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.

  • How about the bloggers who blog about new VC funded web 2.0 companies with the hopes of getting IPO stock?

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  • Everything you say is wonderful and I am sure it would be difficult to find somebody who disagrees.
    But there are several points which you do not mention.

    First: you can blog as a hobby and you can shout whatever you like.
    But then you need a real job and may be you do not have so much time left for blogging.

    Second: is it so important to know if you really like or enjoy something or you say it because you are paid?
    There are millions on this earth who like things I do not, and I usually do not buy something because Madonna says it is great.

    Every idealism is wonderful on the paper, but the moment it reaches reality is not as shiny as it looked.
    Because it doesn’t consider the humanity as it is.
    It is wonderful to be honest, to pay the taxes till the last dollar (or euro) not to cheat your wife, not to drink, not to swear, not to eat too much, to do exercises every morning and so on…
    Ideal life should be like that.
    But life is usually lived by human beeings who have to make ends meet, yes also the ends of their need to be a little less perfect and a little more human.
    All this to say:
    How many of us would like to be offered 5000 dollars to write a post on a blog…
    Why do they always ask the ones who are tooo honest to accept…
    Do not misunderstand me, I am just trying to be a little more understandable, a little less God…

  • I don’t get how the decision of a few bloggers to sell out affects all of us. Yeah, some folks will paint us with a broad brush who dislike us anyway, but I don’t think most people are like that. The moment generalities are introduced into the argument, bigotry and a lack of clear thinking exposes itself. That says more about the person making such declarations than it does the world of bloggers.

    I’d say to let those who want to perform pay per post go right ahead – such acts elevate those with integrity. Wheat from chaff… and most folks are smart enough to know the difference.

    For a guy who champions the wisdom of the crowd, you’re sure giving a lot of weight to a few peoples’ bigotry.

  • Thank you, Jeff, for weighing-in on the Edelman “case,” and for clearly stating your beliefs and opinions. You were kinda quiet there for a coupla days, so I was getting a little worried and nervous that maybe even you had been “bought” by someone. I swear, I am SOOO relieved to know that you hadn’t. (I’m being totally serious, for once in my life too!)

    As with most folks in this biz, I’ve been through a ton of ups and downs in my life, especially within communications and journalism, and a lot of it has been strange and painful and just downright funky-weird. But, in other words, I’m a better person for all it, right? And I think of myself as pretty tough and srappy and experienced, and I’d gladly jump back into the fray for the sheer thrill alone.

    But it really, really upset me to see my editorial work get used in such a false and phony capacity by the hideously false, dishonest and untransparent Working Families For Wal-Mart campaign. Thank goodness for (transparent) blogs, for free speech and the people who honor it, and for writers and journalists and artists of all stripes who will not allow themselves or their work to be crafted by someone else’s price tag.

    You writing this entry gives me hope. Seriously. Now, have you read-up on the Eagles’ blazingly ludicrous Wal-Mart sellout? Hee-larious:

  • Great points, all, Jeff. Patrizia makes a valid observation that it isn’t easy to live by your rules. But doing the right thing is generally harder than not.

    On to my question…

    “It is wonderful for a blogger to get paid to write, editorially.”

    How does that happen? (I’m asking out of a sincere desire to know, not in a snide way.) I mean, a journalists has an obvious employer in the form of the newspaper, magazine, etc. s/he writes for. How will ‘citizen journalists’ get paid?

    I suppose one way is to start charging readers for access to the content, but that kinda flies in the face of blogging, no?

  • Jeff, I accept your criticism on behalf of the firm. I can tell you that our determination to be leaders in the blogosphere is undiminished. We are taking this as an important lesson, that we have not done sufficient education of our team on the proper way to interact with new media. Our Me2Revolution team is doing three company wide mandatory training sessions next week to ensure that the WOMMA guidelines are strictly applied. We are establishing a 24/7 social media hotline which will vet programs before they are presented to clients. We will participate in development of best practices outside of the US and will comply with the rules in each country. We will do better. Count on it. We are listening.

  • Patrizia,
    Good points but… At a minimum, I’d expect transparency and don’t see how that hurts. If you both take money and hide it, what does that do to your credibility. Forget blogging for a second. Imagine you are pushing Tupperware on your friends and they don’t know you’re making money off them. Wouldn’t they be properly pissed?

    There are more and more editorial blog companies, like B5 and Jason’s Weblogs Inc, popping up. Take a look around. Or write a good, targeted blog and start making money on Adsense. Not retirement money but it pays for the former hobby.


    Yes, I suspect this is a lesson well learned.

  • Richard if you want to be a leader in the blogosphere do so as a blogger not as a PR firm peddling the secret souse for success.

    My blog is read by many people in Italy, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, did that show up in your study?

  • Edelman Reveals Two More Wal-Mart ‘Flogs’ – I don’t know, I think this beyond an employee training initiative. Excuse the language, but this is really fucked up.

  • One more thing, I take exception to Richard’s comment “our determination to be leaders in the blogosphere is undiminished.” It’s that kind of hubris that leads to “do anything to win” reckless behavior and got you in trouble in the first place. It’s a losing proposition. This is the blogosphere, we’re not looking for “leaders.” An older generation might have but we’ve seen our leaders often fail us. You are doomed to follow in those footsteps if you make such aspirations. I really hope the lesson is learned but that comment hints otherwise. We’re all the same. Think flat. Stop worrying about the A-list, the tops, the bottoms, the midlands, etc. Just treat everyone with the same amount of respect as you would a friend.

