When Clients Want Coverage in Your Blog: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

IStock_000011663938XSmallI’m no Chris Brogan, but if you combine the number of people I have access to via this blog and my Twitter stream, it’s fair to suggest that I reach thousands upon thousands of people — including some of the best-connected folks in Social and Mainstream Media.

So you might think I’d get a lot of pressure from clients to write about them in my blog, and to tweet about their news.  And you’d be right.  It certainly does come up, as Tom Foremski recently noted.

Where do you draw the line?

Keeping in mind that a PR agency’s goal is to promote its clients, I always take the time to thoughtfully evaluate the request.  But as regular readers can attest, it is very rare that you see me write a post about a client (unless it is a case study of SHIFT’s work, which is always appropriate!)

Honestly I don’t have a hard & fast rule here, my judgment is based on whether y-o-u will get value from the post. Given that this is a blog about Marketing/PR/Social Media, the client’s news or product would need to fit in that category, or else I am wasting your time.

On the other hand, I rarely have a problem tweeting about a client announcement or big media hit.  Even still, I try to make it rare: if my twitterstream becomes “polluted” with too many client announcements and/or self-aggrandizing posts, my signal:noise ratio will skew into “lame” territory, which benefits no one.

As I write this, though, I find it interesting that the FORMAT/LENGTH of the write-up is where the line is getting drawn, i.e., a long-form blog post feels almost sacrosanct, whereas the stream-of-conciousness of Twitter is really not nearly so “pure” to me.  Perhaps it is because I can so quickly bury a client-related tweet with, say, a lunchtime insta-poll about bacon.

AngeldevilIn any case, this Social Media Ethics series is certainly not just about me.  The bigger questions for agencies to ponder:

Should clients be allowed to leverage the agency’s (or its staffers’) brand to promote their own?  Should the agency principal ask a well-known staff blogger to write about a client’s news/products?

The tension in all of these posts tends to be between the Social Media Purists vs. the Social Media Marketing Realists.

The Purists don’t even want marketers involved in this Brave New World; they wave their dog-eared copies of the (brilliant & revolutionary) Cluetrain Manifesto and wave us off with suggestions that The Corporations and The People are now empowered to speak to one another directly, thank-you-very-much.

The Realists empathize with this philosophy but also recognize that a) companies are antsy about this Brave New World and appreciate some guidance, and, b) there’s not enough proven ROI for corporations to put all their chips in the “social” basket, i.e., they’re not about to pay a dozen or more Community Managers and toss out all their other marcomm initiatives.

Which brings us back to those Ethical Dilemmas facing the agency with regard to promoting the client in their own channel, i.e., risking their own credibility with their own audiences.

Somewhere in the middle lies the Truth.  I think it is well and proper for The Client to ask The PR Agency if it makes sense for the agency to use their blogs & tweets to promote their news.  The answer really should depend on whether it does, indeed, make sense.

Harking back to Forrester Research’s POST Methodology, if the PEOPLE that the client needs to reach are the same people that the PR pros regularly interact with, then, yes: blog about the client; tweet about the client.  Don’t be obnoxious; be transparent; understand that this could be a slippery slope; but sure, go for it.

But, if 90% of the PR pro’s personal network extends to other PR and Marketing types, then tweeting about a semiconductor client’s newest fab facility enhancements isn’t going to help the client, and will only hurt the PR pro’s longer-term street cred. So don’t.

Ultimately what I am suggesting is that the PR agency be true to the client’s business goals, versus their egos.

Posted on: February 11, 2010 at 7:26 am By Todd Defren
18 Responses to “When Clients Want Coverage in Your Blog: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas”


  • Karthik says:

    Todd: Considering I came to this post from a tweet by Chris Brogan and that he’s also linked to in the first paragraph, how would you consider Chris’ recent post on Hanes? As a loyal Brogan reader, I found his tweets during the Hanes event odd and his detailed write-up pushing Hanes subtly, odder. But, I’m not here to take sides or call it wrong – whatever makes sense to most of his readers is perhaps right.

    Personally, I would sound extremely apologetic before writing about a client, but would also go to great lengths to ensure that I add value to my readers and that the topic is inherently useful in some way to them. If not, as you rightly noted, I’d tweet about them, albeit apologetically again!

    Great post – thanks!

  • RICH BECKER says:


    Great analysis that will help a lot of public relations professionals sort it out. It’s one of the better and thoughtful considerations that may help lead public relations professionals away from the idea of being spokespeople only. Covering clients only works when it is relevant to your readers or the network you serve.


