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:
- She asked people she knew for comments on a client’s blog.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.