Ethics and the $500 Gift Card

chris_broganSuper-blogger Chris Brogan has been embroiled in a debate over paid blogging that raises important issues about not just blogger credibility but the changing mechanics of trust in a democratized media world.

A recap: Brogan was one of a handful of bloggers targeted by Kmart in an unusual holiday promotion. The bloggers were each sent a $500 gift card to spend at Kmart with the request that they write about their experiences.  They were also asked to invite their readers to enter a contest to win a comparable giveaway.

Brogan did as asked. He was favorably surprised by the changes he found. However, he also identifed some shortcomings, such as messy shelves and limited selection, that he commented upon.  He disclosed prominently that this was a paid promotion.

Disclosure apparently wasn’t enough for some critics, who charged Brogan with selling his credibility for a gift card.  A vigorous discussion on Twitter debated the ethics of his decision to accept the incentive and of Kmart and partner Izea to stage it.  Brogan posted a detailed and thoughtful defense over the weekend, and prominent bloggers like Jeremiah Owyang have acknowledged that this is hardly a black-and-white case.

They’re right about that.  This case is about nothing less than the challenge of determining credibility in the media world that is being ripped apart at the seams.  For many years, we’ve had the luxury of taking for granted that media organizations could fund consumer advocacy reporters to act in our interests.  With the ongoing crisis in print media now spreading into the broadcast world, it’s clear that this kind of reporting will begin to fade.  It will be up to the emerging class of new influencers to figure out the rules.

In mainstream media, the standards were clear, at least in the US. Organizations like the American Society of Magazine Editors maintain suggested ethical guidelines that are broadly observed. However, there are no governing standards organizations or regulations, and professional journalists have to make their own choices about what is right. These decisions often enter a gray zone.

During my days in mainstream media, offers constantly came in from vendors and economic development organizations that exceeded in value our $25 or $50 limit on gifts. It was rarely a simple decision whether to accept these offers. For example, I once returned a lavish food basket sent to me as a congratulatory gift by a leading software company. My benefactors were so offended by my action that they never treated me the same way again.  It would have been better for everyone if I had simply accepted the gift and distributed it around the office. That’s a case where doing the ethical thing didn’t really help anyone.

Of even bigger concern were the trips.  Government economic development agencies frequently dangled all-expense-paid tours of their countries as an incentive to generate coverage.  I only went on one of these excursions — back in 1984 — and it was clear that I was no less virtuous than my competitors, who also came out in force (in reality, the trip was rather grueling and not much fun).

To compound this complexity, different cultures have different rules. For example, European media organizations had few ethical problems with these junkets.  In fact, vendor marketers have told me in the past that the only way to convince European journalists to cover their events was to pay all expenses. I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Making it Up

There are no broadly accepted standards in the blogosphere, so the community is making them up as they go along.  For the most part, it’s doing a fantastic job.  In fact, the debate over the Brogan incident testifies to the high ethical standards that bloggers are embracing. Mainstream media could learn from this.

It’s important that this debate be heard, because the collapse of our media institutions will increasingly leave influence in the hands of individuals whose biases and motivations are unknown.  I know Chris Brogan personally, and his integrity is beyond question.  In fact, I’d argue that someone in his position can’t afford to be anything but genuine.  He has one of the largest followings of any blogger on earth, and it would be foolhardy for him to violate the trust they place in him for a few hundred dollars’ worth of graft.

But for less prominent bloggers, the distinctions aren’t so clear.  With media institutions crumbling, the onus is shifting to the consumer to exercise healthy suspicion about their information sources.  They must increasingly put their trust in people, not institutions, and this makes things more complex.

Track Records

In my view, the two most important criteria for judging credibility are track record and disclosure.  A respected blogger is no less a brand than a respected media institution. In both cases, I give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has demonstrated over time that her word can be trusted.

Disclosure is the baseline for credibility.  Anyone who attempts to influence opinion without disclosing potential conflicts of interest is doing a disservice to himself and his community.  Had Brogan not disclosed prominently his financial relationship with Kmart, it would have cost him some of my trust.  The fact that he did so, combined with his track record, gives me complete faith in the integrity of his opinions.

Businesses will increasingly use creative incentives in the future to gain the visibility they are losing with the decline of mainstream media.  We’re out of our comfort zone and we will have to invent new standards of accountability.  Perhaps an organization will come up with a rating system of some kind, but I think it’s more likely that we will figure these things out communally.  Word-of-mouth has a remarkable power to identify credible sources.

Chris Brogan deserves our thanks for taking the heat and for responding so constructively.  His critics deserve our thanks for raising the issue in the first place.

