The Ethics of the Blogosphere

Nowhere is it more apparent that there are no grays, just blacks and whites, than in the blogosphere. We - yes, including me - are all ready to jump into the faces of others and scream "blasphemer" and say why people are doing things wrong in the social media, or new media, or whatever you want to call it. The best term I have heard was "media" and that was from Steve Gillmor - but I digress.

So, now we got the Microsoft Vista notebook campaign. BL Ochman has her opinion that Edelman has an ethics scandal brewing, but I think that's a little bit overboard - this isn't fake blogging, like they did with Walmarting Across America (a bad campaign from start to finish), or some other things they have done recently that misses the point of blogs.

Do I think this was a well thought out campaign? Not at all, but that's the wrinkle and where the gray levels come in with PR and social media.

Full disclosure: I am part of the Nokia blogging program. I wrote about it here and it is run by Andy Abramson, a blogger that gets bloggers. The program is run right, it's run well, and it's run in such a way that I have a FedEx slip to send back the phone. They do not ask for reviews, they do not pre-suppose anything, they offered the phone and I accepted, and have had the luxury of testing out the N-Series, and telling people which phones I like from it in old school word of mouth.

There - disclosure. And, that's the gray area. At Blog Business Summit, Jason Calacanis got up on stage and talked about the black and white of blogs, and accepting gifts. The wonderfully charming Teresa Valdez Klein breaks down his speech, but here's the rub: I am in the business of public relations and social media, and its convergence. Part of my job is strategy and tactics, and part of that (most importantly) is imparting the necessity of transparency to clients. Now, when I send product out (and, yes, I send product out) to bloggers, do I need to say "and, buddy, don't forget to be transparent!!" or is it implied. On the flip side, who the hell am I to tell other bloggers what to write or not write? But, before sending out product, I ask if they want the product, and don't buckshot the pitch.

There - that's one item that seems to have been missing from the Vista pitch. There was no "you want this" but, from my reading and conversations, more of a "here you go" and that's that. According to one source, the terms used in his letter - gift, present, no strings attached - all say "we do not get it." Where was the email first that said - are you interested?

And, well, I have said it before that those that scream the hardest and loudest that they get it ... don't get it at all. We can all point finger at some loud screamers.

Now, I am going to bring up a few examples of people that have been caught in the middle of this shit storm. First, well, the problem might be the price point: this is a $2K machine, and that seems to cross that line of cool/not cool. Okay - on to the friends. One of the people that has been attacked is Scott Beale. Attacking Scott is like kicking a puppy - yes, a thrill at first, but then it's just mean (the thrill part is a joke, btw). This is the man that crosses various subsections in San Francisco, a friend to all he meets (yes, a little flowery, but I wrote about that here).

Scott has three posts - the first one, the response to the shit storm, and then his final solution to eBay the notebook - proceeds go to the EFF. Scott was transparent. Scott said he got the notebook from MSFT. He said he got it for reviews - correction, just got a Skype that that's one of his points: he's not sure why he got it. He played the game it was supposed to be played - and he gets attacked. Others also got attacked, but their glee brought it on (sorry, dude). The News Editor of APC - a well regarded Aussie publication - chimes in about the moral issues here, and then a MSFT employee chimes in about transparency.

But, well, how can you police transparency in a campaign? The letters were loosey-goosey, the objectives were unclear beyond "review" and then it changes the rules of the game and says gimme my ball back, you don't play nice. And, how do you say to a blogger: here, take the notebook, but you gotta be transparent. Like I said, you cannot dictate to another blogger what to write.

There are so many issues with the way this has been done, but I have to give the team some credit: it was a step in the right direction. Maybe the got the memo from my unclear on the concept post and went beyond the A-list - but not too far beyond it - to include targeted bloggers that might be interested. But, they blew it by not defining the terms, not really vetting the bloggers, not asking the right questions, not defining the terms (yes, said twice). Hell, check out Brian Solis' recommendations and review of the program - he hits it on the head.

But, back to overall ethics in blogs. Yes, we clamor for transparency - here's more: the agency I work at works with Microsoft as well, I have received books from my blog, I have received an iPod shuffle from my blog, I have made some good friends through this blog, and been propositioned - but I hear horror stories from reputable bloggers. One told me to blog about Sonos, and then they will send me a discount. Is this true? I do not know, but I have no reason to doubt the person. Another friend/reporter joked that I should write about Skoal and how much I like to chew, and they will send me a box of smokeless tobacco (just imagine me walking around the office and the city with a spit cup - yeeehaa!).

At the end of the day, though, this just goes to show what I have been saying privately and publicly for a while: some self-professed PR blog leaders are not wearing clothes. Are we going to see another post that says "I had nothing to do with this" or someone owning up to program? While the program is, overall, a good idea, the execution might be off and the price point a wee bit too high for comfort for most people.

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  1. Yes, well, now bloggers might be able to understand why the main stream media is often so biased; those little gifts help, don't they?

  2. Well, that's a little too harsh on both bloggers and mainstream media. Reviews are part of the process, and can be done in a smart way that keeps everything transparent.

    This, well, wasn't one of those situations.

  3. Amen!

    Accountability goes hand-in-hand with transparency. It is going back-to-basics! What is so different about blogger relations from journalist relations? Perhaps, because everything is written and that there is a permanent record...leading to a high price point.

  4. My buddy Jason C. is right on target. Always ask a blogger first if they want the "gift". Imagine if Edelman had done this with Pogue, Mossberg and others who testdrive new products for the WSJ and NYT.

  5. @Lauren - there are differences in blogger relations and media relations, but there are basics that should be kept.

    @James - and that's the point - the basic email asking if the bloggers were interested in product was never sent out. Why not? Seems a basic step.

  6. Thoughts on Edelman Blog Exploits

    I just want to raise some larger issues and not attack any practices. A fundamental question is the nature of blogs. We can divide this into two opposing views. One is that blogs create a public space where everyone can meet and discuss issues. The key is authenticity—say who your area and who you work for. Deception is viewed as a corruption of the system. When public relations people do it, it plays into all the wrong stereotypes of the field. Two is that blogs are a parallel/alternative to the news media. Bloggers try to become “A” list so that they are more important and can leverage that importance by “signing” with a major PR firm and getting “swag” from those seeking their endorsements. Unlike the main stream media, there are no ethical codes that limit or prohibit gifts so all is fair. Many views can fall between these extremes but the two views do exist and can help to explain much of the defense and attacks for flogs and expensive computer gifts. Just something to think about.


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