Thursday, March 12, 2009

PR & Paid Blogger Coverage: A Necessary Evil?

I was reading a post on David Mullen's blog , which I would recommend you subscribe to if you don't already, and he brought up the controversial topic of PR Spam. It got me thinking about another controversial topic among PR pros in the blogosphere that has received significant coverage as of late - paid blogger coverage.

Merely mentioning paid media placement is considered blasphemy to many seasoned PR pros. But, as the industry continues to evolve so do its tactics. Although the practice of paying bloggers for media coverage is far from gaining widespread acceptance, agencies and in-house departments are increasingly using this tactic (see article).

The face of public relations has changed dramatically in the past decade. With the emergence of social media and the current state of the economy, PR has been forced to adapt and find new ways to reach stakeholders. For the most part these changes have benefited the industry. The expansion of Web 2.0 continues to amaze me and there seems to be no end in sight. PR pros have so many new ways to reach their audiences it is overwhelming at times.

When I think about the new face of PR a quote from Spider-Man comes to mind, "With great power comes great responsibility." It may just be a comic book - and the most successful trilogy of all time - but there is a lot to be taken from that quote. Public relations professionals have these new tools that put audiences at their fingertips.

Still, along with this new-found power comes a new code of ethics that seems to have no centralized consensus. Is it ethical to pay bloggers for coverage? That really isn't up to me to decide. I know that PR agencies have historically resisted the temptation of compensation techniques. I'm not saying it never happened, but it has certainly never been considered an industry standard and no one is talking about it around the water cooler.

Nevertheless, more companies are contemplating sponsored blog posts as an additional way to reach new audiences. Will this eventually become a staple in PR services? I don't know. I do know that PR has problems with its reputation and image already. For professional storytellers and strategic communicators, we have failed to practice what we preach in regards to communicating PR's relevancy and role in business strategies.

Gaining consumer confidence with credibility is essential to the function of PR. Third-party endorsements are what makes that credibility possible. But if people know that the third-party is in some one's pocket, all that credibility goes out the window. The concept of "earned" placement versus "paid" placement is what separates PR from other marketing functions. Sure marketing is becoming increasingly more integrated, but if the lines blur too much we could find ourselves in the midst of a major identity crisis.

Many feel that paid media placement, in general, has no place in PR. Then there are those who feel it is a viable way to deliver messages. But what constitutes "paid" placement? Where do we draw he line? PR pros have been distributing products to journalist specifically for coverage for years. Is that "paid" placement? Again, not for me to decide. I am simply hoping to encourage lively discussions.

I understand that most of these sponsored blogs ensure full payment disclosure. I am not complaining about the deceitfulness of paid coverage. It is the appropriateness I wish to discuss. What are the consequences? Does PR want to be associated with the "pay to play" concept? Where will the line be drawn? Give an inch and they will take a mile.

In other words, once bloggers get paid for coverage they may expect repeat business. Izea, a social media marketing company counted about 250,000 participating bloggers in its network willing to do "paid" coverage, reports PRWeek. Paying for placement is a slippery slope. It could lead to the extinction of "voluntary" blogger endorsements.

I may be getting carried away and exaggerating a bit, but there is potential for widespread panic. Blogger-payment programs could become just another outreach tool at PR's disposal. As long as relationships are disclosed there is no harm, right? Depending on who you ask, you could stir up some passionate responses.

Kmart, a subsidiary of Sears Holdings, gave six bloggers $500 gift cards last year to participate in shopping sprees and blog about their experiences. Afterward, the company implemented a contest for a community member from each of the blogs to win a gift card in the same amount. Paid placement? Or innovative and well-executed promotion?

That is just one example of the ambiguous nature of this controversial topic. Paid blogger coverage could also be compared to arranging product placement on a TV show. So again I reiterate the enigmatic nature of paid media placement. Paying bloggers for placement seems to coincide more with advertising tactics, but that is just my opinion.

What is your opinion? I know you have one. Feel free to comment and share your insights, experiences, thoughts, etc.

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