Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Guest column: The lack of transparency among leading PR bloggers is a problem

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 17, 2006

By Daniel Bernstein

Transparent-PR.jpgIndividuals are blogging in every profession, but one profession where citizen journalism seems to have caught on like warm cookies is Public Relations.

Maybe the popularity of the PR blogger isn’t that surprising to most people. For many of us, leaping to bloggerdom is a rather small leap because of the skills we share with journalists, like writing ability, basic smarts, wit, etc. I mean, scores of individual PR professionals blog regularly, most notably Edelman’s Steve Rubel, but there are many others, from fellow PR neophyte Blake Barbera of Horn Group to industry luminaries like Next Fifteen’s Tim Dyson and Richard Edelman. It also shouldn’t be surprising then that we, like many journalists, could become big-time influencers, especially given the profile and reputation of Dyson, Rubel, Edelman and the like.

I’ve been taught from a very young age to be skeptical of those influencing me...

To counteract this expected reaction from his readers, Rubel cheekily maintains a “Shameless Promotion” section of his website, tagging blogs related to things that money is motivating him to do or say.

In this same sort of ethical vein, my employer’s blog (Bite Communications) counteracts this skepticism by linking directly to our company website that proudly lists Bite’s clients (not in stealth).

Edelman, admirably large and independent, does not list their clients despite touting its Me2 Revolution. Hill & Knowlton also blogs, but similarly doesn’t name their clients. Most agencies, especially the large ones, keep this from the public eye. I think it’s a problem.

One of the conversations that comes up again and again in the blogosphere is the issue of transparency. Tom Foremski and I batted it around for a few hours last week over drinks at Solstice in San Francisco. He wrote some great things about it a few days later in a post titled “Transparency chatter is a current fashion.” I’ve never been involved in a current fashion in my entire life, so it’s flattering to be finally part of one. Tom wrote:

Media organizations/blogs are already very transparent. You can see who is advertising and you know who the blogger works for. Thus when Robert Scoble blogs about MSFT, the monetary connection is transparent yet it doesn't detract from his passion or his views.

I appreciate what Tom is saying here, but how can we consider a blogger “very transparent” if he or she is not being forthcoming about who is paying the bills? (Bloggers like Robert Scoble and Bob Lutz are an exception to this, of course.)

The emphasis on a blogger’s transparency, authenticity and disclosure is far from being new; thesis 39 of the The Cluetrain Manifesto states, “The community of discourse is the market.”

That being said, as a skeptical consumer of news and information, I’m literally fearful of individuals producing supposedly unbiased content that are also “on the take.” Tell me, am I being too paranoid, or is this new type of media organization demanding an entirely different brand of critical analysis?

A-list bloggers have already begun developing some best practices to help mitigate these conflicts. Rubel’s Shameless Promotions tag is an example; John Battelle provides another.

In January, Battelle blogged about a newly-forged partnership between his company FM and Norway’s FAST Search & Transfer, a deal that included Battelle’s (paid) speaking engagement at FAST’s February user conference. In the same entry, Battelle wrote, “…it's my policy to disclose any dealings I might have with companies in Searchblog's space. They are few and far between, and if they do happen, they happen because I personally believe in the quality of the company I'm working with, and on the condition that I disclose them here.”

Battelle overtly puts his reputation on the line for each company he endorses (for better or for worse), and I respect that, but he still stops short of providing a simple list of the companies boosting his bank account. I’m not saying this will fix the problem – it does solve more problems than it creates.

Some agencies will argue that certain client engagements demand absolute confidentiality and cannot be disclosed. (This sounds extremely shady, but many startups operate in stealth mode while they refine their product offerings or messaging.)

What if agencies approached an NDA-bound PRSA standards body to assess clients potentially “immune to disclosure” on a case-by-case basis? That might makes things easier. I mean, there must be exceptions to every rule.

PR professionals are familiar with these dilemmas because we’re faced with issues of transparency every day, even for clients we list on our websites. Esteemed documentary filmmaker Kent Bye raised a similar debate a few days ago on Rubel’s Micro Persuasion.

Bye questioned the role of “public interest…within the job description of a PR professional,” and admitted that while he shares Rubel’s “optimism that transparency and authenticity will help keep corporations honest,” he wonders how PR professionals can balance the forces of public good with “tactics that PR professionals use that are designed to deflect and downplay legitimate criticism of their client's behavior - even it is harming the public interest.”

Bye’s points are valid. PR bloggers push for a feeling of greater transparency, but we are also bound by the tenets of our profession to not practice it fully. This issue goes far beyond whether or not to list clients on your website and relates more to the relationship between people and companies.

As gatekeepers of information, we understand this conflict better than most. We understand that all information should not be publicized and all questions cannot be answered. We understand that our clients (for a variety of reasons) are hard pressed to disclose, admit and discuss their vulnerabilities.

Edelman’s work with Wal-Mart raises this question again, but it’s already played out in the blogosphere (a little over a week after it occurred!). In my opinion, if the Wal-Mart episode teaches us anything, it’s that PR professionals, like others who are self-publishing, now hold a bigger stake in the discussion.

I think we’re also beginning to see that our industry will be held to a “do-or-die” standard of ethics. The onus is on us, as a community and profession, to make sure we don’t squander this opportunity by perpetuating the shadowy business tactics that have typified the darker side of our industry.

Is the first step creating a PR industry standard compelling agencies to disclose clients? I tend to think so. Who knows? Maybe in five years we’ll be publicly filing communications strategies like 10Ks or court briefs. Wouldn’t THAT be civilized!

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