Free laptops land Edelman in ethics hotseat — again

banner_logo.gifThe latest flap involving Edelman, ethics and the blogosphere has me wondering: Should PR pros treat their relationship with bloggers differently than their relationship with the mainstream media (MSM)? The campaign in question, from Microsoft/Edelman, presents a clear, but different set of values for dealing with the bloggers versus MSM, and that’s troubling.

Backstory: Microsoft, through Edelman, sent high-end laptops loaded with the new MS Vista software to 90 influential tech bloggers. Bloggers were invited to evaluate the software, but also invited to return, give away, or keep the machines, said to be worth $2,200-$2,400 each. Critics smell a bribe intended to influence blogger opinions. Supporters say Microsoft is just facilitating input from the experts.

This story, from PRWeek, offers the “full disclosure” rationale from Edelman’s Rick Murray. You decide if it passes ethical muster:

“We basically did this no strings attached with the hope that people would provide us fair feedback,” said Murray in an interview Friday. “The reality is, from the standpoint of ethics and disclosure, we did this by the book.”

Not to be an apologist for Edelman, but the firm is going where others haven’t been — and doing it in full view of 50+ million critics like me. In the course of that journey, they’re gonna make mistakes. On the other hand, would Edelman have even considered sending a free $2,200 laptop to the New York Times, no strings attached?

Andy Sernovitz of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, takes offense to the criticism and says the naysayers are simply “piling on” Edelman (from the OMD story):

“This is a small group of anti-corporate bloggers who would attack all marketers,” he said. “Because it was Edelman, they get outed by the people who are looking for a scandal. But there’s no story here.”

Sorry, Andy. But the media, both the MSM and “citizen” variety, think there IS a story here, and it’s gaining traction by the minute.

Top-dog blogger Robert Scoble doesn’t see it as such a big deal. His take is always worth a look, though I don’ t think — in this case — it’ll hold up to close ethical scrutiny.

So, if you don’t have anything to talk about at lunch today:

  • Disussion Question #1: Was it Edelman’s intent to influence bloggers by allowing them keep the toys? (They’ll tell us no. I don’t buy it.)
  • Discussion Question #2: Given the influence of the top tech bloggers, shouldn’t we apply the same ethical standards to them as we apply to the MSM?

My take: To remain above suspicion in this case, any blogger who evaluates the new Microsoft Vista operating system using these cool high-end laptops is absolutely obligated to return the machines to Microsoft. To do otherwise taints the credibility of the blogger and anything he/she has to say about the product. Of course, offering a “no strings” option to bloggers taints the credibility of Edelman and Microsoft.

There’s plenty of sin to go around here, don’tcha think?

2 Responses to Free laptops land Edelman in ethics hotseat — again

  1. Steve Shannon says:

    Q#1 – Of course.

    Q#2 – No. Bloggers only offer their opinions. The market on opinions is free so Caveat Emptor when relying on blogs for anything.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Steve — provided those bloggers tell me right up front that they kept the booty or sent it back. But I think if bloggers adopt a lower ethical threshold than the MSM (and we, as PR pros, treat them differently), it follows that they’ll be seen as less credible among their readers. Jeff Jarvis has built a huge following, I think, because he remains above reproach — even when he’s really snarky. This post says it all:

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