Thursday, December 28, 2006

The current scandal du jour: laptops and Vista and Edelman, oh my

I'm a little behind on my blogging, both reading and writing, but despite the goal of taking a break this holiday season, for me part of the break is reading's sometimes pleasurable, not just work, you know?

So, today I finally read a bunch of posts about the latest blogging scandal (or tempest in a teapot...depending on your perspective.) This one is about Microsoft and their PR agency, Edelman, offering free laptops with Vista loaded on them to bloggers.

You can track the reactions at both Technorati and Google Blog Search.

My Own Story

So, I actually have my own little story about this. I got an email about 10 days ago from an Edelman rep saying he represented the Vista team, and that they had a "no strings attached" "present" to send me. Was I interested?

I found it odd because I'm a Mac user, and not a technology writer, and when I do write about technology it's mostly to complain about companies that don't support Mac or whose products for the Mac suck etc. etc.

I wrote back and said that given my Mac-only status I didn't think it was appropriate for me to be on their list, since I could never even try their product. (Because I know Apple has their app to allow you to run Windows, but I can only imagine the nightmare all of that would be!)

He replied saying he should have been more clear, that they wanted to send me a laptop with Vista on it to try. And the only "caveat" was that should I write about it I "have to" disclose I was given it. The interesting thing is that no such caveat was included in the initial email, so had I accepted the unnamed "gift" no questions asked I am not sure what parameters would have been then revealed.

Well, it sounded intriguing...I haven't used a PC in several years, so I admit I was curious. In all such matters I turn to my partner Lisa Stone, because she's the journalist, and she also manages the editorial guidelines for BlogHer contributing editors and ad network members (both of which I am a part of.) Again, I was totally intrigued, but had no experience being offered more than review copies of a $20 book.

Her guidelines were pretty simple:

If I accepted it and chose to write about it, I had to:

a) disclose where I got it no matter what and

b) either return it or pay for it if I was even going to think about running an ad on the page where such writing took place.

Now, let's say I had chosen to receive it, keep it and write about it, and evaded having BlogHer's editorial guidelines apply to such writing because I took all BlogHer Ads off any page that referenced said product (and because I don't write about technology etc. on BlogHer as an editor.) In that case, Lisa still recommended a) as a minimum requirement for ethical behavior and said that b) (that is, returning or paying for it) is what any mainstream journalist would do to act within generally accepted ethical guidelines for journalists.

I'm not sure what would be the accepted course should I have decided to accept it an not write about it...although that would certainly feel skeevy. I carry around such guilt about a couple of review books I haven't gotten around to reading and reviewing yet...but that's nothing compared to a frickin' laptop.

Anyway, because I was still inexplicably intrigued by the idea of trying it, I wrote back and said that if they were honestly interested in the review of a person who hasn't used a Windows product in over 3 years, then I'd try it, but they had to include either an airbill or other form of postage-paid return packaging with the shipment for me to accept it.

That was a week laptop for me, in fact no reply yet either.

BL Ochman has covered and provided some of the most negative response from the blogging community.

In counterpoint A P.R. Guy represents the more dismissive this-is-a-tempest-in-a-teapot perspective.

My Four Thoughts

So, given that entire saga, what do I think about the idea of this program in the first place? Well, I confess my first thought is that I wondered about their blogger targeting...given I was even on their list! And this isn't to be all coy and act like I don't know that BlogHer gets a lot of attention, but a) I don't write about tech at BlogHer, b) I don't write much about tech at all and c) my own individual blogs don't get near that much attention!

My second thought is that it is standard operating procedure for journalists to get stuff to try pre-release, so it's not the very act itself of sending preview product that is troublesome. And people who complain about that mere fact are looking for trouble where there isn't any. But I would be really curious to know what language they used with non-blogger media folks when getting them their preview copy of Vista. Edelman could probably stand to look at their language and messaging a lot closer. Language like "No strings attached" and "present"? I doubt Walt Mossberg was offered a "no strings attached present." Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so.

My third thought is about who owns the ethics in this situation: I have worked in "blogger relations" for clients...I have done blogger outreach. I find nothing inherently morally wrong about acknowledging that bloggers can be influential and treating them as you'd treat an influential reporter. There's nothing wrong in hoping to get influential bloggers in whatever your particular niche happens to be to write about your company, product or service. And ethics is a two-way street. It is incumbent upon the blogger to behave ethically if they want to maintain a certain kind of reputation. Just as it is incumbent upon the reporter to know what is and is not acceptable. People make mistakes...bloggers do, and reporters do too. And companies probably purposely push the envelope on acceptable offers and outreach. I don't think it's illegal in many cases . I do think it often approaches unethical.

And the fourth and final thought is that nowhere is it riskier to push this kind of envelope than in the blogosphere. Because there is no standard code of behavior for bloggers. [Nor do I think there should be...this is a totally different topic, but I think if bloggers considers themselves to be citizen journalists they should follow the journalist's code of ethics. If you're a P.R. person you should follow the code of ethics that applies to that field. And so on and so forth.] Because bloggers in fact have wildly disparate views on what is right or wrong, and also diverge over the topic of the very existence of commercial interests in the blogosphere, let alone how they should behave. So many companies simply don't seem to put enough thought into their forays into the blogosphere. And they get blowback they never expected. Often deservedly so, sometimes perhaps more than they deserved.

Ensuing Shameless Plug

That these scandals continue to erupt on a regular basis indicates that companies are here to stay in the blogosphere, and that more education about how to operate honorably in the blogosphere is probably in order. Because I firmly believe that companies aren't (and should not be) going anywhere! That's why we have a break-out track on Day Two at BlogHer Business focused on answering the question "How do I reach out?" I've been to similar kinds of sessions or talks, but often they're a lot more focused on what not to do, than on what to do. As long as you're only keeping a list of the "thou shalt nots", you'll probably be able to come up with an endless new supply of mistakes and mis-judgements to add to that list. A few "thou shalls" might just be a better way to go!

The Moral of the Story

So, what could have been the "thou shalls" in this case?

1. Thou shall target bloggers who cover a beat that includes your product or service. Thou shall even focus on bloggers who regularly publish reviews and seem to execute them professionally.

2. Thou shall eliminate all coy language about presents and strings and simply state that your product or service is launching on such and such a date, providing the same kind of supporting data you provide to the reporters at your industry rag of choice.

3. Thou shall explicitly ask the blogger if they are interested in a "review copy" of the product in question.

4. Thou shall explicitly state that you will be including return packaging, postage or shipping information with the shipment.

5. Thou shall then leave it to the blogger to do the ethical thing.

What other "thou shalls" would you add?

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