Authenticity is among the highest values in the blogworld. That’s why the blog world reacts so strongly to the idea of fake blogs or “flogs.” The Wal-Mart flog controversy involving Edelman was hyped in part by the paid critics of Wal-Mart funded by unions, but that does not diminish the outrage of the blog world to the idea of a PR company funding a blog that posed as being an authentic expression of personal opinion and experience.
Now Sony has been outed as running a flog through a viral marketing firm called Zipatoni. The justification for the funded promotional blog was that it was humorous. According to a poster on the blog presumed to be a Zipatoni executive, Sony’s reaction to the proposal to do a promotional blog without identity was: “who cares if people find out? As long as it is funny, we do this stuff all of the time.”
If that is the case, the Sony marketing execs do not understand either the value system of the blog world, nor the rules of ethics of WOMMA. Those ethical standards are based, as I recently heard, on this new definition of ROI:
Honesty in Relationship (that is full disclosure of any relationship to the subject addressed)
Honesty in Opinion (the opinions expressed be authentic and not motivated by other agendas)
Honesty in Identity (disclose truthfully the author)
Now it appears, again something I just heard, that the FTC is getting into the act of making these kinds of ethical standards into regulations.
Whether or not this becomes the law of the land or not is not really the point. The law of the blogland has already been well established and is more effective than anything any federal agency can do. Authenticity is the key. I just hope that the blogworld treats inauthentic critic blogs (such as Wal-martwatch.org) with the same degree of flame as they do the flogs that have received all the attention.
Greetings from LA. Sitting by the pool after enjoying a day of 90 degrees plus heat. Great when I know we are having heavy rains and wind with flooding back home in Western Washington.
Continuing to follow the Edelman/Wal-mart/WOMMA issues. WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) apparently is considering kicking Edelman out of the organization for rules violations relating to the Wal-Mart blog they sponsored. Personally, I think the point has been made and too many people are enjoying watching a leader in online PR squirm. As I mentioned before, my guess is that this was a case of some eager beaver in the agency not thinking and not a matter of intentional or even careless violation by agency leadership. But that is simply my uninformed opinion. If I am right, the real lesson to agency leaders who may be involved in blogging, corporate blogging, blogwars, etc., is that they better be darn careful about what everyone one of their folks are doing. Everything is known or can be known, and right down the interns, if it is done on their computers or under their name in any way, an agency could face what Edelman is facing. That being said, enough with the flogging (and I mean that both ways).
At the same time, WOMMA seems to be in a great position to get some key messages across to marketers around the nation about what is right and what is wrong on the internet. They have published draft rules for marketers and I encourage all crisisblogger readers to review them and comment while they are still draft.
I haven’t reviewed in detail but from what I have seen, I think they are all sensible. Here is my great worry. Those who use the internet for expressions of personal anger and to wage campaigns of destruction against people, organizations and brands will not normally play by the rules of ethics. How do you go to war against those who play by a completely different set of rules? The activists I have run into in the “blogwars” I have been involved with are of the “true believer” mentality. Fundamentalists, some like to call these kind of people. They are so convinced of the truth, justice and moral rectitude of their cause, that any violation of ethical standards is justified in their minds. Of course, this kind of moral certainty also leads to violence, but I am only talking here about the virulent and not violent attacks on companies, organizations and political figures. Until we as a blogosphere decide that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior, we put those who wish to play by the rules at a serious disadvantage. Please don’t misunderstand me. It is a disadvantage worth accepting because moral right and wrong matters and ethics matters. But let’s not be naive about those who refuse to play by the rules. And let’s not pretend that such refusal does not constitute a huge advantage in the battle for public and customer opinion.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has been in the news lately based on violations of its code of ethics by Edelman Public Relations, despite the fact that Richard Edelman helped draft the code.
WOMMA has published its ethics rules and is appealing to clients to make certain the agencies who work on their behalf subscribe to these rules. Excellent rules and here they are.
Now, if we can just get those attacking reputations of companies and organizations to form a similar group and issue their code of ethics.
