Archive for January, 2010

"How To Report The News"

In Defense of Ghostblogging: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

GhostThe last post in our Social Media Ethics Series essentially explored ghost-tweeting.  Now let’s talk about a far more widespread issue: ghostblogging.

For the uninitiated, ghostblogging is simply ghostwriting for someone else’s blog. It’s generally frowned upon.

Is it ethical for a PR agency to write an unattributed post for a client’s blog?

First, we need to define what type of blog we’re talking about.

Corporate blogs tend to take two paths:

—There are personal blogs that happen to align themselves with an organization (as in the case of PR-Squared, which is my personal blog but which also serves as the primary blog of SHIFT Communications).

—And, there are more corporate-style blogs in which the posts are more officious, a la a corporate newsletter run on a blogging engine (in this latter case, sometimes the author is known, sometimes not).

Next, we need to make an acknowledgement: blogging is a tyrannical activity.

A quarterly newsletter is a breeze – heck, even a weekly newsletter feels infinitely achievable — compared to a blog.  In my deepest baritone, I am fond of telling clients, “If you are posting less than 2 – 3x a week, what you’re publishing is not a blog but a newsletter.” Blogging evangelists expect a busy executive to scratch out some reasonably compelling content 2 – 3x a week …  It is an incredibly difficult pace to maintain.

For the personal blogger, the fact that one’s failures are one’s own, and that the blog can suit their changing tastes (and schedules), relieves some of that pressure.

For the successful corporate blogger, however, their content becomes part-and-parcel of an overarching communications strategy.  It impacts inbound lead flow, thought leadership, SEO.  There can be no retreat!

Because of the increasingly must-have nature of official corporate blogs, in-house marketers will insist that the content flow must.not.stop.  And since these in-house marketers tend to have limited control over the executive blogger, there needs to be a fall-back strategy.

More and more, that fall-back strategy is going to include supplemental ghostblogging.

Angeldevil-smallYou can rail against it as a black mark against authenticity, but, it is happening and it is a trend that will only grow.  Not enough people see this as a bright line separating “good” from “bad” to forestall the rise of ghostblogging.

After long deliberation, SHIFT execs agreed:

Ghostblogging for a corporate-aligned but PERSONAL blog (like this one) is not ethical.

However, ghostblogging for a CORPORATE blog is no more unethical than drafting a piece for the company newsletter, especially since the final draft would need to be approved by a client representative.

(It did not go unremarked that, in these latter cases, PR agency pros often hold as much knowledge as our client contacts.  We sit in on analyst briefings, pore over and/or draft many official client materials, etc.  Our knowledge is not false, even if it is not our name on the byline.)

So … “Ghostblogging is an approved activity?!”

Now that you’ve read my rationale, what are your thoughts?

Interlude: on Ethics, Experiments & Karma

Yesterday’s debut post on Ethical Dilemmas in Social Media was very well received (thanks!) … The vast majority of readers thought that we took appropriate measures to be authentic/transparent — or at least, authentic/transparent enough.

There were a few purists who suggested we’d crossed the line; and, there were several suggestions from helpful readers on how we might better handle the same situation down the road…

… All of which led me to think about the rest of the posts in this series, and how THEY might be received. I got a little jittery.

I’m telling you right now: of the seven planned posts on Ethical Dilemmas, there will be instances in which I feel we CROSSED THE LINE.  We faced ethical dilemmas and then arguably did the WRONG thing, took the WRONG path.

For what it’s worth, in these cases, no one was hurt. No puppies were throttled. Also, importantly, the transgressions we’ll look at came from a place of innocence or ignorance on the part of our staff and/or the clients. In some cases, we were literally experimenting — which I applaud — but then we drew back, once we realized where our experiments were headed.

There was never a moment where anyone involved rubbed their hands with malicious glee at the prospect of tricking people.  But, still: lines were crossed.  I can’t get around it.

Here’s what I am hoping:

I hope you are a long-time reader with a reasonable respect for the fact that a) this Social Media stuff is still very new, and the “rules” evolve in a gray area; that b) we run a for-profit business whose raison d’etre is to promote client interests; and, that c) Todd Defren and SHIFT Communications have a long and distinguished track record of thoughtfulness, generosity, and honesty.

Do you possess a reservoir of goodwill for me and my company that will ultimately cause you to give us the benefit of the doubt? To forgive transgressions?

That’s a test I hope to pass.

It’s a test that every marketer must keep in mind.  “Am I doing the right thing?  Am I being honest with my customers and prospects?  When I screw up, will I have built-up enough trust among them to weather the storm?”

