Posts about ethics

Pray per post

Last night, I moderated a panel on buzz and marketing at the Always On conference in New York and I started it off by slamming Pay Per Post, the infamous service that pays bloggers to write positive posts about products, and a presentation by the company’s president, Ted Murphy.

Murphy showed a video a mom created for Pay Per Post, showing her little kids smashing a camera with a hammer because it wasn’t an HP. I was appalled (so was David Weinberger). So they have created something that entices mothers to exploit their own children as cheap shills. For shame.

The discussion went on with the panelists — including an advertising and a PR exec — agreeing that you can’t buy buzz.

At the end, who should stick up his hand but Murphy. He said that Pay Per Post is transparent about its posts being bought; I said that this was damned recent and only after much pressure. He also said that he saw no difference in Amanda Congdon making commercials on her old or new vlog and a Pay Per Post person making a commercial on her blog. Fair point. But one of the panelists said that Rocketboom is clearly a show and a commercial makes sense in that context; the relationship is clearer. David Weinberger said that marketers and the public have been at war for a century and the internet and blogs were to be his refuge from that: a place to have conversations with friends. I asked whether Weinberger, who takes no ads, hates me for doing so. He said, no, because the relationship is, again, clear: It’s about someone buying space on my page, not about buying my endorsement. He called Pay Per Post “corrosive” to the conversation. Pressed again on the demarcation, I brought up the rules I was taught as a journalist (emphasizing strongly that I was not trying to call all blog talk journalism or to hold it all to the same structure and rules): Simply put, the rule is that no one can buy my voice and with it my credibility.

The conference was a bit disorganized and our panel, the last of the day, got on late after confusion on the schedule about the session. They tried to cut us off on time but the room and I revolted and we kept going; the discussion was rousing and fun.

After it was all over, I saw a camera guy — with good HDTV rig and steadicam, even — who had been shooting the session. I thought he was Always On’s guy. But at the elevator bank, the camera was still following Murphy. ‘What, you have a reality show?’ I joked. No joke. They do. They call it Rock Startup and try to make themselves into rock stars (Murphy is “The Murphman“) and even say they’re trying to sell it to a network — though, of course, it’s really just a commercial. Here’s an episode about their brashly painted, branded monster truck and how they’re going to promote by taking a couple of “smokin’ ” promo “girls” to bars. The hubris of this organization is astounding.

I asked Murphy whether he had seen Startup, the movie about the hubristic and failed startup GovWorks. No, he’d never heard of it. I suggested that he get the DVD. When I met with GovWorks in the bubble, I refused to allow them to tape it. Well, now perhaps I’ll end up in the sequel.

Little big man

Michael Arrington loses it in the comments on his own blog, attacking his friend Dave Winer, Rafat Ali, and me. This all seems to spring from his odd, fetishistic hate of The New York Times.

The Times introduced a simple little feature allowing/encouraging readers to recommend stories on Digg, Facebook, and Newsvine. It’s not terribly new; Gothamist has a similar feature letting people add links to Del.icio.us or Yahoo. I claim no credit for the feature but I do like it and I did suggest it a few months ago; I’m sure I was not alone. (Disclosures: I’ve been consulting for About.com at the Times Company and The Times Company invested in Daylife, where I am a partner, and where Arrington and Winer also invested.)

A writer on Arrington’s TechCrunch reported the addition of the Times feature under a headline with curiously uncalled-for snarkiness: “New York Times Surrenders To Social News.” In the comments, many TechCrunch readers respectfully called them on the attitude. Winer did likewise. That awoke Arrington from his bear’s hibernation and he growled:

Dave, I’m wondering out loud if your support for the NYT stems primarily from their support for RSS and their occasional links to you. As an occasional (but always unlinked-to) source of breaking news to the NYT, our respect for them doesn’t go quite so far. They are in the middle of a war for their life, and they are doing just about everything wrong.

And then:

Sure. RSS is important. But the NYT is an ethically bankrupt institution. I have first hand evidence, being trashed by them at a conference (which was subsequently mischaracterized), but there are other examples, too: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/11/24/nytimes_two_point_nought/

You, Jarvis and Rafat Ali are sucking up to them to further your own agendas. I don’t think that’s a good idea in the long run. In the case of Jarvis and Ali, this loyalty has resulted in outright fabrications.

Fabrications? Them’s fighting words, big fella. But I have the DVD and plenty of reliable witnesses to Arrington’s meltown and effort to bully The New York Times, which ended with The Times demanding and getting a sheepish apology from him. As I said here, bullies always back down.

