Sponsored blog posts: Debate has returned, and both sides have a point

The “new” ToughSledding features posts on topics discussed in my classrooms at Kent State. This one supports a lesson on “conflict of interest” for a class called “Ethics & Issues in Mass Communication.”

Update, 4/23/09, 9:50 p.m. Wall Street Journal focuses on the issue of paid pitchmen in the blogosphere. Seems this debate is about to go mainstream. Could get interesting.

I respect the invisible wall that divides a newsroom operation from the advertising office. Sure, the wall can picture-21be porous at times, but credible mainstream media outlets work hard to ensure that marketing dollars don’t taint the integrity of the news.

Most of the time this policy works well. For example, credible auto writers don’t accept free cars, and trusted fashion writers don’t accept high-priced suits and handbags. To do so is a “conflict of interest” and violates journalism ethics. Why? Because freebies of significant value have he potential to corrupt both writer and message.

Such rules don’t hold in the blogosphere. But remember that blogs aren’t mainstream media. A few days ago, Top-100 blogger Chris Brogan wrote in defense of sponsored posts. Another popular blogger, Josh Bernoff (Groundswell) also has supported the idea of paid posts and sponsored conversation. Both writers insist that sponsored blog posts must include full disclosure, and this one from Brogan’s Dad-o-Matic shows that he walks the talk.

I’m not surprised that respected “citizen journalists” like Brogan and Bernoff are OK with sponsored blogs. After all, social media has turned the communication world upside down. So who’s to say that the ethics policies of traditional media should apply to bloggers?

There’s room for a lively debate on this issue. And like so many things in life, there are two sides to the story. Let’s look at them quickly.

In defense of sponsored blog content

  • Bloggers gotta eat. If trading on their credibility helps them earn extra dough, they’re entitled. A blog post isn’t a page-one news story. It’s one person’s opinion. The professional standards of journalism don’t fit here. The blogger has no responsibility to be balanced, and damned few are.
  • Blogs are proprietary. The sites belongs to the writers. If readers don’t like sponsored posts, they can say so in a comments or simply stop reading. In Web 2.0, a blogger’s credibility is an individual judgment, not a collective one.

In opposition to sponsored posts

  • Because the blogger benefits directly from the largesse of his/her sponsor, the resulting post may be slanted. Even when sponsors insist that paid bloggers act independently, we can never be sure they will.  As such, every sponsored post is suspect, regardless of the blogger’s reputation.
  • Smart bloggers are careful to disclose sponsorships at the top of their posts. But transparency isn’t the same as authenticity. Discerning readers are less likely to trust a sponsored post than an “organic” one. Some critics of sponsored posts say the practice devalues the entire social media space.

In ethics class we call this a dilemma, since both sides have tenable arguments.

My take? So long as  sponsored bloggers clearly disclose their lack of independence, there’s no ethical breech. And that disclosure belongs at the top of the post. Research indicates that most online readers scan content and often don’t read beyond the first few paragraphs, and every reader should see the disclosure statement — every one. (In this post, the disclaimer comes at the end. Chances are a lot of readers never saw it. The post wasn’t “sponsored,” but the author was not independent of the topic.)

I don’t read sponsored content. For me, the inherent conflict of interest diminishes its value. But I don’t begrudge bloggers who accept sponsored posts though SM marketers like Izea, or those who use blogs to promote the work of clients or employers.  Social media is an open system, and there’s plenty of room for everyone. I hope readers are attentive enough to see the difference.

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The comments following Brogan’s post about sponsored content make for lively debate and  illustrate a range of views on the topic. You know, if I had that guy’s blog traffic, I’ve have to quit my job to keep up! Hell, I might need a sponsor! :-)

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9 Responses to Sponsored blog posts: Debate has returned, and both sides have a point

  1. chrisbrogan says:

    I love your thinking, even when you’re not writing about me. : )

    So, my first take is this: the people who get most bunched up over this are:

    1.) Journalists.
    2.) PR pros.

    In case 1, holy hannah, if you find impropriety in professional journalism, not only should the world thrash that out, it should be very loudly denounced. Note, I say “professional journalism.” If you write for the NYT or a Gannett paper or the Guardian, I’m hoping that you’ll disclose your biases. (Do papers *really* do this? Well…

    In case 2, PR pros are in the business of earned media. They get itchy with money changing hands. That’s why they chose PR, right? SO they’re going to be a bit miffed about it. Fine by me. They can keep asking me to write about their stuff all the time. I still have great relationships with PR folks.

    In *my* view of the blogging world, here’s the borders:

    1.) My relationship with myself.
    2.) My relationship with my community (formerly known as the audience).
    3.) My relationship with other media makers.
    4.) My interests.
    5.) My professional goals.

    Okay, inside those walls, I have a set of obligations. I have to believe in what I’m doing. I have to equip and educate and entertain my community. I have to be a good Internet neighbor with my other colleagues. I have to follow my media making nose. I have to build business relationships.

    On that last piece, what I’m currently paid to do (most days) is to guide businesses into what I think will work for them in the world of online marketing, mostly as it applies to social media. Am I an expert? Hell no. But I’ve built up a body of work and a lot of experience through the good old fashioned “let’s try it and see what happens” methodology.

    Part of working on sponsored posts revolves around understanding what a bigger company can or should do with them. Josh Bernoff and Forrester did some research, investigated a few things, asked some questions. Me? I rolled up my sleeves and experienced it. I was ground zero of the controversy, even with all the precautions I took. And boy, it was great! I learned a lot, I came away with a lot, and I’m here to educate from my experience.

