Is asking for blog comments unethical?

SimonGeneral

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.