Misleading Use of Social Media Could Warrant Federal Fines

Thinking of having your employees pose as customers and post positive reviews of your company online? You might want to think again, Shady McSketchball. The Federal Trade Commission now has precedent to drop the proverbial hammer on your business if you’re caught in such acts. The California Chamber’s HR Watchdog blog explains:

The New York Times recently reported that a California-based company settled charges with the (Federal) Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC alleged that the company engaged in deceptive marketing practices by encouraging its employees to post favorable reviews for its clients’ games on iTunes. The employees did not disclose that they were being paid to write favorable reviews.

Late in 2009, the FTC made changes to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. The FTC’s guides address endorsements by consumers, experts, organizations and celebrities. The FTC said the revised Guides also add new requirements that mandate that “material connections” between advertisers and endorsers (sometimes payments or free products) must be disclosed because consumers would not expect these connections to exist.

These examples define what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The guides stipulate that the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement.

Inform your employees that they should not post testimonials or endorsements on social media Web sites about your company or any of its products or services without disclosing their relationship to your company.

Are Computers the New Newsies?

It seems that while the newspaper industry continues to struggle to adapt to changing revenue models, news consumption in the U.S. remains fairly strong. This likely confirms what most thought, but it’s nice to put some numbers to the discussion, and hopefully serves as encouraging news for the industry itself:

Mediapost reports:

According to a new comScore release, more than 123 million Americans visited newspaper sites in May, representing 57% of the total U.S. Internet audience, as the New York Times Brand led the category with more than 32 million visitors and 719 million pages viewed during the month. The average visitor viewed 22 pages of content on the New York Times. Tribune Newspapers ranked second in terms of audience with 24.8 million visitors, followed by Advance Internet and USA Today Sites.

Jeff Hackett, comScore senior vice president, said "… even as print circulation declines, Americans are actually consuming as much news as ever… it’s just being consumed across more media," said. "The Internet has become an essential channel in the way the majority of Americans consume news content today… 3 out of 5 Internet users read newspapers online each month… as advertising rates for digital move closer… (to) traditional media, the economics of the news business… look(s) a lot more promising."

The study shows that among the top site categories where display ads appeared in April 2010, online newspapers accounted for 2.4% of impressions but a higher 6.7% of display advertising dollars. The average cost per thousand impressions (CPM) on online newspaper sites was $7, higher than each of the other top site categories and nearly three times the average CPM for the total U.S. Internet at $2.52.

Keeping Tabs on For-Profit Schools’ Federal Aid

For-profit colleges will likely be required to disclose information about their programs’ job placement rates, graduation rates and other statistics so the U.S. Department of Education can calculate graduates’ debt load and income, a New York Times article reports this week.

Ultimately that data could make a school ineligible for federal financial aid based on graduates’ debt in relation to their income if it doesn’t meet a certain ratio (which has not been finalized). The original idea was “cutting off federal aid to programs whose graduates could not repay their student loans in 10 years with 8% of the income,” the story notes.

Wondering what exactly constitutes a for-profit school? The proposed rule would affect the likes of Harrison College and ITT Technical Institute – both based in Indiana.

I wrote about this fast growing higher education sector in a March/April  BizVoice® story. Read about how for-profit schools don’t receive taxpayer dollars directly (like IU, Purdue and other public schools); instead they are large consumers of federal student aid. Nationally, for-profit schools received about one-fifth of federal financial aid each year.

It’s stats that like that have the Department of Education evaluating whether these same programs are a drain on federal aid while leaving graduates in low-paying jobs with no way to pay off the debt. The final rules are expected to be published in November and take effect in July 2011, the NYT reports.

While this regulation wouldn’t disqualify all for-profit schools from financial aid, I imagine such rules could continue to feed many perceptions about the industry. Read what leaders at Indiana for-profit schools have to say about how their programs are built around top-demand jobs in Indiana.

Can Businesses Sue People Who Trash Them Online?

