Selling your soul for a buck and some buzz
: On Today just now, Armstrong Williams — the conservative pundit who was paid by the Department of Education to flack for No Child Left Behind — tried to explain what he did and then he tried to set a world record for how many times he could apologize in three minutes.
He said, “Pundits and commentators should be held to the same standards as journalists” Well, yeah. Well, duh.
But it’s too late. He screwed up and it’s all the more amazing because it would have been so easy not to. It’s all about transparency.
And it is an object lesson for bloggers.
: Williams — a syndicated columnist dropped by Tribune Media Services because of this — also has a TV show. His show accepted $240,000 from DoE to push No Child Left Behind.
There were two problems with that:
First, it put Williams in a position of conflict of interest as he pushed No Child not only on his show and in his column but also in pundit ops on news shows — a conflict of interest he could and should have revealed. But he didn’t. That’s not transparent. That means people could not know when he’s speaking as himself or as a paid spokesman. Nobody knows when he’s a bought man.
Second, the deal with DoE required Williams to not only run commercials — which anybody can figure out is bought — but also to have DoE people on his show to push No Child: in short, commercials that try to masquerade as content. So no one knows what’s content and what’s a commercial.
In short, no one knows when to trust Williams.
A lack of transparency yields a lack of credibility.
Transparency means trust.
When I started Entertainment Weekly, a wise editor summed up all the many magazine-industry and company rules about advertising in a very simple test: Readers must never be confused about the source of something. If it has been bought, they must know it. We must never sell our editorial space or voice; ads must be clearly identified as ads.
What’s interesting about the Williams case is that he didn’t just sell space — in the form of time on his show. He sold himself. He sold his voice and his reputation.
And the DoE didn’t just buy ads, it tried to buy conversation, it tried to buy buzz. So it managed to bring into question anything positive any pundit now says about No Child Left Behind or any appearance to push the program on any show: Were they paid to say this?
: So how is that an object lesson for bloggers? For one, if you accept an ad you need to be aware that readers can wonder whether that influences you. I believe that ads and blog punditry can coexist happily, so long as you aren’t influenced (don’t start thinking, well, gee, if I start writing about how wonder No Child Left Behind is, maybe the DoE will give me $240k) and so long as you are transparent about the relationship (which is pretty easy when they buy an ad and it looks like an ad; if you want to go an extra step, perhaps you should list all those who’ve paid you for ads so you can always point to that). I’d also say it’s best if you don’t sell the ad yourself, if it is bought through BlogAds or Burst as your agent; that creates some separation and makes the relationship purely financial, not personal. There isn’t enough of an infrastructure to make that possible in all cases, but it’s optimal. That’s how it works in media.
: But this gets more complicated in an age when some people are trying to buy word-of-mouth. When they do that surreptitiously — when they try to pay someone to blog about their product or stand next to you in a bar touting how wonderful a beer is without being transparent about the payment or the relationship — then that’s tantamount to a lie.
And it affects not only them but every blogger or every guy in a bar. Now you don’t know whom to trust. And that’s why there is such a kerfluffle about buzz buying in the blogoshere.
I had a long conversation yesterday with a media executive I’ve known for years who’s now advising a word-of-mouth-marketing company; he wanted to talk about blogs and buzz (and, no, he didn’t buy me so much as a cup of coffee and, no, I’m not going to suddenly slip in references to drinking Budweiser).
He said the real value of this to marketers is in listening to what consumers say about their products. Well, then, I said, that should be transparent. Any smart company should create the means where they can listen to consumers — really listen and let customers influence how products are designed, made, and sold. They should engage in a conversation! No need to be surreptitious about that. Be open. Be transparent. Hell, they should call it ear-of-mouth marketing.
If a marketer wants to get consumers to try a product and talk about it, everyone should be transparent about that as well: Send out samples of the product and if people like it — or don’t or don’t care — they’ll say so. If you have a good product, you’ll win. If you don’t, you’ll learn. I, among many bloggers, now get publishers emailing me asking whether I’d like review copies of books (which would be great if I weren’t so busy reading and writing blogs that I don’t have much time for books anymore). If I write about a book I got for free, I should say so.
The idea that you can “buy buzz” is wrong. Buzz is what people talk about; you can capture it, like a firefly in the night; you can respond to it in a conversation. But when you buy it, that’s not buzz. That’s advertising. And if you do that surreptitiously, that’s a lie.
Trust is the organizing principle of citizens’ media. Well, of course, trust is also the organizing principle of the world and all markets. Only here, you can measure trust and when it is lost.
The bottom line: Don’t pull an Armstrong. Once you sell your credibility, you can’t buy it back. There’s a no-refund policy on trust.
: UPDATE: Great discussion going on in the comments, led off by Jay Rosen.
Jeff: Let’s remember that the “ethics” matter here cannot be defined so narrowly as to exclude whomever it was in the Department of Education who had the idea of hiring a journalist and corrupting him this way. Sure, maybe we expect that from the corrupter (DoE) and we don’t from the corruptee (Williams) and so he’s the focus of the story. But that’s the news. In the ethics of the thing, the DoE has just as big a problem as Williams– maybe bigger because it’s taxpayers dollars.
I think they’re a matched set. Williams on Today called himself a “subcontractor” to the PR company, which is even weirder in some ways: He wasn’t just media, taking advertising; he was a subconspirator. The DoE, the PR company, and Williams deserve each other.
Glenn Fleishman says:
What has cracked me up consistently is Armstrong’s statement that NCLB is exactly the kind of program he has advocated for years, so he took the money because he already strongly supported it.
But, of course, that’s why DoE chose him as an outlet for advertising (and buzz marketing). That’s the chicken-and-egg issue: Did you love NCLB more because you were paid?
Suppose the Bush administration ever tried to buy buzz on a blog? Some of the big blogs probably have five times the readership Armstrong does with his TV show and columns combined.
That’s precisely why I felt it necessary to cast the Williams case as a warning to us all.
Tom Biro says he has seen corporate PR people leaving comments in blogs without acknowledging their affiliation. I saw that happen in one comment here and because I knew the affiliation, I immediately left a comment revealing it. The PR person’s client was mortified (I respected his quick reaction) and asked me to delete the comment. I didn’t; once the affiliation was revealed, there was no problem with the comment. The problem was in the lack of transparency: a lie of omission.
: ALSO: See many comments on Instapundit.
I’m rather skeptical of the notion of some sort of Official Blogger’s Code of Ethics, with blogs that sign on displaying the seal of approval. Kind of reminds me of the Comics Code Authority, and I’m generally skeptical of those kinds of ethics codes anyway.
I think that overall, the best protection against that sort of thing is for people to read a lot of blogs. Astroturf blogging is likely to ring false, and at any rate a blogger, however popular, doesn’t enjoy the kind of quasi-monopoly position that a newspaper journalist or a broadcaster does, making efforts to shape the debate via sub rosa funding far less likely to be successful.
I agree with all that. It’s all the more important for us to keep on our fellow bloggers for one rotten apple can spoil the blog barrel.
: WEEKEND UPDATE: Josh Marshall has more here and here.