Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

The case for trusted content sources

Posted on | June 1, 2009 | 6 Comments

Summary: Marketing departments are doing their best to figure out how to leverage social media and that’s putting major strain on ethics in an age where influential bloggers, tweeters and the like can be bought. Ultimately, good companies want independent and ethical b.s. filters for their messages. Really.


It’s an old story: Reporter-writer accepts free travel, meals and lodging and turns in a favorable review of a product made by the company that footed the bill. It’s a story that repeats itself time after time. Most recently, The Wall Street Journal called out Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate for supposed ethical lapses among its writers.

“Last September, when critic Jay Miller visited Australia to review various makers’ wines, an industry group, Wine Australia, paid about $25,000 for his air travel, hotel accommodations and meals, says James Gosper, the group’s director for North America. The trip was one of more than a half-dozen instances of such paid-for travel by writers for the newsletter in recent years. The trips haven’t been disclosed in the newsletter.”

The source for the hubbub originally came from Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino site, which published a response from Parker—who personally adheres to some solid ethical guidelines. Parker was none too pleased.

This is case of an established publication with established ethical guidelines having classical ethical breakdowns.

In a world in which traditional media is struggling to cover its world, free trips to conferences and the like are increasingly common (heck, in one sense companies used to foot the bill indirectly through advertising support, but no more).

Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

Now extend that to an emerge world of journalism, the blogo-twitter-sphere, where few of the participants have experience with journalism’s ethos. Free swag? What the heck not?? Review your product and get a year’s supply? What’s not to like?

PR 2.0 guy Brian Solis had a thorough overview of the situation recently on TechCrunch: This is Not a Sponsored Post.

Wrote Solis:

“Under new guidelines proposed by the Federal Trade Commission, brands and bloggers both may be held liable should either the FTC or scorned consumers deem that their actions or claims misguided them, or misrepresented the actual performance or efficacy of the product or service in question.

According to the FTC, theability for a consumer to exercise better judgment and common sense is indefensible when a glaring absence of disclosure is pervasive.”

Here’s a link to those FTC ethics guidelines.

Amid all the change in media today, it’s still clear to me that companies, even those dabbling in these swag-for-coverage plays, still want their products and services vetted by impartial reviewers.

Traditional media has guidelines because to put food on the table they have to appear impartial. That’s a big value add (still). An emerging class of citizen journalist-pitchmen puts food on the table by helping sell product.

I can only hope that soon people will begin to view these reports and reviews they respond to multilevel marketing pitches: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

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Comments

6 Responses to “The case for trusted content sources”

  1. Paula Jones
    June 1st, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    Unfortunately, people fall for these reviews more often than ever before because they’re exposed to them so often. There are so many sites where “experts” tell about how wonderful a product is – and it’s just plain advertising. I think this is going to get worse before (and if) it gets better.

  2. Mike Santarini
    June 1st, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    Nice new home, Brian.

    It’s all about disclosure, baby. And by that I mean reasonable, upfront disclosure—top of the story disclosure…not buried-on-the last-line-of-the-story or fine-print disclosure.

    Have you heard about these mass blog aggregator custom marketing companies (they probably have a fancy name)? They essentially own blogger communities and the rights to a stable of bloggers in a particular area and don’t pay them a salary. However, advertisers bid to have their advertisements placed on the blog posts that are getting the most hits or on those that are addressing subjects related to the advertisement. The bloggers then get a cut of the cash. It’s a good deal for the companies, the advertisers and evidently the bloggers, but I have to wonder if the readers would be a bit put-off if these co’s and their bloggers were upfront about the business model. I wonder if they would be so apt to read if the bloggers and or the companies they worked for knew the bloggers they followed were being monetarily motivated to write “provocatively” (and arguable overly “provocatively”).

    Interesting model…Yes

    Ethical…Nope, not without upfront disclosure

  3. Brian
    June 1st, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    I keep latching on to my old man’s mantra: The pendulum always swings back. While “independent” media is relatively new in history, I think we appreciate it enough to know when we miss it.
    We’re not there yet, however.

  4. Christian
    June 2nd, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    Much cleaner look here, Mr. Fuller. Welcome to your new home …

  5. Harry Gries
    June 9th, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    I agree with Mike that disclosure is the only way to handle this. We all have our biases, too many to even list in a disclosure. But at least we can be up-front when we receive some sort of compensation for covering an event or reviewing a product.

    Robert Cialdini, in his excellent book “Influence”, shows how even the smallest favor can obligate someone to a much bigger favor in return. Sure, lending me a Pre for a week seems harmless enough (ask Leo Laporte), but there is a subconscious debt that comes with it. At least readers have the right to know when that might be in play.

  6. Brian
    June 9th, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    There’s another issue, that Harry’s comment made me think about: The longer you’re in an industry, especially as a journalist or a blogger, the more relationships you’ve built, the more difficult it can become to be tough on someone in a story/post. It’s journalism’s eternal question: when do you “burn” a source? Some people say “oh, please don’t write what I just said” and you make a trade off between saying “it’s on the record; you screwed up” or using it as a bargaining chip on a future scoop.

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