Monday, December 15

Being Human: Chris Brogan


If there are lessons to be learned from the veracity of a conversation that occurred this weekend around Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, it might not be what most people think. What began as a question of ethics quickly descended into something else: a not-so-subtle reminder that for all those social media participants who mistrust companies, the people who make up these companies might have cause to not trust social media participants.

And why should they? It's all too easy to deduce that social media participants eat their own.

What began as a relatively harmless sponsored puff piece by Brogan, describing a K-Mart shopping spree like a kid in a candy store, ended in charges that Brogan might never be trusted again.

Initially, it seemed like an excellent ethics discussion, but then it morphed into what some people might describe as a French mob. Then it morphed into a civil war (given that people seemed evenly split). And then again, it morphed into a 'reverse' French mob against Damien Basile (among others), a senior associate editor for CritqueMedia.com, because he was as outspoken as Brogan was sometimes defensive. If you get the sense it was a mess, you might be right.

The initial conversation seemed promising enough.

On the forefront of the conversation, it was just a review by Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang: "Transparent, Yes. Authentic? Debatable. Sustainable? No." (Hat tip: Arron Brazell). And then it was easy to see that there were ethical questions being raised (never mind it was less clear which ethical questions were being raised).

For some, it was whether or not sponsored posts are ethical. For others, it was whether Brogan appropriately disclosed his relationship with Izea, given he also serves on an advisory board. And for others still, it was whether personal relationships and reputation are exempt from ethical review.

The general topic reveals paying for posts is split, but shifting in favor of.

The question of blogger compensation has been around a long time. Last March, there was a survey that touched on the practice, but it was written wrong. However, if you spend enough time speaking with various people, you'll find they are generally split on sponsored posts, with most who find them acceptable adding a condition of disclosure.

Of course, even with disclosure, there are always going to be challenges with sponsored posts. One blogger might accept payments and only write positive posts regardless of how they feel, while another might accept payment and remain perfectly objective. Thus, credibility belongs to the individual and not the practice (usually, hat tip: Owyang).

The conversation might have been better served without being personal.

Brogan's K-Mart post fell in a decidedly gray area. The primary complaint seems to be that Brogan wears many hats. He is generally regarded as a leader in shaping social media, sits on a board of advisors for Izea, and accepted payment from K-Mart through Izea. In addition, Izea wants to run a campaign for K-Mart, using a sponsored post program.

While there were plenty of voices, Basile was one of the more articulate (though sometimes overly passionate and sometimes personal about his principles). Looking back over Basile's comments, it seems to me he was trying to convey that Brogan might not have been a suitable choice for Izea because it is in Brogan's best interest to ensure Izea delivered everything K-Mart hoped it could. In other words, it wasn't the K-Mart post as much as it was his demonstration of Izea delivering puff pieces.

I tend to view ethical questions with IABC's Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators as a guide. Not everyone does, and there are plenty of others to follow. Of the twelve articles that make up IABC's Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators, only one seemed to stand out.

Article 9. Professional communicators do not use confidential information gained as a result of professional activities for personal benefit and do not represent conflicting or competing interests without written consent of those involved.

I asked Brogan if he was paid by K-Mart or Izea. Although he was clear about it in his post, he was a good sport and answered direct. He was paid by Izea. This clarified it for me. Brogan was representing Izea, paid by Izea, and disclosed that arrangement. If you want a contrast, consider Julie Roehm, who accepted gifts from agencies seeking the coveted Wal-Mart account.

Given he wasn't double-dipping, it seems to be less a question of impropriety and more a question about the perception of impropriety. And if we get into the habit of questioning the perception of other people's ethics, we're only disclosing our own lapses of ethical judgment, as Valeria Maltoni so aptly alluded to today.

"Personal experiences have become the new barometer for extrapolating trends. We stopped outsourcing trust to institutions but instead of holding ourselves accountable for our own ethics and behavior, we have shifted that responsibility onto others. Then we cast stones at people we hold up as influentials when we were the ones putting them on the pedestal in the first place."

You cannot be disillusioned by people, unless you're illusioned by them.