At Arrington’s site, Winer tried to get the discussion back to a civilized track:

Hmmm.

I don’t think this deserves a response other than I doubt it’s true about Jarvis and Rafat, and I know it’s not true about me.

Back off dude, you’re in over your head.

But Dave failed. Arrington continued: “Wow. You are completely lost Dave.”

I would have said all this over at Arrington’s site, but he then cut off the comments, even though they hadn’t turned nasty — except from Arrington himself. Bullies can be wusses, too.

: See also Matthew Ingram’s post and Valleywag’s coverage of the latest Arrington meltown here and here. I’m glad Denton et al drew my attention to Arrington’s snitfit. I wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise. I stopped reading TechCrunch long ago. My loss, missing scoops like “Talkster Launches Presence-Based Service For The Enterprise” and “Jott to Convert Cell Phone Calls to Text” and “Add Text Bubbles To Videos” and “Wordie Is Like Flickr Without The Photos” and “Web App Provides Virtual Fitness Support.” Web 2.0 is so, well, 1.0.

Twit no more

See Tim Toulmin, head of the U.K. Press Complaints Commission, responding to the dustup created when he was misquoted as wanting to regulate bloggers. I was among those stirring dust but I corrected that when Toulmin properly complained. Says Toulmin:

Last week I read on one of the political websites about some twit who had said that a voluntary code of practice for blogs was needed. How absurd, I thought. Bloggers are hardly a homogenous profession; they operate in a naturally self-regulatory environment where inaccuracies can quickly be corrected by other posters; they have (sometimes) transnational followings, yet different countries have different cultural standards; it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to enforce; there is no proven need for one and so on.

But then – horrors! – I saw that this viewpoint was ascribed to me, with some predictably unflattering remarks. The American blogger Jeff Jarvis took to MediaGuardian’s weekly podcast to fulminate against my stupidity. Thousands of bloggers globally rounded on the suggestion, deploying all manner of exotic language.

I’m thinking about writing my Guardian column this week about the means and rights of response and correction in the internet: what’s working and what’s not. Also: Whether libel laws are outmoded when there is a new means of response (credit: Susan Crawford). And what happens when courts — nevermind regulators — attempt to define and treat blogging as media and thus threaten to put a chill on simple conversation? But on the other hand, if we bristle at subjecting blogs to the restrictions of media then can we still claim press protections for bloggers’ acts of journalism? And are codes of conduct worth the pixels they’re written in? Your thoughts?

Washing your word of mouth out with soap

Last chance to give me advice about facing Richard Edelman over Walmartgate and more at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association confab. I need to tell them yea or nay Tuesday. Right now, I’m leaning against doing it. I don’t think it’s our job to tell flacks how to flack us. And I think my position would be a no-win: I’m either the asshole or the wuss, depending on my performance and where you come in on this. Weigh in. Earlier advice here.

: LATER: My current thought is that I would at least insist on the ability to start by saying why I think their organization should not exist. I’ll outline those reasons later.

: UPDATE: I’ve decided not to do it. More on why later.

Pay Per Soul

Michael Arrington and Scott Karp dissect the absurdity of PayPerPost’s latest effort to slap lipstick on its pig with a disclosure policy that equates advertising and “paid insertions.” That sounds like something you get on the Bunny Ranch.

Your advice, please

Give me your word of mouth, please. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association just emailed me to come to a confab they are having in December to question Richard Edelman about his firm’s Wal-Mart blogging fiasco and more. No holds barred, they say. I’m not sure I want to do it. I don’t much like the fact that there is a Word of Mouth Marketing Association; I don’t want them buying our mouths and thinking that they can rent buzz and our opinions with it, corrupting the space. I have avoided the organization in the past. I also don’t want to be seen as a soft-ball pitcher. Nor do I want to be the convenient snarker. Then again, it is a chance to get warn and scold. I told them that I would ask your advice. With one exception (he/she knows who she/he is), I want to hear from many, not only with advice on whether I should do this but if I do, what my goals should be.

: LATER: Here is the WOMMA questionnaire: Are you cricket?

And nothing but

Edelman PR is throwing water on its own PR fire following the fakey Wal-Mart blog. Richard Edelman outlines a series of steps they’re taking. I’d say it’s really quite simple and can be boiled down to this: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lie, hide, fake, fool, or buy people and you lose. And I’m not being smart-assed. It really is that simple. And the more complicated you make the rules, the more loopholes you end up building in. It’s just like Mom used to say: Tell the truth and everything will be fine.

