Is asking for blog comments unethical?

SimonGeneral11 Comments

There’s been a good old blogosphere mini-storm brewing over the past few days around Debbie Weil and an email she sent on behalf of a client (GSK and its blog Alliconnect).

One of the recipients, David Murray, posted his thoughts on the email that he received:

Hi everyone,

This is a shameless request. I’m working with GlaxoSmithKline on the
official corporate blog for alli, the first FDA-approved, OTC weight
loss product. You may have seen the TV ads.

While traffic to the blog is growing, readers seem shy about leaving Comments.

You can help jump start the two-way conversation! Take a peek at the
blog at http://www.alliconnect.com.

If you’re inspired or provoked, leave a comment on any entry. No need
to say that you know me, of course.

It really is kind of neat that a Global 100 company is doing a blog
like this. It’s not easy.

– D

Debbie also posted a similar message on her blog, asking people to check out the new blog and leave a comment if they felt so inclined.

Since then follow-ups from people including Lee Hopkins, Allan Jenkins, Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson have been fairly critical, although Stuart Bruce is a little less outraged by the whole thing. Debbie’s follow-up blog post is also worth reading.

Reflecting on the original email and the subsequent discussion got me thinking about the ethics of this. What was the supposedly unethical bit of this?

It could be seen as mildly unethical I suppose to use professional contacts that you make in your day-to-day business activities to market a client’s blog. But equally if you sent an email to one professional contact in a similar vein, would that be more acceptable? Perhaps the fact that it was a group email, rather than an individual email adds to the feeling of discomfort among the email’s recipients.

Debbie’s follow-up post claims that emailing “friends and colleagues asking them to “take a look” and “leave a comment” on a recent post” is common. I wouldn’t dispute that. But again the ethics seem to start to become more questionable when it’s an email on behalf of a client, rather than on behalf of yourself. Do the financial payments between client and consultant make sending this email unethical, when if it were sent on behalf of yourself it would be less so?

I think the ethical clincher for me is around disclosure. Trust in social media is determined to a fair degree by transparency. You need to know and believe who you’re dealing with for the communication to have any value. That trust is built up over time, and knowing you’re getting “the whole story” through open and honest disclosure is an important way of building that trust.

That’s why the line in Debbie’s email that says “No need to say that you know me, of course.” is probably the bit that sets most ethical alarm bells ringing. I strongly believe that you do need to disclose how you came to be commenting on the blog, as otherwise the conversation that takes place there isn’t as transparent as it should be.

That makes sense as an unethical situation when viewed in isolation. But if you need to disclose how you came to be there to be transparent, why shouldn’t you have to disclose along similar lines when you arrive at the blog by other routes? Now that, by itself, doesn’t seem to make sense, but I’m struggling to rationalise the difference between the two in pure ethical terms.

However in some ways the ethical debate here, while important, actually misses the real point here:

If the blog is struggling to generate conversations with its intended audience, then an email like Debbie’s won’t be a long-term fix.

There could be lots of reasons why people aren’t commenting – it could be that the audience is less inclined to leave comments because they’re not familiar with blogs and posting comments, they could lack confidence in their own voice and words, or the subject matter perhaps doesn’t lend itself to public debate as comfortably as some others.

Looking into the reasons why comments aren’t being made and then addressing the findings would probably be a better way to increase the conversation, rather than pimping for comments in an openly “shameless” way.

I should add that Debbie is a highly-rated blogging consultant, and her Corporate Blogging book is one I’ve read and learnt a lot from, which makes it all the more surprising that she’s caught up in this.

I guess it goes to show the subjectivity of ethics in public relations and how even accomplished operators can sometimes inadvertently get it wrong.

11 Comments on “Is asking for blog comments unethical?”

  1. Debbie Weil

    Simon,

    Thanks for your balanced write-up. On the topic of “questionable ethics” it’s interesting that no one has pointed out that David Murray’s decision to post a private email to him on his public blog – without asking me first – is, well, questionable.Life – and the blogosphere – aren’t always fair, are they?

  2. Simon

    Debbie – thanks for your comment.

    I agree there are some ethics considerations around publishing the original email. I suspect that as different people operate on different moral and ethical codes, then we should assume worst case scenario. For email this means anything we write could be made public without prior permission or even warning, even with your disclaimer / “do not blog” tickboxes.

    And no, the blogosphere’s certainly not always a fair place- which does reflect the world generally.

    My take on this situation, like so many similar debates that happen around subjective areas like ethics, is that as long as the community can learn from this experience then that’s the best outcome that can come from it.

  3. Shel Holtz

    You really thought I was too critical? The point of my post was merely to suggest that there are better ways to build comments on a blog, not to attack Debbie.

    And yes, I find it ironic that David Murray blasted Debbie’s ethics while simultaneoulsy publishing a private email on his blog.

  4. Simon

    Shel – I didn’t say you were too critical 🙂

    Your post was one of the more constructive that I saw in this discussion, with a good analysis and some thoughts on alternative approaches.