We’ve all had experiences as customers that have certainly led to some epic rants. And some of us have even taken those frustrations online, likely in an effort to either notify company executives or just connect with others who felt the same. But that has spawned an interesting question: Can companies take action against spurned customers who embellish their negative experiences. A New York Times article examines one case in Michigan:

After a towing company hauled Justin Kurtz’s car from his apartment complex parking lot, despite his permit to park there, Mr. Kurtz, 21, a college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., went to the Internet for revenge.

Outraged at having to pay $118 to get his car back, Mr. Kurtz created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the company.

T&J filed a defamation suit against Mr. Kurtz, claiming the site was hurting business and seeking $750,000 in damages.

Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp have given individuals a global platform on which to air their grievances with companies. But legal experts say the soaring popularity of such sites has also given rise to more cases like Mr. Kurtz’s, in which a business sues an individual for posting critical comments online.

The towing company’s lawyer said that it was justified in removing Mr. Kurtz’s car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page was costing it business and had unfairly damaged its reputation.

Some First Amendment lawyers see the case differently. They consider the lawsuit an example of the latest incarnation of a decades-old legal maneuver known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp.

The label has traditionally referred to meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against citizens who speak out against them. The plaintiffs are not necessarily expecting to succeed — most do not — but rather to intimidate critics who are inclined to back down when faced with the prospect of a long, expensive court battle.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Mr. Kurtz, who recently finished his junior year at Western Michigan University. “The only thing I posted is what happened to me.”

Many states have anti-Slapp laws, and Congress is considering legislation to make it harder to file such a suit. The bill, sponsored by Representatives Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Charlie Gonzalez of Texas, both Democrats, would create a federal anti-Slapp law, modeled largely on California’s statute.

Because state laws vary in scope, many suits are still filed every year, according to legal experts. Now, with people musing publicly online and businesses feeling defenseless against these critics, the debate over the suits is shifting to the Web. 

“Everybody Work from Home!”(Sung to the Tune of Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’)

Do people at your office work from home? Or maybe you’ve considered allowing this but have your doubts about how productive that really can be? Well it seems Inc. magazine was curious, and as they were tackling the concept in an upcoming edition, they thought they’d try it collectively as a staff. And what they discovered surprised them. The New York Times writes:

“I thought it would involve so much change that it wouldn’t be feasible,” Mr. Chafkin said.

Then Jane Berentson, Inc.’s editor, gave the go-ahead. And in February, the staff of about 30 — editors, reporters and producers — created the April issue outside of the business magazine’s office in Downtown Manhattan. The issue goes on sale on April 6.

The production went off without a major hitch, with the staff members using nothing more than readily available technology, including Skype and instant messaging. And Ms. Berentson described Mr. Chafkin’s cover piece, “The Office Is Dead. Long Live the Office,” which is infused with first-person details, as richer and more unusual than it would have been without the experiment.

“I think about the magazine industry and how we’re going to use all of this new technology, such as the iPad, but there’s innovation in this very basic way as well,” Ms. Berentson said. “Why are we in the office in the first place?”

Away from the office, some staff members struggled to adjust, Mr. Chafkin said, as minor technical hiccups arose and parents working at home had to find ways to separate their work from their children. But in the end, most employees discovered that they could and should work out of the office more often — though they did not want to eliminate the office entirely.

America Receiving Declining Grades on Education

Not to pile onto the myriad reports of the decline of the American education system, but the New York Times relays one educational expert’s testimony that many nations, including our neighbor Canada, are surpassing America when it comes to educating youth: 

America’s education advantage, unrivaled in the years after World War II, is eroding quickly as a greater proportion of students in more and more countries graduate from high school and college and score higher on achievement tests than students in the United States, said Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which helps coordinate policies for 30 of the world’s richest countries.

“Among O.E.C.D. countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the U.S.,” Mr. Schleicher said. About 7 in 10 American students get a high school diploma.

Mr. Schleicher’s comments came in testimony before the Senate education committee and in a statement he delivered. The panel plans to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main law governing federal policy on public schools.

The committee also heard from Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union; John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives; and Charles Butt, chief executive of a supermarket chain in Texas, who said employers there faced increasing difficulties in hiring qualified young workers.

The blame for America’s sagging academic achievement does not lie solely with public schools, Mr. Butt said, but also with dysfunctional families and a culture that undervalues education. “Schools are inheriting an overentertained, distracted student,” he said.

