Avoid ethical issues by simply asking your audience for input

There will always be people who view the relationship between PR professionals (and the clients they represent) and journalists (and now, increasingly, bloggers) with great scorn.

There will always be people who view the relationship between PR professionals (and the clients they represent) and journalists (and now, increasingly, bloggers) with great scorn.

In the past, it was easy to think of fattened journalists, swilling wine with the good swells at Product Company X or Destination Y, colluding to foist marketing messages on the hapless public. That is because, in the past, there was not the pressure on transparency that there is now.

Most media organizations have long had pretty stringent policies regarding review loaners and gifts. Not that journalists have always adhered to that general ethical boundary; witness the kerfuffle over a recently admitted $1,000 gift restaurateur Nello Balan gave Richard Johnson of the New York Post back in 1997.

While traditional media relations scrutiny still exists, there is more of a focus on blog relations chicanery. Now that every person with a computer and a software program is a potential muckraker, any disgruntled stakeholder is a potential leaker, and everyone can sharpen their incisors to effect maximum damage on a company's reputation, it is increasingly easy to catch a marketer who traffics in deception. And, frankly, this is a good thing.

The public feels marketers must constantly be kept on their toes. It is only then that marketing, especially PR, remains credible. One easy way to ensure that credibility is to get more transparent about their marketing campaigns, especially when it involves editorial loans.

But with blogs and bloggers, there are more gray areas on issues than there are certainties. With no governing body and not much of a collective agreement among blogs, issues that remain up for discussion include what can be supplied, how long, whether the blogger can purchase the product, at what cost, with what disclosure, and at what promises.

MWW Groups' recent Nikon campaign, where the agency asked 50 bloggers if they wanted to receive an editorial camera, tackled all of those issues. While there may be disagreement among some of those decisions (a six-month trial period, for one), it would be false to claim that MWW did not do a good job in disclosing its policies in a clear and open manner.

Anyone who has followed the campaign knows specifically that bloggers were told to disclose their participation in the program, that they had to purchase the camera (at an editorial discount) if they wanted to keep it, and that they were not required to write anything, even if they did accept the camera.

The important takeaway from MWW's campaign is not any of those individual points, but the fact that the agency solicited advice from bloggers before it even launched the campaign, and it continued to ask for - and monitor - feedback on how to make sure the work was, yes, effective, and also something the community respected.

Agencies have been burned (or have self-immolated) too many times to not ask the community they're marketing to for advice. Campaigns are less likely to be singed if their creators ask where the fires are.

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