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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blogging with Integrity, part one: the pledge and the practice

The mainstream media has picked up on the debate that's been going on in the blogiverse for quite a while now - the one concerning disclosure, ethics and the interplay between blogging and marketing. As CNN.com states in a recent story titled 'Mommy bloggers' vow to avoid ethical conflicts:
"(M)oms who detail every moment of their domestic lives online produce some of the Web's most well-read blogs.

Many of these 'mommy bloggers' even draw the attention of companies that send them free product samples -- everything from toys to baby strollers to video game consoles -- in the hopes of getting positive coverage.

But to some, these freebies aren't necessarily a good thing. Readers have complained they can no longer trust their favorite blogger's advice. Veteran women bloggers grumble that newcomers sully the genre's reputation by demanding free products and trips. Newsweek.com published an article last month headlined, 'Trusted Mom or Sellout?'"
CNN.com quotes Liz Gumbinner, author of the popular mom blog Mom-101 and editor/publisher of Cool Mom Picks, on the explosion of blogger-focused marketing and a new concept of top bloggers:
"'A year ago, bloggers were rising stars. Six months later, really big marketers like Wal-Mart got into the game and started backing bloggers.

"'That created a new paradigm: An A-list blogger was not the one who wrote the best and had the most influence, but had the most marketing attention and free products. It created a new generation of bloggers who blogged to get free stuff.'"
(Me, editorializing: Yes, the A-list does exist, at least in theory and perception, but it's hard to actually find it, and some of the bloggers who are on it are too modest to admit it.)

This "blogging for freebies" - or at least, the perception that it's happening - has caught the notice of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). According to the CNN.com piece,
"...(The FTC) is expected to vote this summer on new ethical guidelines for bloggers.

While the revised guidelines will apply to all bloggers, FTC public affairs specialist Betsy Lordan told CNN, 'Some of the bigger challenges include the mommy blogger issue and the extent to which the blogger must disclose a relationship with an advertiser.'"
Also quoted by CNN.com regarding the disclosure issue is Susan Getgood, whose Marketing Roadmaps blog focuses on social-media relationships and marketing, and who "believes many bloggers aren't intentionally deceptive -- just confused about what they should disclose":
"'There is a lack of knowledge [about ethical rules]...The FTC did not deliberately set out to confuse everybody but blogging is new for a lot of these women and having that kind of both responsibility and power is new to a lot of bloggers.'"
Susan Getgood and Liz Gumbinner are two of the founders of Blog With Integrity. The others are Kristen Chase of Motherhood Uncensored and Julie Marsh of The Mom Slant; all except Susan Getgood are also associated with Cool Mom Picks, a blog based on moms recommending products and services to other moms:
"We're just a few moms that track down cool stuff so you can stay busy being fabulous. We know cool stuff doesn't make the mom, but it certainly helps make life a little better.

We have a soft spot for non-mainstream products and services, particularly those from indie or emerging designers and mom/women-run companies. We believe you can stay true to your dazzling design sensibilities and still support an entrepreneur, especially one trying to support her family through her work. But we can be found loving on anything that we think is cool, really."
That's the kind of model - personal recommendations, based on experience, from people you've gotten to know and trust - that makes bloggers appealing to marketers in the first place. The chance to test-drive new products and services, and to share opinions about them with people who are actually interested, makes bloggers receptive to marketing outreach (and, to be honest, being on the receiving end of that outreach, and those offers, can be a bit of an ego boost too). Because this is a model that is based on trust and relationships, it really needs time to develop and become most effective - but time is often scarce, and shortcuts have been taken on both sides of the street. (Gena Haskett addressed some of those shortcuts in an entertaining, and pointed, "blog noir tale of content, respect and responsibility" on BlogHer.com.)

As stated on its "About" page, Blog With Integrity emerged in July of this year in response to
"...a spring and early summer of polarizing debates about blogger compensation, sponsored posts and product reviews, an alarming increase in ethical lapses and idea theft, and a growing backlash against poor blogger relations practices, we believed it was time to refocus on integrity.

The Blog with Integrity pledge recognizes that there’s no single right way to blog and more than enough room in the world for different approaches.

What matters is the relationship with our readers. Meeting our commitment to them and to our community. Clear disclosure of our interests so they can evaluate our words. Treating others with respect. Taking responsibility for our words and actions."
The Blog with Integrity Pledge states the following:
By displaying the Blog with Integrity badge or signing the pledge, I assert that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is important to me.

I treat others respectfully, attacking ideas and not people. I also welcome respectful disagreement with my own ideas.

I believe in intellectual property rights, providing links, citing sources, and crediting inspiration where appropriate.

