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Understanding Ethical Blogger Relations

I can't believe I'm writing this post in 2012 but as recent events have come to light apparently some advice about ethical blogger relations needed to be published as a reminder of what it means work with bloggers the right way. And by "right way", I'm not even going to touch myriad of "Don't call me a Mommy" or ignoring Dads or other issues that come from not knowing the people or space you're pitching. This is about general, ethical blogger relations and two specific examples of big agencies that are doing it wrong.

Case 1: Yes, You Can Pay Bloggers

The first example I want to discuss comes from a blogger who sent me a pitch that she received for a product review. The response from the blogger was that she ultimately had a fee schedule;  it costs money if you would like her to write about your product. It wasn't a lot of money -- especially given the hourly rates large agencies charge -- but ultimately she wanted to be compensated. Oh, and if they'd read her blog they'd have seen that other brands have paid her. 

Whether you're for or against paid reviews is irrelevant; this is not an unusual request and this is been the direction that blogging has been heading in for a long time. I'll say it again in case that didn't sink in: It should not come as a surprise that bloggers want to be compensated for doing working for you. "But this is earned media!" doesn't hold up when you're asking for their time. Yes, writing is work for them -- not a hobby that pays the bills. Then again, if the folks pitching actually attended blogging conferences and spoke with bloggers they would know this, but I digress. Payment, or lack thereof, isn't what is being done wrong here. Nor is the agency's position that they are looking to engage in earned media. 

Tip #1: It's a lot easier for bloggers to write about products they love when they actually like them. Start your search for bloggers to "earn" media with among evangelists.

The response from the global PR firm was that they couldn't pay her because the firm "only practices ethical blogger relations per the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) guidelines". This was their policy and she was only following orders. 

This statement and policy-- that you cannot pay a blogger -- is completely untrue and while it may be the firm's policy to not pay bloggers, is really an unethical way of citing a trade association's guidelines to circumvent payment to bloggers.

The fact is, you can pay bloggers provided they publicly disclose that there is a material connection between the brand and blogger. 

Another blogger, separate from this incident, disclosed to me that she "regularly corrects PR people" on the FTC guidelines for ethical blogger relations. Despite massive education efforts, the guidelines are being misread or translated internally at very large firms on a regular basis. That's scary not only for bloggers and the firms but also their clients whose names are being associated with these practices.

Tip #2: If bloggers have to teach your staff how to work within an association's FTC guidelines you need to invest a lot more in blogger relations education or stop doing it.

Case 2: Contractually Guaranteeing Positive Reviews

In last week's episode of Newsroom Will McAvoy brought in a fallen journalist turned blogger to follow Newsroom employees around to get a one-week sample of what it's like to work there in exchange for a glowing cover story. This is set up as being a "test" for the blogger, with everything being off the record. A provision of this "Newsroom 2.0" story was that Will had editorial control and right to censor any piece of the story he felt was unbecoming to the piece being positive.

Anyone who's watched the episode can see this is unfolding to be a train wreck in the making for Will.  The journalist in the episode has pieced together why he's been brought in to write this fluff piece but unravels a racy, inside scoop about ACN. Part II is next Tuesday, but in essence Will has asked a member of the free press to not speak negatively about him, his relationship with his producer or the show. 

This fictitious,  made-for-TVscenario isn't dissimilar to a blogger relations program sent to me wherein a global PR firm was asking a blogger for a product review and giveaway.  When the blogger responded asking for the product, she was sent acknowledgement of the agreement to do the review along with a written contract. 

In this instance, the firm and blogger are treating this as an earned media opportunity -- e.g. non-paying -- in which a blogger was sent a contract to sign and return before she could receive the product and perform a giveaway. 

Tip #3: If you're asking a blogger to run a product giveaway, there are costs involved in doing so in addition to their time. Shipping and legal/rules are two such examples. Either arm them with the tools to run it properly, or pay them to cover these costs (and for their time).

Understandably, whenever there is a material connection between a brand and blogger it should be disclosed, and this firm chose to employ the use of a contract so they and their client would not be held liable if the blogger refused to comply.

The contract states that the blogger must be honest. +1 for that. The contract states that the blogger must disclose. Another +1. In fact, while verbose, it does provide a nice working framework for keeping the firm and client safe from the FTC because it provides evidence that all parties involved will be ethical.  

The problem with this contract is that one of the paragraphs reads as follows insert part about disparaging the client or the PR firm here:

"Blogger shall not make any false, misleading or disparaging remarks about individuals or organizations or their products or services;"

False? No problem. Misleading? No problem. Disparaging? Wait, what? So a blogger, if agreeing to this, can't say something bad about a product? Earlier in the contract it said to disclose your relationship. Earlier it said to be honest. Just don't say anything bad.  Will MacAlvoy would be proud.

Tip #4: If you're not confident a review will be positive, either don't send it out for review, set your client's expectations that it might not be all roses and have prepared responses or don't do it. Honesty, not covering up negativity, is the best policy and authenticity will sell more cases than shilling.

Earned, Owned or Paid: Education Isn't Being Done Properly

These are just two examples sent to me within a few days of one another, and there are plenty more examples.  It's happening daily by firms who are supposed to be setting the standards for ethical blogger relations, are part of associations that claim to police their members, and by brands that in all honesty are getting bad advice. It goes without saying that regardless of whether you follow an association's policy or not, or whether you're a blogger trying to right an agency's wrong, the devil's in the details of people understanding and consistently following the actual standards.

David Binkowski is a partner at Large Media and "wrote the rules" for working ethically with bloggers for WOMMA in 2006. He also drafted the association's FTC Blogger Relations guidelines and has used his blogger relations experience to throw some of the most talked about blogger events over the past few years, including the dressbarn Runway Show at Type A Parent Conference and the Schick Intuition party at BlogHer. 


Rob W H said…
I am high-fiving you across many hundreds of miles away. This is substantially awesome.

I was recently approached about writing for a brand, and I explained that I was happy with the brand but couldn't do it for free. I was "schooled" by that man for a good two minutes about my breech of ethics by stating such a requirement. I was mortified by the way he tore into me.

And I had sincerely believed I was in the right. And I sincerely thank you for helping proove it to my sensibilities. You rock.
-Robert Hughey
David Binkowski said…
Thanks, Robert. I appreciate the comment and am not surprised. I would be interested in hearing which firm this is if you want to drop me an email! (david at getlargemedia dot com)

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