Tuesday, June 5

Bribing Bloggers: Ragan's Grapevine

Michael Sebastian, writing for Ragan's Grapevine, resurrected Amanda Chapel's comments on camera-maker Nikon's "loaning" 50 bloggers a pricey new camera for 12 months. In Chapel's piece last week, she notes that that "most reporters, e.g. NYT, WSJ, BusinessWeek, Forbes, etc., can't even accept a free lunch anymore because of new ethics guidelines. The era of wining, dining and bribing reporters is long over."

Given this, the general theory is that companies are attempting to curry favor with "b" and "c" list bloggers, offering loans, gifts and payments for favorable reviews. The downside for a blogger is that when they accept a gift or loan, they take a departure from the world of journalism. Hmmm ... maybe.

Last December, I wrote a less than flattering piece on PayPerPost, just hours prior to a terms of service change that required bloggers to disclose that they were being paid for their reviews. Had the post been penned after the change, my take on it would have been different.

In such instances, disclosure can make all the difference (though I don't recommend turning every editorial post into an advertorial post or you'll likely lose your readers). The same can be said about the Nikon camera campaign. Any ethical breach is not in the loan of a camera, but rather in the blogger's willingness to be swayed by the loan or if the loan is conditional on a favorable review or frequency of a product mention.

It all comes down to the blogger (or reporter for that matter) asking themselves if they can remain objective despite whatever offer is on the table, Nikon camera "loan" or not. Only the blogger can answer that question. Because, in general, if we attempt to guess the ethics of others, we only demonstrate our own lapse in understanding ethics.

Journalists, reviewers and critics in particular, have always received new products and beta programs (or attended openings) so they could write editorial. The reward for remaining objective is simply a matter of preserving their own credibility as a reviewer. To do the same, bloggers only need to appreciate that credibility is their most valuable asset as well.

So while I agree with Sebastian and Chapel that skewing reviews for favors is unethical, bloggers without journalism or public relations backgrounds only need a reminder now and again that the best editorial is not for sale. Likewise, just because someone sends you something, it doesn't mean you are obligated to write about it.

In closing, I might also add that Ragan entered the social media scene in force. Ragan's Grapevine has been a great addition to communication blogging and its new social network Myragan.com is one of three social networks I think are worth checking out (I'm still wading the waters). The other two are Recruitingblogs.com and BlogCatalog.com.

I'm hoping to share why I think so sometime next week. And given the topic of this post, I might add that I wasn't paid to say that. Grin.



Unknown on 6/5/07, 10:16 AM said...

I am sorry but I think your analysis underestimates the true dynamics of the issue.

Here we probe a little deeper:

"In an effort to clean the bribe-tainted Nikon blogola mess, Michael Kempner, CEO of Nikon's agency the MWW Group, has now personally put the program in the spin cycle.

Late last week, Kempner released a statement: "Blog Relationship Building: My Point of View." What follows is a line-by-line response to Kempner's spin. Here we show his self-serving rationalizations for what they are: PR at its worst and most ridiculous.

... And the irony of all ironies, we show that Kempner is absolutely right. Unburdened by ethics, payola ABSOLUTELY is all about building relationships."

See http://tinyurl.com/22ehwf .

Kind regards,

Amanda Chapel
Managing Editor

Geoff_Livingston on 6/5/07, 11:10 AM said...

I don't really think "Amanda Chapel" is a credible source of information. There's a lot to be said about ethics and true identity. It seems hypocritical to consider "Amanda" a credible source on this topic.

Further a blogger is not a journalist. Anyone who considers a blogger a journalist should take a hard look in the mirror. The blogola issue seems irrelevant to me in a lot of ways. If a blogger wants to take blogola fine. If they sell out and don't give an accurate review, fine. Soonner or later people realize what's going on.

Ultimately, a blog's integrity and value is matched by its readership. In essence, you are who you hang out with.

Rich on 6/5/07, 2:16 PM said...

Hi Amanda,

Thanks for clarifying your point, but I am not certain I've underestimated anything, even after reading your post today, which does a fine job of representing two very different points of view.

As much as your take makes me, er, consider sending back a "disclosed gift" from Paul Anka, which he personalized to me years ago (I was writing for an entertainment publication and happened to review a restaurant he co-owned, called My Way, now closed) as he did for many entertainment writers at the time (it was the anniversary of his song), I think I'll keep it.

The real dynamics of this issue, to me, is that maybe we place too much weight on questioning the ethics of others when we might be brushing up on our own. In the case of Nikon, the only lapse I see is that they may have over thought the entire campaign with so much effort to keep it ethical, the effort itself made it look questionable. But are ethics really in question here? As I said, only each blogger can answer that question.

If they write up a favorable review based solely on the fact that they have a cool camera for a year, then I suppose that would be unethical. But far be it for me to claim I can look into the heart of another person.

Net, net, if you peruse the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Code of Ethics, you might find the answers. For me, there are two articles that come to mind in this case:

10. Professional communicators do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.

12. Professional communicators are honest not only with others but also, and most importantly, with themselves as individuals; for a professional communicator seeks the truth and speaks that truth first to the self.

Surely, one does not have to lay claim to the title blogger, journalist, or whatever professional title we saddle them with to appreciate the finer points of these two articles. Disclosure means everything. Products for a hopeful review hardly constitute payment.

Had Kemper expected payment or placed conditions on the gift, then I suppose it would be different. But I am sorry to say that the evidence and intent of this situation seem to suggest this wasn't the case.

Likewise, when I review David Meerman Scott's book in the weeks (or days) ahead, will I feel tainted just because he mentioned me in the credits or sent me an autographed advance copy? Much like Kemper, there are no conditions or expectations on anyone's part, nor will be I biased in writing who I think the book would best serve.

In sum, I think, we must all be careful not to confuse the "perception of an ethical breach" and an "actual ethical breach" because it fosters unsubstantiated mistrust in people.

I'm sorry, but I like to think that people are better than that. Not every public relations professional will lie for a client. Not every politician plays favors for campaign contributors. And not every blogger lacks the mental intelligence to know that they owe Nikon nothing.

The only people they owe anything to is themselves, and perhaps their readers, in disclosing that they happened to be part of a campaign.

And until they actually write that they love the camera when they really loathe it, I think the entire debate is not the big deal that some people might suggest it is. Sure, for some people, it might be a tough decision, but give them a chance to make up their own minds.

As Geoff said, "If they sell out and don't give an accurate review, fine. Soonner or later people realize what's going on." Well said.

All my best,

Rich on 6/7/07, 5:27 AM said...

Famous First Words:

"First off, Geoff Livingston being a total d**che bag disqualifies him from judging anything and anyone as a source of information." — Amanda Chapel, responding on RecruitingBloggers.com and giving me pause to wonder if the whole Nikon camera campaign might be deserving of a living case study.



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