FDA/FTC Increasing Scrutiny of Social Media Efforts

social media trip

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WholeFoods Magazine Staff
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Washington, D.C.—Supplement manufacturers know their advertising efforts and product labeling are closing monitored by regulators, but they should be just as stringent with how they handle their social media outreach. Such was the message in the Natural Products Association (NPA)’s first installment of its 2014 Wednesday Webinar Series on January 22, entitled, “Social Media for Dietary Supplements: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.”

“You need to be super-careful as you plan your marketing in the social media space,” said Scott Bass, Esq., senior partner at Sidley Austin LLP, and the first speaker in the presentation. He noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration routinely monitors Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Tumblr, YouTube, metatags and Web sites, and the agency has issued warning letters based on claims made through social media.

Bass made the point that like other forms of advertising and marketing, companies cannot make unapproved claims on social media platforms. “I don’t think industry is doing a good job of compliance in the social media space,” he stated.

For instance, some companies are treading into dangerous territory by having sales staff and others encourage shoppers to write testimonials or claims like “It cured my arthritis” on social media sites. Such statements aren’t allowable in print, and are not acceptable on social media.

Co-presenter Todd Pauli, partner at The Shelton Group, said when he’s managing a page where such a comment is made, he either removes it (and tells the commenter why) or corrects it in another comment with a link to appropriate product information on the company’s Web site.

Bass noted that companies attempting to make any allowable claims—nutrition content, nutritional support or health claims—should have evidence to back them up. He stated that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is especially looking into any marketing to children and claims about probiotics, immune support and weight loss.

Another issue Bass pointed out is that if companies are picking up on any patterns through social media that could be an adverse event, they are obligated to report it.

All these tips apply to company-sponsored sites as well as those that are not. “A firm is responsible for product promotional communications on sites that are owned, controlled, created, influenced or operated by or on behalf of the firm,” Bass stated, adding that companies are even responsible for what employees say in social media. “Make clear in SOPs what they can do,” Bass suggested.

In addition, Bass stated companies cannot hide behind sponsored links on Web sites. “You have to put proper restrictions in place before being aggressive there,” he advised.

Overall, Bass believes the best advice for posting product-related content is to have “common sense, substantiation and creativity.”

“It’s all about planning,” Pauli added. “It’s fairly easy to be compliant if you’re mindful and careful.”

Have protocols in place for who should make posts, the voice of the post, and examples of what the company can and cannot say. Said Pauli, “Think of yourself as a small retailer. Your front door is open. People can ask you anything they’d like.” In addition, plan for how to respond to questions and negative posts in advance to avoid scrambling.

Pauli also offered several practical tips for building and managing a social media page. He believes that the best way to build an active, good-quality audience is to use techniques like hosting contests, posting Facebook ads, recruiting a thought-leader for a Facebook chat, engaging brand advocates and showcasing company leader as a real person to build loyalty.

For information about future NPA webinars, visit http://www.npainfo.org/NPA/EducationCertification/NPA_Wednesday_Webinar_Series.aspx.