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Sunday 16 January 2011

On Blogger Independence and Disclosure

I've been reading a few articles recently by some of the more established wine writers about the economics of wine writing and blogging; Jamie Goode sagely pointed out that a wine blog is unlikely to become a source of riches in itself (see here), whilst Wine Doctor Chris Kissack  raised the question of bloggers doing it just for the free wine, so to speak (see here).

Chris's article raises an interesting issue of blogger independence and conflicts of interest which looks set to become a hot topic in the near future. I dropped him a note on this but thought it worth expanding my comments here.

1 Conflict of interest

A conflict of interest occurs when one's personal interests come into conflict with one's professional responsibilities. They occur everywhere, such as the insurance broker who receives more commission if he sells you company A's policy vs company B's or the Purchasing Manager who is wined and dined by a large supplier.

So, if an amateur blogger (and most are) writes a post telling you "product x" is great and you must try it, you might feel inclined to give it a go. However, if you learn that the blogger regularly receives free samples from the manufacturer of "product x", you might feel slightly different about the recommendation.

You should certainly question the journalistic integrity and independence of the blogger who recommends something to you without anywhere disclosing the fact that it is received it as a free sample from the producers (or their agent).

A different matter is a journalist paid enough for other writings who does not need to rely on freebies to maintain a lifestyle; but how do you tell? In general, you can't.

Wine Doctor Chris Kissack gives an example of a company offering him £100 worth of wine every month in return for a column on the wines he has chosen, but subject to him putting a specific link into his review in a specific place in the blog.

Clearly there is a conflict of interest for the amateur blogger if she receives product to review and does not indicate that fact anywhere. Agreeing to add in paid-for content (i.e. a link or a specific wording) is just taking it a step even further.

2 Disclosure

If conflicts of interest are best avoided, where they can't be avoided they should at least be disclosed so informed judgements can be made.

Professional service firms such as lawyers and advertisers usually have detailed policies on dealing with conflicts of interest - you can't ethically represent both sides in a dispute just as you can't properly develop advertising strategy for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

However, with proper controls and disclosure in place, you might represent one company in one area and a competitor in another, provided all parties decide that there is no conflict of interest and agree to the arrangement.

The answer here is, as anywhere else, about openness and honesty; the more of both, the better for all involved.

Undisclosed conflicts of interest and a general lack of honesty will eventually bring into disrepute not just the individual blogger, but the producers and their agents who encourage this sort of activity and ultimately, the whole marketing communications industry.

Not good.

In the short term, there will be plenty more morally-slack or just naïve individuals who are happy to put a specific wording and web link into one of their product reviews in order to get their free sample or money-off voucher.

And because blogging is a new medium with no established practice, code of conduct, regulation or even training for most bloggers who are mostly amateurs, it currently holds the same mixture of both lawlessness and opportunity as the wild west (although that is set to change).

Some bloggers, of course, are ex-journalists (or event current journalists moonlighting on another topic) who know the game, play by the established rules and whose blogs are correspondingly professional.

But amateurs, who see blogging as a quick and easy way to a few freebies, may simply not have the experience or nous to recognise when their formerly-independent reviews are being turned into paid-for advertorial by some sharp practice on the part of ambitious and determined marketing types.

For an analogy of what happens when marketing or communications are shown to be disingenuous and overly manipulated, just look at the debate over air-brushing of models in glossy magazines, or the comment by a UK spin doctor that 9/11 was a "good day to bury bad news" (see here).

Having worked variously in commission-based sales, finance and marketing services over the last two decades, I understand disclosure and conflicts of interest pretty well - having had it drummed into me by my professional studies and seen it first hand.

As a result, I like to keep things simple, ethical and open; I have a Blog Principles and Samples Policy.

Like Chris Kissack, I was also recently approached by a company with a request to put certain wording into a review in order to get a money-off voucher. I was not asked to conceal any of the requests made of me, but I decided to decline anyway for other reasons.

When people send me wine for review, I get childishly excited about opening up the package; it feels like Christmas all over again. But ultimately I review the wine based on what's in the bottle and I am never asked to put in specific wording or links - it's all my own, for better or worse.

Moreover, all the producers, agents and retailers I've dealt with so far have been, whilst pleasant and friendly, sufficiently professional not to put me under any pressure at all to say anything specific about the wines I have been sent.

In the end, though, it all comes down to that old chestnut; honesty is the best policy.

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