  • Brad says:

    Think about it from a journalist perspective.

    If you found out that your local tech reporter’s five-part series called “The Awesomeness That Is Company X” was written about a company that the reporter owned stock in, wouldn’t you be a little put off by their exuberance?

    I would.

    Even if you let your readers know you are writing about your client, it still seems like you’re just trying to pad your pockets. And though you might not own stock in them, you can definitely benefit from their success.

    That’s my two cents.

    • Todd Defren says:

      In the examples I am discussing, there would be transparency about the relationship.

      • brad says:

        I get that.

        I think you risk credibility, then, if you allow even one post to be devoted to a “paying” customer. Your readers are probably thinking: “Of course Product X is outstanding. The company that makes the product is paying him to write.” I just think it can turn off an audience quickly.

        Of course, if your blog is an extension of a company’s blog, or is directly affiliated with it, then I think it’s acceptable, and maybe even expected.

        Two more cents.

  • Great post an an interesting dilemma that I’ve been wondering about recently. A couple of thoughts -

    First -

    On the blog side – this issue has been hashed out already…over a grueling and contentious year in the Mommyblogsphere.

    There is a Blogger Code of ethics that I was involved in crafting with Ogilvy 360 and that I follow and that has been tackled by a number of other agencies and organizations – especially since the FTC recently voiced their opinion on transparency. It boils down to “if you are getting paid by the company in terms of goods or dollars include that info in the post.” Easy to follow advice.

    On the Twitter/Facebook issue – no a semi conductor product might not be appropriate for a PR/Marketing crowd…but food tends to be applicable to everyone (OK, perhaps my followers aren’t food influencers, but they do eat.) so I am careful when tweeting about my food clients to be clear that they ARE a client.

    I think transparency rules the day in terms of “if”. The bigger challenge is, if your followers, as mine are, include both marketing/PR/SM types AND a generous mix of an important niche consumer market – THEN part of the client’s hiring decision is made based on the fact that you DO have that market – that makes the decision about tweeting/blogging a bit more convoluted and transparency that much more difficult.

  • Todd,

    This is a fantastic series and very interesting to me as a fellow agency PR pro. There aren’t many agency principals who would be as open and transparent about the ethical issues you and your team are facing. Thanks for helping us all learn a few lessons about making tough decisions.

  • Chris Hall says:

    Relevance is huge throughout the niche-ified web. An audience of people who care about social media may not be the best audience for semi-conductor news. Totally agree.

    But if we draw the line with relevance in regards to client news… where do we draw the line with personal projects?

    I only ask because I’ve started to use my personal blog as an outlet for updates on projects I’m working on… They could potentially run the gambit, however, so where do I draw the line? Or does there even need to be a line since it’s my blog?

  • MAri says:

    Thanks for your post. Really haven’t thought about this much before. I somehow just thought its obvious. I have the coolest of clients, I want them to succeed, because their win is my win. Then again, I don’t have such numbers in influence that it would really make a difference one way or the other.

    If one corner stone of social media is sharing, and in any case I share cool peeps info any day just because they are cool and I like their message. Why wouldn’t I do it for my client? Hm. Maybe w/ clients you could put a price tag on it? Or would that be just – i dunno…poor taste? :) What do you think?

    W/ company profiles that might also be a different story, because they are the voice of the whole company. As long as I am the only voice in mine, I can share things that I find cool and exciting. Yes?

    Really looking for the conversation that is starting to happen here. Awesome post – again.

  • Great post and thoughts. It all basically comes down to being transparent up front. And paying attention to your subscribers — if they start to leave or unengage, then it doesn’t matter how transparent you are. I usually tend to go the way of the purist, but I can see how it can benefit both the blogger AND the subscribers if done properly.

  • Janet says:

    “But, if 90% of the PR pro’s personal network extends to other PR and Marketing types, then tweeting about a semiconductor client’s newest fab facility enhancements isn’t going to help the client, and will only hurt the PR pro’s longer-term street cred. So don’t.”


    And if the client news somehow was relevant to my followers, I should still disclose that it’s a client. A little thing like this –> (client) put at the front of a Tweet only takes up 8 characters in a Tweet. There’s no excuse not to make room for it.

  • Mike Maney says:

    Another great, thought-provoking post. Thanks for highlighting the tough questions.

    >>>I think it is well and proper for The Client to ask The PR Agency if it makes sense for the agency to use their blogs & tweets to promote their news. The answer really should depend on whether it does, indeed, make sense.<<<

    What you didn't say, but what should be the rule of thumb: If this was just another reporter/blogger, would you still pitch them?

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