Blog Ethics and Why I’m Ashamed of the PR Bigwigs

What happens when you combine a bunch of PR professionals, mob mentality, and hypocrisy? Apparently this.

I generally stay away from “newsy” posts here, and go for a more practical approach. But the big news in PR lately is all about blog ethics, and I’ve got something to say about it. The issue stemmed from corporate blogging expert Debbie Weil recently sending an email to friends and colleagues asking them to post comments to a new GlaxoSmithKline blog (her client) on a new weight loss drug.

The uproar is shocking, and rather disturbing (and this is coming from a huge transparency advocate), because A) it shows how few PR people actually know a damn thing about blogging and B) how many PR pros, including the “big guys” are disgustingly hypocritical. I’ve been disappointed in the industry in the past (with their inability to make people aware of what we do, with their recent addiction to bullshit PR buzzwords, and habit of trying to reinvent anything they’re too stupid to know how to use well in the first place, just for starters), but this one takes the cake.

My issue stems from David Murray’s post about the Weil issue on his blog, Shades of Gray. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions (lord knows I have mine), but I have little patience for hypocrisy.

First, let’s discuss the basic issues that have PR people pissed off:

  1. She asked people she knew for comments on a client’s blog.
  2. She included the line “If you’re inspired or provoked, leave a comment on any entry. No need to say that you know me, of course.”

Murray made the decision to post Weil’s email on his blog, leading to PR pros big and small jumping on the bandwagon (as they often do) with a viral storm of criticism and Chicken Little-esque spur of comments about the falling ethical standards of the PR industry, at least when it comes to blogging.

Let’s just make my thoughts on Weil’s moral obligations and decisions clear:

  1. Do I think she made a smart decision in posting the line about not needing to mention that you know her? No. Of course not.
  2. Do I consider that line unethical? No. But it was stupid, and I’m sure she regrets it at least a little bit, or at least wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
  3. Do we all make stupid mistakes? You betcha. And unfortunately most of us are making a LOT of mistakes regarding blogging for PR right now.
  4. Do I consider asking people to comment on a blog if they feel motivated by the posts to be unethical? No. And if the majority of PR people knew a damn thing about running a promotional blog (or gaining an audience for any blog outside of their personal or professional circle for that matter), they probably wouldn’t either. But they don’t; mystery solved.

OK. Now let’s talk about hypocrisy and why Murray’s post did more to piss me off than Weil’s email:

Here’s exactly what I had to say about it on Murray’s blog: “As for you reposting a colleague’s email… that’s the larger ethical violation in my opinion, not even because you did it, but because you did it with some kind of air of moral superiority while sinking to a debatably lower level in the same breath.”

The “not even because you did it” part is the key. I have no problem with him posting the email if it’s something he felt should be made public, and the email didn’t contain a confidentiality clause (I don’t know if it did). You run that risk with any email you send. That’s life. Get used to it.

My problem is the hypocrisy of pretending for one second that he’s more ethical than Weil, given the way he chose to handle the situation. His “ethically pure journalistic self”? OK. That literally made me laugh. But to act self-righteous throughout the entire post, while violating a trust and the same industry ethics guidelines that she did, is beyond unethical. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against him personally… just the way he handled this particular post.

It’s not just this blog… the responses are often almost as disturbing from people who couldn’t even bother to read the original email before criticizing. The part they conveniently ignore? “If you’re inspired or provoked, leave a comment on any entry.”

There’s nothing wrong with essentially inviting people to check out a post, and suggesting they leave a comment if they feel so inclined, which is all Weil did there. There’s nothing in the world you can say that would justify a claim that it’s a violation of ethics to refer a blog to someone. That’s all this was. If there’s an ethical violation based on her other bit, you’re free to feel that way, and can certainly justify it… just don’t throw stones when your comments make you just as deserving.

And what’s the ethical violation anyway? Well, Robert Holland over at MyRagan cited the PRSA’s Code of Ethics: “Public relations professionals should work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”

How is Murray strengthening the public’s trust in the profession when he essentially just told all of his colleagues that he can’t be trusted with so much as an email that he might disagree with? How much trust is he building with clients who might now have to wonder whether private communications might be made public if they criticize his work or opinions, or cancel their contracts (and I’m not saying for a second that he would do that; only that his actions certainly don’t promote public trust).

Frankly, I doubt that there’s a single PR practitioner that can say they’ve never crossed a line, whether it be publicly or in private correspondence (myself included). The moral of the story… say what you want; do what you want. Just make sure you’re not acting like a hypocrite in the process.

Jenn Mattern is the owner of 3 Beat Media, a 3-prong business where she offers consulting and freelance writing services (predominantly for small and mid-sized online businesses and creative professionals). Through this business, she also runs a variety of online properties and manages a small publishing brand.

