New Channels: The foggy ethics of blogging

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Controversy erupted in the blogosphere last month over The New York Times' March 7 revelation that Wal-Mart had tried to influence bloggers to write positive things about the company by feeding those tips, news flashes and invitations to visit Wal-Mart headquarters. The revelation rekindled a simmering debate in the blog community about ethics and marketer subterfuge.

The story was headline-worthy because of Wal-Mart's prominence, the "throw weight" of the Times and the rapid growth of the blogosphere over the last two years. But it shouldn't have been a story at all. In fact, the passion that bloggers displayed in debating the subject is a testament to the robustness of the ethical standards they are shaping.

Businesses have seeded the media with information, product samples, gifts, dinners and trips for many years. It's well-understood in the tech PR world, for example, that many European journalists won't even attend events in the U.S. unless their expenses are covered. And TV stations use footage from video press releases without attribution all the time.

The real issue here isn't ethics but disclosure. The Times noted that some bloggers used wording from Wal-Mart press releases without acknowledging the source. That was a bad move, but most bloggers aren't professional journalists and don't understand the finer distinctions of the profession. Reporters cut some of the same corners. The "company spokesman" and "prepared statement" cited in news stories is more often than not a PR person and a press release.

I thought Wal-Mart and its PR firm, Edelman, actually showed creativity and foresight in this campaign. For one thing, they used information instead of money as an incentive. That's always a smart approach. They also made no effort to disguise their actions or motivations, and they didn't ask bloggers to do the same. In the blogosphere, transparency is good business.

Nevertheless, the issue of paying bloggers will continue to be thorny. Most blogs are one-person operations, so the editor and business manager are the same person. The delineation between buying an ad and buying a blogger is meaningful only in terminology. Each side knows what the other wants, and both should know that deception is a losing strategy.

Of course, pay for performance can work. A small company called Marqui Inc. sparked intense debate 18 months ago by paying bloggers to write about the firm. Marqui got roasted in the media and the blogosphere for this tactic, but when I typed "Marqui" into Google at press time, I got more than 500,000 results, compared with just 2,000 prior to the campaign.

I don't recommend a Marqui strategy, though. You need a strong stomach and a big ego to play industry bad boy. The Wal-Mart approach is innovative and will increasingly be mainstream. The blogosphere is a rich new brand-building channel, and it should be treated in much the same way as conventional media. Wal-Mart understands that.

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