    But I got the sense that you were critical of what had been done originally all the same.

  5. Ian Delaney

    Seeding a new discussion forum is pretty common practice and I actually view it as part of the facilitation of the conversation. Existing comments encourage new users to add their own two-penn’orth, and thus accelerates the growth of that forum into a useful resource. If you launch a new website, wouldn’t you email all your friends and ask them to come and have a look? The other alternative is to make a bunch of alternative personae for yourself and add your own comments. I have to confess I have done both of these things for a number of magazine websites in the past. Is it transparent/ethical/etc.? Not entirely, but I’m inclined to be pragmatic about this kind of activity and see the end result – a flourishing community – as a greater good. I am also rather uncomfortable about the way in which the blogosphere views it as perfectly legitimate to make it their business to continually police other people’s decisions.

  6. David Phillips

    Hi everyone,

    This is a shameless request. I’m working with David Phillips on the
    official corporate blog for Marketing, the first management approved, OTC cure for all web 2.0 solutions to the demise of print, radio and TV advertising. You may have seen the TV ads, so you won’t be surprised.

    While traffic to the marketing blogs is growing, readers seem shy about leaving Comments about marketing blurb and bling but are happy to engage with granny Phillips on her blog.

    You can help jump start the two-way conversation! Take a peek at the
    blog at http://www.xxxxx

    If you’re inspired or provoked, leave a comment on any entry. No need
    to say that you know me, of course.

    It really is kind of neat that a Global 1 Million company is doing a blog
    like this. It’s not easy. In fact its close to impossible transferring ad 1.0 to web 1.0 to web 2.0.

  7. David Murray

    I wouldn’t have published a personal e-mail on my blog unless it was on an issue of huge importance and it was the only way to illuminate that issue.

    As I’ve said repeatedly, I do not believe Debbie’s request was an issue of huge importance, and maybe not even a matter of ethics. It was a matter of taste, I thought.

    But her e-mail was not personal. It was a group e-mail, and based on the infrequency of my contact with Debbie and her large network of contacts as a consultant, author and conference speaker, I assumed–and she still hasn’t clarified–it was a LARGE group e-mail.

    To me publishing it was no different from publishing the contents of a targeted mailing or brochure that a consultant sent out.

    If Debbie had approached ME directly and told me why she was approaching ME, I would have likely sent an e-mail back to her explaining my objections.

    But how can an e-mail that begins with “Hi everyone” and doesn’t share who “everyone” is or say why WE’VE been targeted be considered a personal e-mail?

  8. Judy Gombita

    Hey Simon, please let me know if you want to be excluded from *my* group Bcc e-mails in future, because there is no way I am going to display the names/e-mail addresses in that type of message. In fact, I believe Canadian privacy laws would rule against that infraction of ethics. Which is why e-newsletters don’t display the names/e-mail addresses of recipients.

    Of course I only send that type of message to the people I consider like-minded colleagues and friends. Which, from what I gather from Debbie (because I asked her directly), is whom she thought she was sending her request to as well.

    And rumours of it being a “PR Bloggers” outreach campaign are a) fabricated; and b) grossly exaggerated as to the actual numbers. In fact, I don’t think many “PR” bloggers–real ones or self-proclaimed–were on her list….

    Cheers,
    Judy

  9. Simon

    Judy – I’m not sure what you mean about displaying the email addresses. With your mails, I know they’re group emails and personally, yes, I’d ask before blogging the content of one.

    My point is that as the sender of an email you can’t be 100% sure that all your recipients have the same understanding as you (unless you know them extremely well, I guess). That’s why I’d always assume that if you send an email it has the potential for being published.

    Ian – re your point about the blogosphere policing other people’s decisions – isn’t that how most communities without strict rules work, both offline and online?

    However it’s fair to say that issues can become mini-blogosphere storms extremely quickly, and that often overplays the alleged “transgression” that may or may not have happened in the first place.

  10. Judy Gombita

    I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek, Simon. Some of the loudest finger-waggers are outraged that Debbie “concealed” her list (using the Bcc function) and that she has “yet to reveal” to whom she “seeded” that pernicious astroturfing comment request (yes, it’s still firmly planted).

    Me, I’d be more “outraged” if my e-mail address/name had been shown. The way it often is when PR students are sending out group requests to complete surveys, making use of the CPRS member directory to get names/addresses. You can bet I send a return e-mail to the student, as well as to the professor (if known) and/or CPRS administration when it happens, expressing my displeasure at the Bcc function *not* being used.

    Oh, and BTW…I have no idea who else was on the list, other than the assurance that it wasn’t a bunch of “PR bloggers.” It really doesn’t matter to me who else was asked; why other people have their knickers in such a knot about the end recipients is mystifying.

    And you’re right on the other count…if I send *you* something, of course it’s fine to blog about it. Not that I’m likely to send you anything controversial; after all, I haven’t been acquainted with you for very long. (Although so far intuition/impressions are all good.) 😉

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