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Friday, October 20, 2006

Changing policy in the wake of Edelman-gate...Blogging, flogging and disclosure from a freelance writer's perspective...

I blog. Well, I suppose that's obvious. After all, here we are. What I really mean is that I blog for other people, too. As a freelance writer, I have ghostwritten countless blog posts for a variety of business interests. I perform this service on a work-for-hire basis, defaulting all rights to the purchaser and demanding no byline. My customers generally post the entries as if they did the writing.

I've considered the ethics of ghostwriting on many occasions and have decided that in most cases, I don't have a problem with that arrangement on an ethical level. The Edelman controversy involving so-called "flogs," or fake blogs, has me rethinking my position.

For those who haven't been following Edelman-gate, here's a super-brief synopsis. Edelman is a highly regarded PR firm who counts Wal-Mart as part of its client roster. Edelman was behind the production of a blog ostensibly written by a couple of people who were touring the U.S. via RV and who were parking in Wal-Mart lots overnight. The blog centered upon their interactions with people shopping and working at Wal-Mart. It had a decidedly pro-Wal-Mart spin.

The blog in question, however, never revealed the Edelman/Wal-Mart link. The posts were written as if they were completely straightforward, honest observations by a couple who had hit the highways and byways of the good ol' USA and who discovered a lot of good things about Wal-Mart along the way.

Eventually, people learned that this seemingly honest account of a cross-country expedition that was patting Wal-Mart on the back for all the right reasons was actually underwritten by the PR company. It wasn't blogging. It wasn't news. It was marketing and it was done covertly.

Edelman apologized for the blog and for its failure to be forthright. Some people wondered why the apology seemed a little slow and a bit tepid. As it turns out, it's because the same people are also running two other pro-Wal-Mart blogs that are actually infomercials in disguise, including one that takes on the store's critics.

I'm not alone in feeling a bit disgusted over the whole thing. That's not just because of the blogs, I guess, but also because Richard Edelman and his company are usually exemplars of how to do PR online and because of their embrace of the WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) Code.

Were the Edelman actions misleading? Certainly. Does this invalidate paid blogging without full disclosure? That's a tougher question. Even tougher is the next question in the sequence... If there is an ethical problem with paid blogging absent disclosure of the arrangement, does it follow that all forms of pure ghostwriting are just as sleazy?

Here's where I sit right now: I am still a ghostwriting advocate. I don't think there is anything creepy or wrong about the practice under most circumstances. However, I do believe that there are circumstances where the use of uncredited material can be wrong.

If you hire me to write a series of blog posts detailing my love of drive-through tacos and you pay me to go to a series of Taco Palaces and to write stellar reviews of their awesome offerings, I think you owe it to your readership to let them know that my taco quest is part of our business relationship--especially if you have an interest in the success of Taco Palace.

If you hire me to write a series of posts reviewing various clock radios and don't really give a hoot which ones I love and which ones fail to wake me up in the morning, I think there is a different dynamic at play. Although your clock radio site may be a for-profit venture, I wouldn't be uncomfortable with the idea that there was no ghost disclosure because the materials were not strictly editorially controlled and because their primary purpose was informational.

This is, obviously, a very fine line. The distinction may not be all that meaningful. I might just be rationalizing in the face of my own disgust over the paid Wal-Mart blogs and how they may have duped thousands of readers. I don't know.

In my mind, though, there is a difference between ghostwriting projects that are used in a misleading fashion and those that simply fail to carry the name of the actual author.

Now, I could play dumb and say, "I just write stuff. How people use it is their own business." That's a comforting idea, on some level, but it's disingenuous. I do know and understand what people are buying from me and how they plan on using it. In fact, that understanding is one of the reason people come to Content Done Better for their written materials. I think that denial on my part would be intellectually dishonest and probably creepier in an ethical sense than anything Edelman did.

So, while I sort this all out and try to establish standards by which to judge these matters, I am altering my policy with respect to freelance blog writing and, for that matter, all freelance content projects. If I have reason to believe the material will be used in an intentionally deceitful manner, ala Edelman, I am going to insist (as a precondition to doing the work) that the buyer provide reasonable disclosure on-site. That precondition may not be enforceable. It may cost me some business, too.

Based on how I feel about the Wal-Mart flogs, however, I think it's probably necessary.