Corrupting blogs

The insidious effort to buy bloggers’ voice and credibility in the name of buzz just won’t stop. So I want to make my own blogger’s pledge to you:

1. No one can buy my editorial voice or opinion.
2. No one can buy my editorial space; if it’s an ad it will clearly be an ad.
3. No one should be confused about the source of anything on my pages.
4. I will disclose my business relationships whenever it is relevant and possible.

This is what I learned working in the newspapers and magazines. A wise editor at Time Inc. boiled down all the church-v-state company and industry rules and policies into those first three tenets above; the fourth, I added. This is how we assure our independence from advertisers and financial interests. This is how we earn our credibility.

It is fine for a blogger or newspaper or vlogger or TV show to take advertising, clearly labeled. It is wonderful for a blogger to get paid to write, editorially. But when you write what a commercial interest tells you and pays you to write, then you are no longer speaking as yourself but in the service of that marketer. That’s fine, too, but it isn’t content. It is advertising (or advertorial, same difference). See Rules 2 and 3.

This all seems simple and obvious to me. But it’s not obvious to others, who think they can buy bloggers’ opinions and with it that buzz. They don’t understand that buzz, too, is earned. And they don’t understand that once a blogger — or journalist or publication or friend, for that matter — is bought and paid for, the credibility and value of their voice is reduced or ruined.

Credibility is the cake you can’t have and eat, too.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t affect just one blogger. Bloggers’ detractors love to measure us by our lowest common denominator: if one snarks, all snark; if one sells out, all sell out. This is why Jason Calicanis calls it a cancer.

Calacanis has been tilting at this windmill, calling out PayPerPost very effectively. He is optimistic that they have seen the error of their ways but I’m not so sure. PayPerPost brags about this blogger earning $1,000. And so I read her blog and have no idea whether to trust that her opinions are her own or those of her paymaster: Does she really like these flip-flops, this security system, Disney, or FTD flowers, or Bath & Bodyworks? I have no way of knowing because she doesn’t say who’s paying her. Not that I’m in the market for a motorcycle, but I wouldn’t trust her opinion if I were.

And then there is the shameful lapse of Edelman, who said they were blog-savvy and transparent but turned out to be paying for a trip by a blogger and a Washington Post photographer, ferchrissakes, across America and extolling Wal-Mart’s big heart. Richard Edelman finally apologized. But now they make me wonder what else they’re quietly engineering. I find it cold comfort that the signed the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s ethics policy; I find it discomfiting that there is such an association. That’s word of our mouths they’re talking about.

And I have recently received at least two request from advertisers, via sales agents, to have me and other bloggers write things about their products. Each one came with a think layer of lipstick on the pig — for example, the writing may appear on another site. But they’re still trying to pay me to write about their product. I passed up $5,000 for the latest offer, which is a good deal more than what I’ve been getting lately for other ads you see here. But turning it down was easy. See Rule No. 1.

Now understand well that I end up doing business with marketers, directly and indirectly via ads and employers. Edelman paid me to come speak at a corporate meeting and that has been on my disclosures page. I got six months’ use of a Sprint phone; they didn’t ask me to write about it but I told you about the campaign and then gave the phone away. I’ve just advised an advertiser and its agency on buying ads on blogs and I made it clear to them that I will disclose that when they come out with it. I ended up accidentally giving another advertiser free advice — and passed up revenue again — when I told them they should not try to market by spamming Wikipedia; since I didn’t end up doing business with them, I’ll spare them embarrassment of saying who they were. None of these people will buy my opinions. See Rule No. 1. And I will be transparent about my dealings with them. See Rule No. 4.

But this isn’t about ethics pledges and industry policies. It’s about personal integrity, about honesty, about having a direct and open relationship of trust and credibility. You may disagree with my opinions — and, oh, you do — but you should at least be assured that they are mine.

: LATER: Via a link to this post, I just saw a data base allowing bloggers to get things free for review. I don’t object to that. Journalists get free books, screenings, food, and at least use of devices for review. And bloggers can’t afford to do what Consumer Reports does and buy everything it tests. The opportunity for corruption still exists: ‘If I give bad reviews, I won’t get the stuff anymore.’ But if you give nothing but good reviews as a result, your credibility and value with, again, suffer. So I believe in revealing the source review material.

: Meanwhile note that CBS just paid $2 million to settle accusations of pay-per-play.