Jenn has over 20 years' experience in PR and marketing, specializing in digital PR and new media (blogging, social media, SEO, thought leadership publication, and related areas). She also has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor, with 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing / development experience.

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5 thoughts on “Blog Ethics and Why I’m Ashamed of the PR Bigwigs”

  1. Great points, Jenn… I’m definitely on your side of this debate. I’ll be eager to see how (if) David responds to the comment you left on his blog.

  2. I like your rant. It is the kind of frustration many of us feel.

    There is another side to all this. It is a matter of understanding the nature of online communication which can be summed up in five tenets; Richness, Reach, Transparency, Porosity and Agency. If practitioners understand these then they will be less likely to make mistakes. They are described in The NewPR Wiki here: They were developed from research by the PR Internet commission in 1999, were published in 2000 for the PR industry.

    So, to add to your rant, mine is that the PR industry could do worse than follow the findings of its academic research base.

  3. I appreciate the comment David.

    While I agree that in this case, mistakes were made, I’d be hard-pressed to rely on research from ’99 when Internet communication has so radically changed over those last 7-8 years. What really rubs me the wrong way is the general ignorance in the PR industry regarding online communication as a whole (not directed to your own comment in any way). It baffles me that those of us in a communication field can’t grasp what any 18-year old with a computer and a website has figured out years ago.

    On a similar note, I’d really like to see some more of the younger PR professionals out there stepping up into these discussions, because frankly, they have the likelihood of being the most in tune with the changes as they happen. Yet they’re amazingly quiet so far….

  4. Jenn–

    “Ethically pure journalistic self” was a joke, and if it made you laugh, that was the intention. In fact, my whole post was careful not to overreach, not to make a mountain out of a molehill. I simply posted Debbie’s solicitation–which was a group e-mail that I considered a targeted marketing campaign and not a “personal” e-mail–and asked my readers if I was being a “prig” for the fact that the e-mail “got on my nerves.”

    Didn’t accuse her of a hideous ethics breach, or a violation of the Cluetrain Transparency Doctrine, or any such. Just put it out there. Others made their judgments.

    Debbie has told me publicly and privately that I might have just written her back and registered my objection privately. Yes, I might have, but then we wouldn’t have had this conversation. I am glad we had this conversation, even though it got overheated.

    Aren’t you?

    Finally, though I don’t seriously claim to be ethically (or in any other way) “pure,” I am a journalist and not Debbie’s “colleague.” I think she assumed I was her colleague when she included me on her solicitation for comments on the drug company’s blog.

    Debbie is a corporate blogging proponent with a profit-motive in seeing it take off. My job is to watch corporate blogging and see how it develops–and where and why it does or does not catch on.

    While neither of us is “pure,” we do have different roles in the process here. If posting her e-mail was rude on my part, I think it was worth it because it got lots of us–more than I ever expected, I must say–talking and thinking in a concrete way about blogging ethics and mores and taste.

    Don’t you agree?


  5. Thanks for taking the time to comment David, and yes, I’m certainly glad there’s some discussion about this, among other issues lately. There’s a lot to be learned everywhere from blogging to social media, and all I can hope is that open discussions will at least educate a few.

    It’s true that others made their own judgments after reading your post. However, after reading several of the comments, it begins to look more like a huge “me too” train with the criticism (and not only on your blog).

    So could people simply make their own judgments, because you “put it out there?” Yes. But in a sense, that’s precisely what Debbie did… she introduced a blog to people she thought might have an interest in corporate blogging, and left it up to them to make their own judgment call on whether to comment or not, and whether to disclose how they came across the blog or not. I don’t like that little line in her email more than anyone else, but a huge ethical breach in the world of blog marketing it’s not.

    Most bloggers, corporate or not, have a profit-driven motive for seeing it take off. Actually, I’m not sure what the motive has to do with anything. You want your blog to take off no matter the motive: corporate profits, advertising revenue, exposure, etc. Email marketing is no less legitimate a promotional tactic than going around commenting on all of your colleague’s blogs with a link back, knowing that those “in your corner” are likely to stop by and initiate some discussion. When your colleagues are also your competition (like with GSK), and not necessarily on board with blogging yet, a basic option like that really isn’t even available.

    I’d say we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone “pure” in the Internet game these days, whether it be email marketing to social media. As for posting an email being “worth it”, I really don’t have any general objection to posting an email online if it brings an important issue or discussion to light. My point was simply that it’s rather hypocritical to do something that could very easily be conceived as being “unethical” while you’re essentially questioning the ethics of someone else in the process (and whether it was blatantly stated in that way or not, we do know the implication was there, or it wouldn’t have sparked so much discussion in the first place). 😉

    So is it good that people are discussing the issue? Yes. At this point I’d say most in PR need to start educating themselves on the basics though before they start setting up an ethical scale.

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