When earned media becomes paid-for

Am I the only one who feels extremely uneasy and uncomfortable about this whole paying bloggers debate?

Am I the only one who feels extremely uneasy and uncomfortable about this whole paying bloggers debate?

The issue came into the news again this week when a judge ordered Google and Oracle to reveal blogger payments surrounding a copyright infringement case between the two companies earlier this year. The implication here is that bloggers are not disclosing such payments.

There is no doubt that bloggers have evolved into an incredibly important group of stakeholders in all sorts of content areas. In New York City last week, a staggering 5,000 female bloggers converged on the annual BlogHer conference.

But if a brand or an agency is paying these bloggers to write about brands, that has gone way beyond PR's traditional territory of earned media into the paid media environment – or, as it is also known, advertising. That's an area that is fraught with danger in my opinion.

When PRWeek did a ring-round of PR agencies earlier this week it revealed differing attitudes to blogger payments, but the overarching philosophy seemed to be that it is OK to pay bloggers as long as such payments are disclosed. They emphasize transparency, ethics, editorial value, and building relationships but, at the end of the day, they're paying bloggers to write about their brands.

Cohn & Wolfe analyzed mom bloggers in the lead-up to BlogHer's event. The agency's Brooke Hovey this week presented some top-line highlights of this research in a – what else – blog for PRWeek (disclosure, Brooke was not paid for this blog.)

Her research showed that brands such as Sauza and Disney were among the most talked about because they were conducting blogger promotions. But only 4 percent of posts were sponsored, which either means the practice is not widespread or that it is not being openly disclosed. Half of the blogs surveyed did, however, post a policy on disclosure of product and payment from brands.

It set me to wondering what the difference is between paying bloggers for coverage and paying “expenses” to journalists in China, an activity about which everyone in the West – quite rightly – gets very exercised and judgmental.

To be honest, the analysis left me feeling pretty good about being a good old-fashioned journalist, where the rules are straight about promotion: you just don't do it. At The New York Times you can't even accept a free lunch from a contact. And the AP sets a limit of $10 on the size of any benefit received by a journalist.

So while the lines between editorial and commercial may be blurring increasingly in mainstream media, there is still a lot of clear water between that and the pay-for-play environment the blogging world seems to be embracing.

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