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The Questionable Ethics of Non-Disclosed Allegiances

October 27th, 2006 · 2 Comments · Business Ethics, Media Ethics, Uncategorized

By coincidence, I received two pieces of e-mail today that both deal with the question of how
much disclosure is appropriate when someone takes up a cause and is quietly paid to do it.

First, a ray of hope from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association: a proposed list of 20 questions marketers should ask themselves to determine if their buzz campaign is ethical–and prefaced with these instructions:

  • Ask these questions before launching any word of mouth marketing campaign.
    Get answers from your agencies and vendors, as well as from their subcontractors.
    Think about the risks to your reputation before you cross any ethical lines.
  • Remember: Consumers come first, honesty isn’t optional, and deception is always exposed.

    Just as an example, # 8 of the 20 asks,

    Do we forbid the use of expressly deceptive practices from our employees/advocates, such as impersonating consumers; concealing their true identities; or lying about factors such as age, gender, race, familiarity with or use of product, or other circumstances intended to enhance the credibility of the advocate while deliberately misleading the public?

    This is a draft, and they’re actively soliciting public comment.

    But then the other post was a note from blogger BL Ochman about “flogs”–fake blogs–in support of Wal-Mart, by people who were paid by the retail giant’s PR firm to be in support of Wal-Mart and until recently didn’t disclose this relationship.

    She cites a much more in-depth article about the situation.

    That post says, in part,

    As a result of the new transparency, every entry on the blogs is now credited to one of three contributors: Miranda, Brian or Kate. A click on these single monikers reveals biographies of [the PR firm] Edelman employees Miranda Gill, Brian McNeill and Kate Marshall, whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart, the sites say.

    While noting that he was speaking in generalities and not to this specific situation, Dave Balter, president of the Boston word-of-mouth marketing firm BzzAgent, said: “Even if you’re doing the right thing but you know you’re going to deceive people, you have to do everything to make sure it’s completely transparent, and any tactic that crosses that line you’re doing a disservice to the brand [and] the consumer.”

    Now, Edelman has decided, finally, to disclose these relationships. What were they thinking trying to hide them?

    My suggestion to the floggers: go back and read those 20 questions from WOMMA, and try to answer them honestly. Otherwise, people will answer them for you, and it may not be pretty.


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