Tweeting Under False Circumstances: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

I am going to start off with a bang, in this 1st of 7 planned posts about Real-World Ethical Dilemmas in Social Media.

What would you do if a client contact — who had a pretty solid Twitter following — asked you to tweet from his account, as if you were him?

Crazy? Wrong? Unethical? Let’s discuss.

The client contact is well-known in his field.  He enjoys a loyal following of industry peers on Twitter.  He posts regularly, sometimes several times a day.  He “gets” Twitter; he finds value in the dialogue and his followers appreciate that a well-placed exec from a Big Company is engaged with them online.

Now, a big industry tradeshow is coming up.  He’ll be very active there, as a speaker and organizer.

The executive wants his tweetstream to reflect his activity at the show, and to highlight other happenings at the conference, as well.  He’s very concerned that he won’t be able to support this many to-do’s.

We work closely with this executive and he has come to trust us implicitly… which leads to the ethical challenge.  I’ll paraphrase the request as it came from him:

“I want SHIFT to ‘take over’ my Twitter account, and tweet as me, during the course of the show.  I’ll also tweet, but very sporadically and with far less ability to interact and respond to my followers.  I don’t want to let them down, and I trust you guys to act in my stead. I know you won’t answer questions that you don’t know how to answer, and I trust that you won’t embarass me or misrepresent the company … Be ‘me’ online, so I can make a full commitment to my engagement on the show floor.”

You can see how this request comes from a “good place.”  This executive’s commitment to online engagement is so fierce, he doesn’t want to abandon it even for an important event. He knows his followers would understand his absences, but he thinks there is going to be real value in tracking what’s happening at the conference, and in responding to folks online throughout.

While it’s true he is asking us to misrepresent ourselves, he feels that it would still be authentic because of his trust in us.

How do you respond to that? Do you just say no?

Well, there’s no such thing as “no,” when you work in a Service industry (thus this series of posts!) … So we suggested a compromise …

Yes, we would tweet from his account, but with the following conditions:

—-Prior to the event, he must tweet, “During the show some of my tweeting will be supplemented by our extended team.” We felt that the term “extended team” was appropriate, suggesting that that term covered both internal and 3rd party colleagues.

—-A reminder to that effect would go out, regularly, throughout the conference, i.e., every 10th tweet would remind followers that someone besides the executive might be “at the controls” of his Twitter account.

—-When character spaces permitted, we’d add a #team hashtag to denote that the tweet was not published by the exec — but honestly, this attribution fell away more often than not; we largely relied on the “every 10th tweet” approach to cover our ethical backsides.

For the record, there was no pushback from the executive’s followers.  Anyone who took the time to react to our approach seemed to appreciate the fact that, for a short time, his tweetstream became a mix of on-the-floor reporting by the exec, supplemented by dispatches from a 3rd party response team in Marketing.

Still, no doubt there were folks who only checked-in on the executive’s tweets intermittently.  To them, our team members were ostensibly tweeting under false pretenses; they were unwittingly “duped” by our approach.

I’m not troubled by that, as the tweets authored by SHIFTers were always innocuous and helpful.  But … should I be troubled?

How would you have handled such a request?

Real-World Ethical Dilemmas in Social Media

AngeldevilEven as Social Media has quickly become integral to corporate communications strategy, it also presents a very, very new model, with new challenges.

As in any new endeavor, questions arise about ethical boundaries.  As discussed in the recent Slippery Slopes post, those boundaries are rarely marked by a bright line.  “Shades of gray” need exploration.

With this in mind, I asked my senior staff to outline for me the ethical questions they had faced with clients in the past 12 months.

The ensuing dialogue was fascinating.  I was often at a loss for answers.  We muddled through, though, and I want to share the results with you in a SERIES of posts related to our real-world Social Media Ethics challenges.

I am not going to commit to a once/day or once/week schedule, cuz I’m one of those underpromise/overdeliver guys, but my blog posting schedule for the next little while will predominantly be exploring each of these 7 ethical dilemmas in turn.

Throughout the series, I will be very eager to hear your feedback — and your pushback, whenever you feel we may have gone off the rails … because in some instances, we might have done just that. (Cue ominous music…)

Where I felt doubt, where I think we may have gone wrong, I’ll be straight-up candid about it, and will try to avoid defensiveness.

UPDATE: the Social Media Ethical Series was among the most popular ever published on the PR-Squared blog.  Thanks to all who coached, coaxed and caviled.  Here are the posts for future reference…

Tweeting Under False Circumstances

In Defense of Ghostblogging

Guess Who’s Talking

When Clients Want Coverage in Your Blog

Everything in “Moderation”

When the Coach Takes the Field

Show some social media love would ya?

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