    I think the feelings and weirdness will continue. Any time we’re directly aware of money changing hands, it causes an emotional response. If I hand you $2000 and tell you I’m grateful for what you’re doing, it’s creepy. Money, Cyndi Lauper told us, changes everything.

    I’m grateful for your post.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    And I’m grateful you stopped by, Chris. I want my students and others to think about this intersection between “professional journalism” and blogging. In class and on this blog, I present the discussion, and I present my ideas. But in this space, everyone gets to make up their own minds.

    Now that I see your comments, I should probably disclose that am BOTH a former journalist (a short career in my case) and a former PR professional. Only the most regular of readers would know that. As such, I bring that “old media” bias to the issue. And I’ll admit, I tend to define what’s happening in the b-sphere by the standards of that world, even though I’ve been active in this one for some time.

    In discussions related to my previous post (the one about Ford Fiesta), I heard from 20somethings who feel perfectly capable to sort out what is biased and what is not — what is “sponsored,” and what is “organic” And so long as the disclosure is upfront (and yours always is), there’s nothing deceptive here.

    This doesn’t change my view that payment (in the form of cash or nice gifts like the use of a car for 6 months), has the potential to compromise both writer and message. But that doesn’t make my view correct. There are two sides to every story.

    On a personal note, Chris, I gotta say this: Your Celtics are going down! :-)

    For the students: Note that two high-profile bloggers jumped into the conversation, Chris on this post, Scott Monty on the last post. And note how quickly they did so. There’s a lesson here in the importance of monitoring your own online presence along with the issues that matter most to you and your clients. Note that Chris’ comment posted at 1:38 a.m., just two hours after I posted it at 11:37 p.m. You’re gonna need and iPhone!

  3. Jenn Mattern says:

    Interesting thoughts, and glad to see you didn’t jump simply to the anti-sponsorship side Bill. It’s nice to see PR people being able to look being the PR motives of something, which doesn’t happen nearly enough.

    On a sidenote, while I don’t necessarily agree with Brogan on a regular basis, on this one I do. And it’s going to be the topic of Monday’s post, officially re-launching NakedPR.com.

  4. Jenn Mattern says:

    “look beyond” – ugh – I need to learn to proofread before the re-launch. :)

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Glad you stopped by to weigh in, Jenn. But even more glad that the “naked chick” is back in business as of next week. I’ll reserve a spot on the blogroll for you. This is great news for those who worry about the absence of critical views on PR and social media. Or is it?

    Hell, I don’t even know what you’re doing with “Naked PR,” just happy you’re back.

  6. Judy Gombita says:

    Chris, regarding this series of attributes you rattled off:

    “In case 2, PR pros are in the business of earned media. They get itchy with money changing hands. That’s why they chose PR, right? SO they’re going to be a bit miffed about it. Fine by me. They can keep asking me to write about their stuff all the time. I still have great relationships with PR folks.”

    Please be advised that this is a very limited understanding of public relations. In fact, I think you’ve confused “marketing PR” with public relations.

    Additionally, it’s rather distressing how many individuals in social media assume that agencies are the only place that employ public relations practitioners. In fact, the vast bulk of individuals who are “public relators” (as Toni Muzi Falconi likes to say) are employed in-house, at companies, non-profits, in government, etc. (If you know someone who is a member of PRSA, ask them to take a gander at the member directory).

    And in the best-run organizations, their focus is on value, reputation and relationship building. Not limited to “earned media” or “itchy…money-changing hands.”

    I would really appreciate it if you’d expand your knowledge, understanding and appreciation of public relations practitioners in future. Or else find another moniker to describe these folks. “Social media marketers” is one suggestion. :-)

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    Judy makes an excellent point and is ever vigilant in the campaign to get our friends in marketing — I call them my “evil twins” — to spend a bit more time learning what PR is all about.

    My experience in the social media environment mirrors Judy’s. The vast majority of bloggers who tag their sites as “PR” are, in fact, marketers. And at least half of those think PR and marketing are the same thing — but I ain’t goin’ there today, not on a bet!

    If it matters to you, check out these old chestnuts (here, here, and here) from the archives of this blog.

    Here’s something interesting, though. In his original post (the one that triggered this one), Chris says:

    I believe that what came before, marketing and PR and business communications as they were practiced, don’t work exactly the same way now. Now, I could be totally wrong. I’m not a professional marketer or PR person. I don’t have a degree in either. But it’s probably better that way. I don’t have the same bias as others. I see tools and I see ways to use them to build business relationships.

    What’s curious is that Chris expresses the same communication focus that the more enlightened PR folks like Judy have been espousing for years: It’s about the relationships. He also implies that professional training in PR or marketing may create biases that can hinder our thinking in a social-media environment. And he admits he “could be totally wrong” about all this.

    But from where I sit, he also is at least partially right. The rules have changed. We just don’t know what they are yet.

    PR and marketing people are using similar tools more than ever before. I also see the objective of marketers coming far closer to the one PR has preached for some time — the whole relationship thing.

    I’m gonna stop here before I get all convoluted — though it may be too late for that!

  8. Shelley Prisco says:

    To me, it all depends on what the blogger’s intentions and passions are when they write. Some people like to do things for money and pure recognition (extrinsic values). Other people like to do things for pure enjoyment and meaning (intrinsic values). If I had a blog, I wouldn’t do it for sponsorship. I would still want that “news” element to it. Credibility is something that no one could ever take away from me. That means more than any mula could hold in the long run. But alas, everyone is different. On a sidenote, self-made credibility keeps some unnecessary drama away. There’s no guarantee that drama won’t unfold…however. This is my disclaimer.

  9. [...] Sponsored Blog Posts: Debate has Returned, and Both Sides Have a Point [...]

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