  • Krucoff: He HAS to say chest-thumpy stuff like that. Lord knows the poor thing is probably battling for survival right now. Wal-Mart can take their millions… well, anywhere! They’re Wal-Mart. They can stomp through this entire planet at whim, so it seems. They can afford to.

    I’m trying really hard right now to remember the good stuff… like how Wal-Mart put their distribution system into play right after Katrina, and were among the critical first responders. Keep positive they say. That’s the key to longevity, right?

  • As a product reviewer who takes free samples for review, I’ve always been completely transparent with both the readers about where the products came from and with the suppliers that I’m in no way obligated to like it, post anything positive or even post anything at all.

    That has not diminished companies from sending me things, which I actually see as a confidence on their part that I will like it and will say positive things.

    No one has EVER offered me anything above and beyond the materials to include on my blog (besides additional samples).

    It’s a subtle difference at first glance when the writer is transparent, but I think over time it builds trust with the readership and also helps to educate them about how to read things they see on the ‘net. And comments sections are great because savvy readers can call bloggers out!

    I’m glad you posted about this, to me it’s a very important issue for “semi-pro” bloggers.

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  • Jeff:
    Perhaps you want to broaden the discussion of transparency to other media. Take this pro-Walmart editorial for example:

    Here is what I’m referring to:

    Its trucks already use 8 percent less fuel. Wal-Mart wants to cut solid waste by 25 percent, so it developed a “closed-loop” recycling program that sends plastic and paper directly to suppliers, who send back “high-profit” products for sale to consumers. And the company says it will cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent, along with those of its 60,000 suppliers.

    There are a lot of very specific figures cited in that paragraph. Where did they come from? The writer doesn’t say, but I’m willing to bet from an Edelman press release. So is rewriting a press release without any acknowledgment OK in print?

    The (anonymous) writer could have said “Walmart sources indicate…” for example. And who is the writer and why are they carrying Walmart’s water? In the Chicago case it turned out, after a reversal of the vote about imposing a minimum wage requirement, that several of the alderman had been promised new Walmart stores in their districts if they switched sides. Even if they thought this was for the good of their constituents why not reveal it before the vote?

    Once we start asking for transparency there is no telling where it might lead.

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  • Hey Jeff,

    I really liked the clear commitment to your readers at the start of this post.

    Could you place a visible link on every blog page (template) to “Disclosure Policy”, linking to a page with those bullets (and others you might find relevant upon further reflection such as exactly how/where you will disclose conflicts: about, per-blog, per-post, very top of every post as Calacanis demands)?

    This post will roll off the page and new readers will visit that don’t know your policies, so a clear “Disclosure Policy” link would deliver full transparency. Note, this is different from your About/Disclosures section because it focuses on your policy/social contract, rather than your specific affiliations (although affiliations may be a subset of a comprehensive Disclosure Policy).

    In fact, when you do so I’d love to get the URL.

    I’m also curious where your Pledge/Disclosure Policy came from. Did you decide its content or was it dictated to you by another entity?

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  • You mention at least twice that someone approached you, but you don’t want to disclose them, since you want to “spare them embarrassment”. That’s LAME, don’t call for transparency, if you don’t out them yourself!
    And quite obviously you’ve arrived at the point: I’ll get paid, take gifts, disclose it on my blog – and that’s it (see Sprint phone), and take on yet another gig. What’s the point of disclosing here?

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  • Jeff — any thoughts on my prior question about your disclosure policy? The silence is deafening ;-)

  • Well, Dan, the link to my disclosures page is on my home page. i can add these bullets there. I see no need to have more than one page. Whenever relevant, I also link to the disclosures page from posts; see some today (10/26). I made clear the origin of my list in the post above.

  • Awesome Jeff — as a PayPerPost investor I am constantly monitoring best practices that balance blogger freedoms and transparency. I’m glad to hear you will be transparent about your policy, not just affiliations. I am working on the same for my blog and look forward to seeing what you create.

    Along with those bullets you might include how you promise to disclose (About page, in each post, sidebar etc.) and how audience determines “clearly be an ad” (bullet #2), and how you determine what is a “relevant” disclosure (bullet #4)? For example, is only cash comp relevant, what about exclusive press releases that are worth thousands in monetized traffic, or free passes, or free product etc. What about ownership/contracts with competing entities (e.g. the way Federated Media competes for blog monetization/advertisers with PPP)? I’m not trying to give you a hard time; I am honestly interested in how you march to Calacanis’ drum.

    Only you know the right answers to this list, but you are in a great position to influence best practices.

    I also appreciate you being up front that you decided your disclosure policy, not some third party. Who owns the blog/audience/policy is a pivotal point in the blogger/CGM transparency discussion. What can start as an ‘appropriate transparency’ debate can easily turn to ‘appropriate content’ — going against the diverse, multi-cultural, free-expression roots of web logs. For me, that all leads back to recognizing balanced interests, best practices and ongoing education/dialogue…

    Thanks again for humoring my questions, I value how you solve this for yourself.

  • Well, Dan, what else do you invest in: Enron? So NOW you admit that you invested in PayPerPost. So transparent of you. You are making no frigging sense. Did someone pay you to post that? They should demand a refund. How come you don’t have your own disclosure page? How come you didn’t talk about your investment in your first comment? How come you don’t list PPP in your investment page alongside such sterling efforts as a company that “automates support, proactively ensuring high performance and availability for enterprise desktops – without human intervention.” Is that a Web 1.0 parody?

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