchases their company’s products and wants to write a review, do they have to disclose that they are an employee? That is, if the brand didn’t provide the product or directly ask for feedback, can an employee write a review just like any other customer?

sernovitzNo, because an employee is not just any other customer. An employee is an employee. So when they write about how much they love the product, they are marketing it. You can’t be an employee and talk about how great your company is [without disclosure]… I keep repeating it: If you’re promoting a product and you have a relationship with the company, you have to disclose your relationship with the company. And that’s everybody – it’s not some people, or just marketing people.

If an employee simply wants to retweet something from their company account, does their Twitter bio need to state that they are an employee?

They very much do… When you’re tweeting, your friends and family and folks are seeing those tweets. And they expect those are your personal messages. And when they see a message that’s about a business, and you have a financial interest in that business, or you work there – your friends aren’t expecting to see corporate advertising buried in your personal tweets or Facebook posts. That’s exactly why we need disclosure.

Is it necessary to make every employee sign a social media disclosure, and include it in new hire paperwork?

That’s your safe place, and it’s what a lot of companies are doing (I’m talking thousands now). The FTC has said putting together a social media training program, making it part of your normal HR process where people do other HR training and ethics training so everyone knows the rules, and if you get employees to do that, you the company are now protected from FTC investigation if somebody does something inappropriate or illegal… Frankly, that’s the one thing the FTC is looking at, to see if there is good will; if you’re trying to do the right thing.

What department should the social team report to, in order to ensure compliance and oversight?

I think the social media team should be the people who do the oversight. There should be one center of excellence in the company that does social media and says, “We’re the ones who are the enforcers of social media ethics and social media good taste.” And when all of the other departments of the company, the advertising folks are getting pitched by the ad agency and the customer service folks are getting pitched something by that vendor, everyone should clear it through one central group, and say, “Is this compliant with our policies?” And, bonus, that’s what the FTC says: “If you’ve got one group, and one great set of policies, and everyone’s using them, we’re not gonna come after you.”

How do honest firms combat the “$5 for 10,000 Facebook likes” practice among competitors?

I truly believe that as good people, as honest people, we won’t use this kinds of tactics. And sleazy businesses that pay sleazy services to fake the likes, or fake the Youtube views, or write fake comments – they will get busted, and they will lose in the end. The best we can do is say, “We’re gonna play fair. We’re gonna run a clean game. And know that people who cheat will always get exposed.” It’s always obvious. We always know when a business has way too many reviews that are obviously untrue. “We’re gonna do the right thing and only do business with people who do the right thing.”

I think the cheaters will get starved out. We say this in email, where every business  was trying all sorts of email, cutting corners, and finally we said, “Look, we don’t spam, we don’t blast people, we don’t do that anymore.” And eventually only sleazy businesses used spam tactics anymore. Now, we were too slow to make that call, and the spammers became a giant, offshore, well-funded industry. We can stop this here by stepping up and doing the right thing in social media before we lose control of the thing.

Check out part one of this interview, which includes Andy’s tips on engaging external influencers while staying within FTC restrictions