Underwriting credit copy is hard to get right. FCC copy guidelines are rarely black and white and evaluating copy closely can take time and thoughtful discussion. The blurry middle ground of sponsor messaging can result in tricky conversations with sponsors, many of whom have strong preferences about how their spot is worded. Some sponsors want to walk right up to the edge of the FCC’s guidelines. And some misunderstand public media underwriting altogether. For as appealing as public media underwriting is compared with traditional advertising, navigating the restrictions of credit copy can be just plain hard.
It may be tempting to look past these complexities in the interest of keeping sponsors happy and saving time. But two experts who specialize in FCC law, Garvey Schubert Barer Principal and Managing Director Brad Deutsch and PBS Director of Funding Policy Dan O'Melia, emphasized during a recent session at the 2019 Public Media Development and Marketing Conference that the long-term financial and time costs of being found out of compliance by the FCC can be crippling for some organizations.
This was a timely discussion as all public broadcasters will be up for license renewal over the coming two to five years. Brad pointed out that there is no FCC “Big Brother” watching; The FCC doesn’t have compliance officers checking stations around the country. FCC complaints are issued by our listeners and community. Every station up for license renewal must air messages essentially saying that if anyone has any problems with the station, they should call the FCC to complain. Those announcements may be heard by disgruntled past employees, competitors, or simply listeners who believe we are getting too commercial-sounding. So, it is important to get our ducks in a row.
The two attorneys spoke to how risky it is to violate FCC guidelines. Here are some key points to keep in mind.
An FCC fine is expensive and embarrassing. But a fine is not the only cost you might face. A recent violation fine of $115,000, for example, was more than matched by the lawyers’ fees incurred as part of its legal proceedings. Perhaps worse was the four-year compliance plan that imposed huge documentation requirements upon the station.
One of the best ways to stay FCC-compliant is pretty simple: Use common sense. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck. If it sounds like a commercial, your listeners will hear that as well. Remember the trust our listeners put in us to remain their non-commercial, non-cluttered source of news, information, music and entertainment. And remember, the listeners are our major source of funding.
Another essential part of shielding your organization from FCC-scrutiny is to have a policy. Your copy-approval process should be formal and in writing. If you’re ever required to defend your copy to the FCC, you’ll need to demonstrate that you made a good-faith effort, governed by a thoughtful process, to follow the guidelines. Part of your policy should be that you always consult your attorney when you have a question or internal disagreement about the legality of a piece of copy. And when these questions arise, document your conversations and their results.
Now would be a great time to double check your internal copy-approval policies. Make sure they are in writing and that everyone agrees on the rationale for your process. Remaining FCC-compliant is one of the best ways we can remain true to our missions. We owe it to ourselves to get this right.