Business Week is carrying a big story about the Edelman/Wal-Mart blogging situation posted October 17.
Comments on this blog vary considerably about how Edelman is handling it but it is pretty clear that Edelman (whom I respect very much) is in some serious doodoo over this issue. Has Richard Edelman apologized enough and appropriately? Clearly, the irony of helping right the rules which were most severely violated by his own organization is a difficult situation to deal with.
I agree more with James Bruni here who believes Mr. Edelman has apologized appropriately. The only thing I would say is that some additional explanation as to how this happened would be helpful. Did Mr Edelman himself approve the funding of the blog? If so, did he understand exactly the intention and purpose? Did a lower level person approve it? This is a big firm with a lot of things happening. I suspect some decisions were made at lower levels that have come back to bite them and anything that the Chairman would do to explain it would look like buck passing. That is laudable but I think a common mistake in dealing with these crisis events is not to be more forthcoming with the details. People who are interested want to know. Inquiring minds, you know. That’s why the explanation of the Wal-marting blog was helpful and useful–and authentic.
I’m just beginning to learn about this situation myself, but for bloggers and for those dealing with blogwars, this is of great interest. Here is Constantin Basturea’s posts and resources about this issue. The final post from the “fake” blog Wal-Marting Across America is here and it is important to read because it gives an explanation from the bloggers view as to how the whole situation started. In short, a couple decided to travel across America staying in an RV in Wal-Mart parking lots. A brother of one of the couple works for the Edelman PR firm who represents Wal-Mart, and Edelman ended up sponsoring the trip with money for gas, food, etc. While the name of the Edelman campaign was listed on the blog the couple wrote, there was no disclosure within the blog itself of the financial arrangement between the couple and Edelman. This violates the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Code of Ethics.
In the meantime there is another storm brewing on the topic of blogwars. And that is the pending ruling by wikipedia founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales regarding whether contributors who are paid by a subject company or organization will be allowed to contribute to wikipedia.
Both of these controversies have profound implications for the culture of the internet as well as the ability of organizations to respond to reputation-damaging online attacks. The value of “free” is very strong among the people who are now setting the rules for the internet and are keepers of the internet cultural values. Free as in open source software, free as in free exchange of ideas, free as in aggressively non-profit. Conversely, there seems to be the idea that money of any and all kinds, and particularly the exchange of it, corrupts. Corrupts ideas, people, interactions, etc. There is much truth in this. But there is also much danger in this new dogma, for that is what it is. Dogma of almost all kinds pushed to its extremes is the basis of fundamentalism and I see a fundamentalist strand emerging in these discussions about what is right and true and should be allowed on the internet and in blogs and in wikipedia.
No doubt some contributors to blogs and wikipedia whose opinions are determined by the dollars they received from paymasters are “corrupted” in the sense that their allegiance to those dollars is greater than their allegiance to truth and authenticity. But the very same accusation can be laid against those who subscribe to a strong political position, or who have motives of their own to attack and destroy others. There is no inherent rightness in those who do not receive pay as there is no inherent wrongness in those who do.
I think it is time to get past this discussion. The blogworld and internet content sites should be open to any and all. I thought that was an underlying credo of the internet. Whether someone is paid or not paid says nothing about their basic honesty, integrity or truth of what they are saying. One need not be any more skeptical of the money motive than they ought to be of political motives or personal vendettas. For the sake of real transparency, the motives of all writers ought to be demanded. Are you intent on seeing our president’s reputation dashed (further)? Then declare it. Are you motivated by a past wrong that a company or person has inflicted on you and now you are using the internet to take your revenge? Then disclose it. Are you taking money from someone who has something to gain by what you are saying? Then disclose it.
Those who demand full disclosure for money but not for other equally powerful motives are displaying not the purity of protecting the value of “freeness” on the internet, but rather are beginning to display a fundamentalist tendency toward selective evils. Let’s protect the true sense of freeness on the internet and allow the free exchange of ideas without demanding motive disclosures. Let’s evaluate what people say rather than making assumptions about motives and how it affects the truth or validity of what they say.