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Transparency under attack: before you write off blogs as dead in the water, there is such a thing as a code of ethics in this mercurial space we loosely refer to as buzz marketing.

The issue of transparency is increasingly coming under the microscope in the blogosphere, as companies, politicians and even nations address it. It's as if code red has been declared in PR, corporate communication and branding.

There's the whole fiasco of the fake Wal-Mart blog that erupted last October, when it was revealed that a much-respected PR company had been behind the blog without disclosing its involvement. The PR company in question was Edelman, which had set up a grassroots advocacy group called Working Families for Wal-Mart in December 2005. In itself, a PR firm setting up a blog for a client is common practice, but the bottom falls out when the bloggers who write so passionately turn out to be underwritten by the company. The fake blog, or "flog" as it is now referred to, was called Wal-Marting Across America, and was fronted by two ordinary people, Laura and Jim, blogging their way through a 2,800-mile road trip in an RV, parking in Wal-Mart parking lots. It made a great folksy tale, until BusinessWeek exposed Jim as a professional photojournalist, and digital breadcrumbs soon led back to Edelman and Wal-Mart.

It did not stop there. There was a second blog, called Paid Critics, a sort of subsidiary of the Working Families group that was bent on exposing Wal-Mart's critics. That, too, turned out to be an Edelman-managed blog. It is hard to fathom what both the client and the agency were thinking when kicking off such a social media exercise to essentially dupe the public. The irony of the situation was surely not lost on all those who remember Edelman's instrumental role in laying down the ethical guideposts for PR practitioners in the social media space.

In case you're wondering, and before you write off blogs as dead in the water, there is such a thing as a code of ethics in this mercurial space we loosely refer to as buzz marketing. The lines separating church and state, as it were, have always been blurred, even in the pre-blog days, but the Internet has accelerated the pace. There's a thin line between paid and "natural" search engine results, political advocacy groups writing Wikipedia entries, or bloggers who are constant targets for advertisers that want to blend their message with the content. WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, outlines its ethical guidelines as falling into three buckets: honesty of relationship, honesty of opinion and honesty of identity. These guidelines are designed to protect consumers. In the honesty of relationship section, marketers must agree to "practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates and marketers" and "to disclose their relationship with marketers in their communications with other consumers." According to the honesty of opinion section, marketers must make sure that endorsements "always reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs or experience of the endorser." And the honesty of identity section says that they must agree to never "blur identification in a manner that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individual with whom they are communicating."

It's not as though Edelman doesn't know this stuff--having published the Edelman Trust Barometer for the past six years. In the 2006 report, it said this: "Be transparent, revealing what you know when you know it while committing to updating as you learn more."

If corporations have been engaging in "blog-spin," where would communicators rank on the public's trust barometer? Soon everyone will have to take a stand, as Jeff Jarvis has, planting a stake in the ground as far as his blog was concerned, with four clear statements:

* No one can buy my editorial voice or opinion.

* No one can buy my editorial space; if it's an ad, it will clearly be an ad.

* No one should be confused about the source of anything on my pages.

* I will disclose my business relationships whenever it is relevant and possible.

Jarvis is an A-list blogger, journalist and associate professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. He is skeptical about the inroads of marketing, such as PayPerPost ("Get paid to blog") that makes strange bedfellows of bloggers, publishers and advertisers. So, as companies try to monetize the exploding social media and "blog-spam" becomes the dirty bomb of search engine optimization, communicators must expand the debate about transparency and authenticity.

What's authentic?

Social media are becoming the lab of future communications. They are pushing the envelope, from the downright snarky and harmless "Lonelygirl15" videos on YouTube (google those two words and you'll see), to the allegation that Big Tobacco has been quietly flooding YouTube with videos of teens smoking--a not-so-far-fetched assertion, based on a similar idea in the 2006 movie Thank You for Smoking.

The "Lonelygirl" episodes turned out to be terribly fake, but the storytelling was captivating. However, the producers did not represent a corporation, so no one was hurt by their lack of authenticity. Starbucks, on the other hand, got into podcasts with all good intentions, but was "transparent" in an unfortunate way. They discussed coffee in such excruciating detail that the podcasts were boring. Even when they attempted to tell "stories," they were focused on the producer, not the consumer, and were overly scripted. If there was a lesson here, it was about the danger of allowing marketing and production values to suffocate spontaneity. Which is, in the end, the litmus test of good social media. Transparency and authenticity need to walk in lockstep if you want to attract and retain an audience.

If you want full-blown transparency, Washington state newspaper The Spokesman-Review is backing something called a Transparent Newsroom Initiative. This includes webcasts of behind-the-scenes editorial meetings, so readers get to see the sausage factory, so to speak. The newspaper believes that giving ordinary people access to a "fortress newsroom" will make them evaluate and engage the media better.

On the other side of the fence is what must amount to the most daring move in journalism, because it involves bloggers, a media empire and advertising. Time Inc., owner of the magazine Business 2.0, is planning to compensate its writers for traffic generated to their blogs. The media company will sell advertising that will be placed on the journalists' blogs. Call it the Monetized Newsroom Initiative, if you will--an experiment that raises the usual gripes about erasing the line between editorial content and advertising.

Mind-boggling? Unsettling? This is the world we communicators are creating and/or inheriting, depending on how actively involved we want to be.

links to ...

Working Families for Wal-Mart blog walmartingacrossamerica.com

Working Families for Wal-Mart site www.forwalmart.com

Word of Mouth Marketing Association www.womma.org

2006 Annual Edelman Trust Barometer tinyurl.com/yadnct

Jeff Jarvis' full disclosure www.buzzmachine.com/index.php/about-me

PayPerPost payperpost.com

The Spokesman-Review blog www.spokesmanreview.com/blogs/conversation

Business 2.0 blog blogs.business2.com/beta

--A.F.

about the author

Angelo Fernando is a marketing communications strategist based in Mesa, Arizona.
COPYRIGHT 2007 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:tech talk
Author:Fernando, Angelo
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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