For more on the state of education in the Hoosier State, peruse some of the articles in the latest edition of BizVoice.

Hat tip to the Chamber’s Derek Redelman for bringing the NYT article to our attention.

Climb Aboard the Internet Bus

Looking back at the times I rode the school bus during my high school years reminds me of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – not the Clint Eastwood movie, but my own version. There was the good (spending time with friends), the bad (rowdy passengers) and the ugly (I’ll never forget the time an unsuspecting upper classman making his way on board was greeted with a chorus of, “Junior on the bus!”; apparently, it wasn’t cool to ride the bus past the age of 16). But what could have made those trips pass more quickly and perhaps curbed some of the mischief was riding bus No. 92 – known as the Internet Bus – in Arizona.

According to a New York Times story, a district – comprised of 18 schools and 10,000 students – mounted a mobile Internet router onto one of its buses last fall with the goal of reducing misbehavior and enhancing students’ academic performance. It’s working. Officials are finding that students are making more of an effort to complete homework assignments during long commutes to school (the one mentioned above has a 70-minute route each way) and on the way to sporting events. Plus, they are less likely to hassle one another because the technology provides a distraction.

The investment was relatively minor, given the potential returns: $200 for the router and a $60 per month Internet service contract. Schools and districts in Florida, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also are planning to take advantage of the technology, provided by a company called Autonet Mobile.

Now, I know disobedience won’t magically disappear and kids won’t automatically become dedicated students just because Internet access is available. But, so far, it’s making a difference on bus No. 92. Maybe somewhere, there’s a “junior on the bus” tuning out the mocking chatter by picking up his laptop and escaping into something educational.

Cruel Irony for Job Seekers and Employers

The Indiana Chamber has pointed out during the course of the year that one of the unfortunate aspects of the state unemployment insurance tax increase passed into law in April was the likelihood of higher unemployment. Why? Companies already faced with a still sputtering economy would be forced to lay off more people to pay the additional tax.

Fortunately, in Indiana, a one-year delay in that tax increase has been proposed — and hopefully will pass early in the 2010 General Assembly session. In a recent story, the Associated Press described the problem on a national level. It included an interview with a longtime Indiana Chamber supporter (and former board of directors chairman).

A brief excerpt:

Employers already are squeezed by tight credit, rising health care costs, wary consumers and a higher minimum wage. Now, the surging jobless rate is imposing another cost. It’s forcing higher state taxes on companies to pay for unemployment insurance claims.

• Chuck Ferrar, who owns a liquor store in Annapolis, Md., expects to pay $9,000 in unemployment taxes next year, up from $3,000 this year. Health care costs for his employees will rise by $8,000, or 17.5 percent. "When you start adding this up, it turns into real money," he said. "If I lose an employee through attrition, I will not replace him. You can’t afford to do it."

• Sam Schlosser, owner of Plymouth Foundry Inc. in Plymouth, Ind., said his unemployment tax bill could double next year. Revenue at the family-owned company, which makes iron castings for machine parts, has fallen about 50 percent, he said. In case of higher taxes, his company may have to consider layoffs, he said.

• Marjorie Feldman-Wood, president of Al’s Beverages in East Windsor, Conn., which makes soda fountain syrup, said higher taxes would make pay raises less likely. Connecticut is borrowing from the federal government, and employers fear the state will have to raise taxes soon to repay the loan. "There’s only so much money at the end of the day," she said.

Bruce Meyer, a University of Chicago economics professor, said his studies show that higher unemployment taxes usually lead to lower pay for employees.

And this from the New York Times:

It works like insurance. If the government pays a claim, your rates go up. In fact, if your former employee collects $10,000 in unemployment payments, you can expect to pay close to twice that in increased premiums. At least that’s how it works in my state, Illinois.

And now, thanks to the stimulus package, unemployment insurance has been extended as much as an additional 20 weeks. If you’ve had to lay off 10 people, this could easily result in additional taxes of $10,000, $50,000, or even $100,000. It’s a time bomb that won’t go off until after employers get their contribution-rate increase, but it will go off.