I disclose my material relationships, policies and business practices. My readers will know the difference between editorial, advertorial, and advertising, should I choose to have it. If I do sponsored or paid posts, they are clearly marked.


When collaborating with marketers and PR professionals, I handle myself professionally and abide by basic journalistic standards.

I always present my honest opinions to the best of my ability.

I own my words. Even if I occasionally have to eat them.
If you normally read my posts in a feed reader or don't actually visit the blog itself too often, you may not have noticed that I posted the Blog with Integrity badge in my sidebar a few weeks ago, and if you check out the list of pledge signers, you'll see me there (way down in the T's; after the founders, the list is alphabetical by blog name). It affirms principles that I'd like to think I've already been practicing in my blogging anyway, so why not make it official?

Not everyone sees it that way, though - and that doesn't automatically imply that they don't believe in blogging with integrity. Some have no problem putting the principles into action, and since their blogs already reflect that, they see the pledge and the badge as unnecessary. There's also some concern about backlash, and that bloggers who choose not to sign on - for whatever reason, including deeming it unnecessary - may be perceived as having less integrity than those who do, regardless of their actual blogging practices. Personally, I'm inclined to think that if you read carefully, you can get a good feel for whether someone blogs with integrity or not, regardless of any badge posted.

Sorry, but I'm not done talking about this...please come back for Part Two tomorrow! (And really, be glad I didn't subject you to the whole thing in one post!) That post will include some discussion specific to the book-blog community and its reaction to Blog with Integrity, so if possible, I'd appreciate comments pertaining to that aspect saved until then.

9 comments:

  1. I'm glad you put that last paragraph in there (about the potential backlash if you don't sign the pledge). For a variety of reasons I haven't decided whether to sign or not just yet, and I AM concerned that my non-regular readers may be put off if they don't see that badge. I'm not concerned about my regular readers - they know I'm honest with my reviews. I'd love to hear from other people on the non-signing issue though.

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  2. Kathy (Bermudaonion) - I saw you on the list :-).

    Heather J - I'm curious about whether comments will be more active on tomorrow's post, which addresses book bloggers more directly. But I do worry about that the badge will be taken as a sort of shorthand, and I think readers still need to take the time to get to know a blog for themselves. There are a lot of bloggers I trust - because I've taken the time to get to know them - who may choose not to display it or sign the pledge.

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  3. Thank you for a really excellent and balanced assessment of this entire topic!

    I would be distraught to think that there could be backlash against people who don't like badges for whatever reason. Some of the bloggers I love and respect most in the world are not displaying the badge. In fact, you may have noticed that while the Cool Mom Picks editors have signed the pledge, there is no BWI badge on that blog.

    What's been most wonderful to those of us who started this, is not that people are or aren't declaring their integrity--but that those bloggers seeking guidance and better blogging practices have actually used the BWI effort as the impetus to ask for it. They're actively changing their blogs and rewriting their disclosure policies. Isn't that great?

    Sometimes we just need to put what we stand for into words and good things can happen.

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  4. Liz (Mom101) - Thanks so much for stopping by!

    There actually has been some concern about backlash in the book-blogging community among those who are uncertain about putting up the badge - it's the whole perception thing.

    I agree that the fact that BWI has provided a framework to get these discussions going is a good thing.

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  5. Seconding Liz's comments about your great post and adding something about presence/absence of badge.

    All we can say with certainty about a badge button or bumper sticker is that the person who displays it likely believes in whatever it happens to be -- the BWI pledge, Obama for President, My kid is an Honors student, etc.

    It's an error to assume the opposite, no matter what it is. We have no certain knowledge based on the *absence* of a symbol. We need to dig deeper to find that out, and as you point out, reading the blog probably tells you what you need to know.

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  6. Susan - Thanks for weighing in!

    And you're entirely correct. I hope people won't infer that those who choose not to display the badge are somehow less reliable or trustworthy in their writing - as Liz said in her comment, some bloggers I think very highly of don't plan to put it up.

    But yes, I really do tend to think that if you spend a little time with a blog, you'll get a decent sense of its integrity. The badge shouldn't be a shortcut to that.

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  7. I have already signed the pledge because I just saw it as affirmation of what I was already doing. If that makes readers feel better, then I am happy to oblige.

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  8. Serena - That was pretty much my take on it, too - and now that I've made it official, it makes me more attentive to what I say and do here, which I don't think is a bad thing.

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Now it's YOUR turn - speak your piece, please! Or just let me know you were here; I always like that. But you'll have to leave a name - I've disallowed anonymous comments due to some recent spam problems. Thanks!