What’s Your View: The Ethics of Sponsored Blogging?

I’m going to be the guest contributor next week to the International Association of Online Communicators Web site, and my topic is Is It Okay to Get Paid to Blog?
It might surprise you but my general answer to this question is yes, it is okay to receive payment, either money or in-kind services, for blogging.
There are, however, a few caveats…

First off, I hope it’s obvious that you need to disclose your relationship with the subject of your blogging efforts. Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how that’s not at all black and white. For example, if my best friend happened to have a minority stake in a restaurant I wanted to review, should I disclose it? Okay, a bit more subtle: let’s say he had a stake in a particular Chinese restaurant in town, but I am going to review a different Chinese restaurant? What if it’s an Italian restaurant I’m going to review, but I’ve learned quite a bit from my friend about the restaurant business?
The next thing is that disclosure isn’t enough, because while bloggers frequently disclose relationships, they typically don’t disclose their biases. If I’m going to review a horror movie but don’t really like the genre so much, am I obligated to say so? (note that I didn’t say “should I”: obligation is a more interesting concept to chew on, I think)
I think that bias is far more illuminating for this ethics discussion than relationships, actually, particularly given the many, many bloggers who seem to feel that it’s not only possible, but desireable to be perfectly unbiased, to be a “channel for information” without spin or skew. I’ll say this as clearly as I can:
      Everyone is biased.
Your bias might be nicely aligned with the majority view, or perhaps the majority view within your own social, demographic, or psychographic community, but really, “unbiased” is an oxymoron.
Journalists have a Code of Ethics, typically, that prohibits them from accepting gifts or even gifts in kind of more than a certain dollar value. A cup of coffee is fine, but a weekend in Paris, well, that’s off limits. But you know what? That’s a sham. Codes of Ethics imply that a small enough gift, a small enough payout or bribe, won’t unfairly bias the journalist, but since in reality they’re all biased in the first place, doesn’t it seem daft?
And then there’s the issue of payment in the first place. If you befriend me professionally and I respond by introducing you to my sister’s newly single friend, have I paid you off? Have you consciously paid me with your attention to create a relationship? Will that bias me? (that is, am I more likely to react favorably to your attention if you, say, have been sending me complimentary email every few weeks for six months?)
There are indeed many topics to discuss under the general rubric of blogging ethics and whether it’s okay to get paid to blog. What I ask of you, dear reader, is to offer up a few thoughts, ideas, or even questions of your own. Do you know of a particular situation where it wasn’t clear whether the blogger should have accepted payment? Do you know of companies that are using sneaky, sly or even just plain savvy strategies to gain positive blogger spin?
I’ll do my best to field your questions and concerns next week on the International Association of Online Communicators blog!

6 comments on “What’s Your View: The Ethics of Sponsored Blogging?

  1. Excellent hypotheticals, Dave.
    Know More Media does sponsored reviews on occasion. We accept sponsored post bids if the promotional product/service relates closely to the topic of one of our blogs, if we think the audience is likely to respond well to the offer, and if the person or business that orders the review accepts our insistence on disclosure and transparency.
    I like to compare sponsored blog posts to sponsored radio announcements where the newscaster or talk show host reads a blurb and/or discusses it for a minute and then continues with the program. If done right, it’s a win-win-win – the advertiser gets attention from a targeted audience, the audience gets exposed to a product/service they might enjoy, and the publisher gets revenue to help sustain their business.
    The big no-no’s, I think, are deception, irrelevancy and oversaturation. Don’t lie or misinform, don’t talk about something your audience is unlikely to care about, and don’t overwhelm the normal conversation with sponsored conversation.

  2. When I accept money for a blog post, I’m not working in journalism; I’m working in advertising. When was the last time you saw an unbiased advertisement?
    My point is: All this soul-searching about bias and ethics and whatnots is a sign that the blogger is not really comfortable about accepting money for blogging.

  3. Dave,
    Hope you’ll bring some of this good discussion with you over to IAOCblog.com this week. This topic is so hot, we are already taking heat on the promo for your guest appearance!
    All Best,
    Vice President, IAOC

  4. There was an interesting story in the Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal about how resturants are offering free meals and other goodies to bloggers, as online food sites become increasingly influential in the restaurant business.
    In fact, the article said, publicists across the restaurant industry are now including bloggers and food website forum hosts on their media lists, and regularly inviting them to opening parties, free meals and other events.
    At my blog, I said that that’s not much different than companies sending product samples to bloggers with an invitation to try it or test it.
    P.S. Dave, I’m thrilled that you agreed to be a guest expert on my October 31 teleseminar on how PR people and self-promoters can incorporate blogs and podcasts into a 2008 media plan.

  5. From a marketing perspective, more and more brands are starting to accept that some need to play in the social media place, and as they realise that social media is really about content, which many don’t have the time and resource to manage/populate, paid for blogging is an increasingly important service.
    However, what’s important is to not deny the use of external resources and to deliver outstanding, value-driven content that really speaks to the target audience. So to answer your question, if approached properly, there’s no reason why it’s a problem.

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