Blogger Ethics Questioned Over Microsoft Ad

The recent discovery that Microsoft paid some high-profile Web pundits to talk up how their businesses became "people ready" in an advertisement has stirred quite a bit of controversy and divided the so-called blogosphere.

Some of those involved include individuals who regularly report on Microsoft in a supposedly non-biased format, including Om Malik from GigaOm, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and even Federated Media's own John Battelle, who runs the ad network that deals with many of the sites caught up in the issue.

The allegations also again bring to the forefront a controversial topic within the media today: whether bloggers should be considered journalists, and if they should be held to the same ethical standard as their traditional media counterparts.

"People Ready" is the term that Microsoft has started to use to describe its line of business software products. Apparently, in an effort to promote the concept, the Redmond company turned to ad network Federated Media to create a site.

From there, FM turned to some of its biggest clients who also happened to be writers, offering them pay -- in the form of advertising dollars -- in return for positive comments about the "people ready" concept. Valleywag broke the story on Friday.

The report caused an almost immediate firestorm, with many taking issue over what could be considered a conflict of interest. Some involved attempted to defend their position, while others opted to attempt to distance themselves from the marketing campaign and offered up apologies to readers.

Michael Arrington was one of those involved who defended his actions, and even threatened to leave Federated Media. "I'm now pissed off at every single person involved in this," he said in a post to his Crunchnotes Web log. "Any competing ad networks out there want our business, and promise not to throw us under a bus whenever Valleywag attacks?"

Arrington said that there was nothing that needed to be disclosed, as it was obvious the promotion and his quote within it was an ad.

Others, like Om Malik, backed off quickly. "So without making any excuses, to my readers, if participation in Microsoft's advertising campaign has made you doubt my integrity even for a second, then I apologize," he said.

Malik said he would not likely participate in a similar project again, and asked FM to remove the campaign from his network of sites.

Microsoft Ad

Noted blogger and RSS creator Dave Winer, who wasn't involved in the effort, said that there is a serious conflict of interest issue by participating in this "conversational marketing" concept.

"Next month when we read something positive on these sites about Microsoft, how are we supposed to know if it's an opinion, or just another example of being paid to say something supportive of Microsoft?" he asks.

Another blog advocate, Jeff Jarvis, issued a word of caution to all: "You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do - whatever those boundaries are - that is the very definition of selling out."

Jarvis indicated that on at least two other occasions, he had turned down requests from FM to participate in similar marketing campaigns, even warning the company that it could have negative repercussions for all involved. He also noted that conversational marketing is simply a new form of "advertorial."

The entire dust-up brings to the surface once again a common point of contention among journalists and bloggers: the issue of ethics and standards. Often, journalists complain that bloggers want the same rights, yet will push back when they are held to the same standards.

And the issue isn't limited to technology. Political bloggers also have had to fight legislation that proposed limits on the endorsements of political candidates as a result of receiving money, both at the federal and local level.

While legislation doesn't exist for traditional media, there is a long-standing practice of refusing monetary compensation in return for favorable coverage. Even though some may think otherwise, this boundary is rarely crossed by leading publications.

Doc Searls explains further: "Traditional journalism tries to keep a 'Chinese wall' between editorial and advertising. And, since advertising happens on the publishing side, the wall separates editorial from both publishing and advertising."

"Professionals on either side of the wall might be able to see and hear what the other side is up to; but - at least on the editorial side - they do their best not to influenced by it," he continues, adding that for bloggers, that wall is internal, and readers trust that it isn't being crossed.

Not everybody is jumping on the bashing bandwagon, however. Mary Jo Foley, a journalist who has dealt with Microsoft for almost two decades, seems to suggest that all involved need to take a step back and a few deep breaths.

"Like many Microsoft customers, partners and competitors, I think the whole Microsoft 'People-Ready' campaign is meaningless," Foley told BetaNews. "So it matters little to me who Microsoft gets to 'participate in the conversation' about it. A list bloggers or analysts -- I just don't care about a marketing slogan."

Federated Media owner John Battelle has taken full responsibility for any "damage" the marketing effort had done to anyone involved in it, but defended Microsoft and his company by saying they were trying something new.

"I give the company a lot of credit for trying something new. I know all the folks involved in this campaign, and they are not evil, he argued. "They are not trying to dupe us. They are honestly trying out something new." Some of the bloggers involved placed blame on Federated Media for not properly informing them where and how such quotes would be used.

Battelle would not, however, acknowledge that the whole concept of conversational marketing was a flawed idea, leaving open the possibility that a similar ad campaign could appear on Federated Media's pages in the not too distant future.

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