And therein lies the final irony: Even after the economy improves, I’m going to think long and hard before I hire anyone. Thanks to the stimulus package — the stimulus package — the costs, paperwork, and legal exposure associated with hiring employees is on the rise. 

Reporters for Hire Could Find Refuge with Sports Teams

The New York Times recently documented how the L.A. Kings and other franchises have taken to hiring their own reporters with coverage in the local dailies waning. This will obviously raise questions of objectivity, but may be a viable solution for teams, organizations, readers/fans and even journalists looking for stable work:

If your business depends on free publicity from newspapers, what do you do when the papers can no longer afford to send reporters to cover you? In professional sports, the answer, increasingly, is hire your own.

The Los Angeles Kings hockey team last week hired Rich Hammond, who had covered the Kings for The Los Angeles Daily News, to write about the team for its Web site, kings.nhl.com. Michael Altieri, a Kings spokesman, said the team had given Mr. Hammond a multiyear commitment and complete autonomy to post reporting or commentary.

“We have a passionate fan base who want instant information about our team, but there’s been declining news coverage of us,” Mr. Altieri said.

After years of trimming jobs, pages and travel budgets, many big-city papers no longer provide regular coverage of every local sports team, and sending reporters on road trips has become rare. Mr. Hammond, 32, will travel with the Kings and cover all of their games. He said the job switch means a modest pay increase, and considering the state of newspapers, it may also improve his job security.

Last year, Chris Botta, a longtime New York Islanders executive, began writing about the team on its Web site. He developed an avid following, and when the team dropped the experiment this year, he continued with his own site, islanderspointblank.com.

“The Islanders used to get covered by four major newspapers, and now it’s one,” he said. “Teams have to do this kind of thing, and I believe more of them will.”

Major League Baseball has a beat reporter assigned to each team for MLB.com. But the Cincinnati Bengals football team was the pioneer in this field: a decade ago, the Bengals hired Geoff Hobson, a sports reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer, to write for its site.

But how sure can readers be of tough, impartial coverage when image-conscious businesses are paying for it? Mr. Hammond said it would be no use debating the ethics; teams will do what they must to generate fan interest, and fans can distinguish between reporting and public relations.

“I understand that people are going to have doubts,” he said. “The proof is going to be in the product.

UPDATE: Amy Mengel, a communications manager and freelance consultant, doesn’t seem to be buying this as a viable paradigm. Thoughts?

Hat tip to the Ragan PR Daily Newsfeed.

Popular Band Doing Away With Album Concept, Continuing Evolution of Music Business Paradigm

The band that brought you such ear-pleasing anthems as "Creep" and "Karma Police" announced this week that it plans to stop making albums, and focus on singles. Interesting concept, and it might prove fruitful. Although, I fear my life would have been far less enjoyable had Born to Run been released as a series of unconnected singles. On the upside, we probably never would have been introduced to Chris Gaines if the album concept hadn’t existed — so I guess it’s a push. At any rate, The New York Times has the story:

So, when Mr. Yorke announced a change of course for the band, saying it planned to stop making full-length records and turn its attention to singles, it sounded like an epitaph for the album, the broken backbone of the record industry’s longtime business model.

“None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Mr. Yorke told the Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

Radiohead’s shift to singles reflects a change in music fans’ preferences. Instead of buying whole albums, they now stream or download just the songs they want. That, along with unauthorized copying, has decimated industry revenues.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. sales of albums, in physical and digital form, fell 14 percent last year, continuing a multiyear decline. While consumers bought more than a billion individual digital tracks in the United States, which accounts for a majority of online sales worldwide, they bought only 65 million digital albums in 2008.

Efforts are under way to try to make albums less of a drag. Apple and the major record companies are reportedly working on projects to include liner notes, lyrics, artwork, music videos and other extras with digital downloads.

They could start by examining Radiohead’s experiment with “In Rainbows.” The band’s publisher, Warner Chappell, reported that more than three million copies of the album were distributed in the first year, in digital and physical formats. Some people paid nothing, but the album still made more money than either of the band’s previous two records, Warner Chappell said. And the marketing buzz from the “pay what you want” model helped drive the CD to the top of the charts.