Which brings up that other point. While so many people vouched for Brogan's integrity, some of it was done at the expense of others like Basile, who raised valid points. So it's always better to attack issues and not people, knowing someone doesn't preclude them from ethical misconduct. Believing otherwise makes the issue about you and not the subject, invites diatribe that makes discussion look like a popularity contest, and distracts from the most important lessons of all.

"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." — Thomas Jefferson

Sure, Brogan's post changed the perception that some people had of him based on the opening of Julien Smith and his own Trust Economies with a descriptor that reads "We are suspicious of marketing. We don't trust strangers as willingly. Buzz is suspect. It can be bought. Instead, consumers and business people alike are looking towards trust." But did he do something unethical? Not that I can see.

But perhaps more importantly, did the resulting conversations demonstrate a sensitivity to cultural values and beliefs, engaging in fair and balanced communication activities that foster and encourage mutual understanding as IABC advises and many social media participants suggest? Not even close. Trust is fragile, indeed.

2 comments:

Ben Kunz on 12/15/08, 3:32 PM said...

Rich, very eloquent.

I called Chris Brogan out on this issue Friday and we had a gentlemanly tweet debate over the weekend. My beef is not with him, it's about the trend his Kmart post represents.

Let's rewind to the beginning, which you summarized:

*For some, it was whether or not sponsored posts are ethical.*

That is the crux. Many people including myself use the web as an invaluable knowledge tool, and the trend of top bloggers to begin selling their opinions discolors that knowledge.

Pay-per-post is an ethically challenged, morally ambiguous concept on many levels -- mostly because it is attempt to game the system of the web. I call the resulting posts *opaynions*, since the opinions are now *started* by pay and thus suspect.

PPP is manipulative because:
1. It *elevates* a topic to a forum where the topic wouldn't otherwise fit.
2. Paid writers are typically swayed to opine more *positively*.
3. The *appearance* of conflict of interest is enough to discredit the voice of the author
4. PPP often includes a cascading offer to encourage others to *replicate* the false message, in exchange for potential payment.

PPP is not the same as advertorial, even if it is transparent, because the *opinion* of the writer has been purchased. The writer is not publishing a script. She is saying "hey, gee whiz, look at how great this product is!" ... when really, in her heart, that opinion is not natural.

Look, if bloggers want to become multilevel marketing salespeople, that's cool. Just realize such paid posts really do diminish the voice of the writer. Mr. Joseph Jaffe has a paid Sears post today that reads like a lotto sweepstakes promotion. Sounds like good fun. Just forgive me if I don't take him too seriously next week when he writes about real retail strategy.

Rich on 12/15/08, 5:00 PM said...

Ben,

Thanks for taking the time to leave a great comment on such a sensitive issue. I agree that if there is a trend in the air, then that trend is troubling.

Personally, I wouldn't do it and would warn away any students in the field from doing so as well. It does have an impact on credibility, leaving readers to wonder. But the actual ethics of it? I dunno. Case by case, maybe?

I've passed on several golden parachute offers, including selling Bum Fights and Yucca Mountain because I could not support them (in name or sans byline). But that's me, not other people. And yet, I'd be remiss to place any expectation on others to pass on six and seven figures.

The risks, which I did not address in this post, seem apparent. Although disclosed, many of us can read the difference in the writing anyway. If they do it too often, I'd hazard a guess that they will transform themselves from social media "expert" into a cut-rate spokesperson ($500 for an endorsement post seems pretty cheap). And maybe not today, but some will eventually run into real ethical dilemmas tomorrow when the product isn't so good. And when that starts to happen, what will they have left?

Yet, to take it a step further ... to assign ethics to others ... it all seems futile. People have choices, and I fully encourage them to do what they think is best for them. Jaffe is a good example. He's always been open to it. One recent comment said a lot ...

"We're coming to your rescue @chrisbrogan - now where's my retweet and link love?"

Like you, I too use the web as an invaluable knowledge tool. But I think the outcome is different. If top bloggers begin selling their opinions ... it will eventually leave more opportunities for others to fill in the spaces they leave behind.

As you said, you might not take them seriously the next time around, and eventually, you'll find somewhere else to go. There are a lot of great blogs out there; many of which don't get enough attention.

But isn't that the best part of the Web? When the posts don't taste as good, readers move on. No forgiveness needed. :)

All my best,
Rich

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