6 thoughts on “Ethics and the $500 Gift Card

  1. Paul, there are a couple of things that bother me about the Chris Brogan / Kmart blog post that haven’t been addressed yet, or if they have, they’re buried somewhere in the hundreds of comments already made across the blogosphere.

    First, Brogan’s insistence that he’s not a journalist: “I’m not a journalist. But I am a publisher. I am a reporter. I am a media maker. And here’s the difference: as a publisher, I have all the jobs of the newspaper. I am both the editorial staff and also the business side of the house.” Whether Brogan thinks he’s a journalist or not is moot. As an influential blogger (influencer), he becomes a journalist by default. Bloggers ARE journalists now, whether they want to be or not. Just because he’s doing several jobs doesn’t mean he should get a free pass on the ethics claim.

    Second, he argues that because he was extremely transparent about his post being a “sponsored post”, that it was OK for him to do it. I don’t buy this argument completely, either, because of the location of the “sponsored post”. Advertorials and other “paid advertisements” that appear in a magazine or newspaper do not appear on the front page (or, at least not yet). On a Web site, the “paid content” appears on the side, as do the advertisements (another argument made by pro-Brogan supporters was the fact that newspapers/blogs/Web sites accept ads on their page). The Kmart blog post in question was placed as a “blog entry”, which to most people is the “editorial area” of a Web site. If Brogan really was worried about his editorial integrity for the Dad-o-matic site, he would have placed the sponsored post somewhere else on the site, away from the “editorial” side.

    Third, Brogan revealed in his blog post about the controversy that he is on the advisory board for Izea, the company that sponsored the Kmart promotion. That alone should have raised some red flags about the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the post.

    All of the other issues being raised seem like smoke signals to me. The bottom line is that a company gave a high-profile blogger $500 in order for coverage. That alone has me questioning the trust-worthiness of the post in question, full disclosure or not.

  2. What concerns me are the millions of old and new online users who may not have a background in journalism and media ethics, and may easily confuse what Chris Brogan does on his blog with what The New York Times puts out daily.

    Despite his disclosure, for me, Chris Brogan did three things that turned me off: 1) He played against his own type; 2) He blurred the lines between journalist and blogger and said it was okay because the economy was bad; and 3) He made me wonder…

    I think Chris is smart. I think he knows his stuff. It’s why I followed him for so long. But this made me turn my head. And that I didn’t like.

  3. If the purpose were to evaluate KMart, this would be highly questionable. Journalists I respect (and read regularly) such as Walt Mossberg and Steve Wildstrom don’t accept free merchandise. Their sponsoring publications pay for the products. I hope I’m not being is assuming their articles are unbiased.

    Bloggers such as Chris don’t have deep pocket sponsors. Nor I don’t look to Chris for dispassionate commentary on KMart. Given that he did blog about KMart however, it seems he could have written the post without having accepted the card or having to spend any significant amount if he chose to accept KMart as a topic. In sum, I’d have preferred he not accept the gift card. Still Chris has valuable insight into social media much else and I’ll keep reading him.

  4. Track record and disclosure – probably the two most important words in your post.

    I haven’t had the pleasure to know Chris personally but I have learned from all the blogs, twebinars, webinars, tweets, and all the other free resources of information he’s provided.

    When I first read the article my immediate thought was… huh, I wonder who the got to participate in the $500 gift card sponsored blog. When I saw Chris’s name, I immediately thought – ohh okay, makes sense (as if his participation validated K-marts efforts).

    The dangerous question I’ll ask is this – if any other blogger (low-profile-whatever) took part in this sponsored event, would our reaction have been as strong. Would it matter? Would that blogger’s reputation be in question?

    Going back to track record and disclosure – there were no magic mirrors or smoke here. Whether we like what he did or not – to me is a personal decision. Lets be sure we don’t translate those decisions into judgments.

  5. What Chris has done is really part of a larger picture. That the “old guard” is offended by it makes me kinda giggle. I became a part of the newspaperin’ community back in the mid-90s, a time when most of us were starting to see the writing on the wall. That is to say, the business was dying. So few of my former colleagues are still in the business today because of all the layoffs and scaling back on the part of the publications.
    All of this being said, what type of compensation should a blogger expect to receive for the work he or she does? Seriously, while you’re out there being offended by Brogan’s actions, I have to wonder what he actually did that was so egregious. He told everybody that he was being paid by Kmart and that should be enough to satisfy those who wondered about his “ethics.” I believe, after reading his review, that his report was honest and that he didn’t mislead anybody. This is a new world folks, where many of us have to figure out ways to make a buck and since Chris is a good blogger and corporations have sought him out for reviews, I can honestly see nothing wrong with his actions. All of you “holier than thou” critics should also realize that the $500 he received won’t go very far in today’s world, especially with a 6-year-old daughter to support.

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