Aug 6 2007
Thanks to Toby Bloomberg for helping me refine this entry on a very thorny topic…
Astroturfing is a slang term for false PR or fake social media in the blogosphere. No PR or marketing person wants to be dubbed an astroturfer. Wikipedia (not normally a great source) dubs astroturfing as, “formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior.”
Compared to this definition, astroturfing in the blogosphere can be considered three shades slimier. Much of the ethical bantering in the marketing and PR blogosphere tends to revolve around astroturfing or corporate social media-related incidents. And these incidents tend to have a mushroom cloud hovering above them.
Consider these most recent “blogodramas:”
Yet, while we discuss these ethical issues in serious fashion (because how our profession conducts itself professionally in the blogosphere matters to us) no one on the outside world really seems to care. On a recent trip to Canada, I asked twenty people about their opinion on these matters… No one — not one — had heard a thing about any of these three blogodramas.
For all intents and purposes these matters may as well have happened on the Dark Side of the Moon. But these discussions are important. Why? Because like it or not, professional social media initiatives are here to stay. As social media matures, it’s up to us to encourage ethical behavior.
The New Moon Walkers: Corporate America
Blogodramas invariably involve corporations or consultants helping corporations (e.g. Edelman & Walmart). As corporations have finally recognized the need to engage in social media, we are seeing more business efforts in the blogosphere… the next wave in blogging. By their very nature one must wonder if any corporate driven social media initiative can avoid the term “astroturfing,” because in the end they are truly funded marketing campaigns. Does this mean we are all astroturfers from an ethical perspective?
I don’t profess to have the answers. Astroturfing is a very subjective label, and in my mind it comes down to transparency and honesty… When an initiative is caught red-handed misrepresenting the situation it’s astroturfing. When something is honestly and factually presented, then it’s just corporate social media. To slam these initiatives as “false” and unethical would be a misappropriation of angst towards corporate America (a very serious issue in its own right).
Most of the dominant blogging ethos seems to be centered on the first generation of blogging and social media initiatives, primarily those created by individuals. These ethics are demanding, yet principled, forcing honesty, transparent and value-driven communications from corporations.
First generation blogging ethics are increasingly challenged by the overwhelming new wave of corporate social media initiatives. Ike Piggot wrote an excellent discussion of this fine line, and provided an interesting graph which demonstrates the blurred world of corporate social media. Companies that seem to play by the rules tend to be embraced by the community. They have successfully bridged into social media PR.
But then there are the mistakes or flat-out dishonest initiatives (Whole Foods). And mistakes usually involve breaches of transparency or false advocacy, turning corporate social media initiatives into astroturf or paid-for review/advertising. Enter blogodramas.
Unfortunately, mistakes turn into punishing criticisms that are blown into villifying moments. Ragan Communications Journalist David Murray’s criticism of Debbie Weil’s alli blog comment request was the perfect example (disclosure: I commented as a favor to Debbie).
In my opinion, Debbie’s request was meant to help her client, not meant to deceive alli blog readers, but to encourage them. Was it a mistake? Yes, it probably was. But I didn’t catch it either.
Was it worthy of the kind of intense public blogodrama Debbie received? Absolutely not, nor should it be considered astroturfing. She was flat out forthright about what she was trying to achieve. Some of the criticisms crossed the line, calling Debbie a “Social Media Profiteer.” Frankly, Debbie’s done more to help companies embrace social media the right way than most. A little slack is in order. Unfortunately, her success has probably made her a target.
Hypothetically speaking, could one go so far to say that Shel Isreal’s public disclosure of SAP’s best practices is yet another example of social media astroturfing? No. Shel’s probably the most forthright, transparent marketing mind out there. Yes, SAP is getting great exposure as a social media leader on one of the Naked Conversations co-author blogs. But in my opinion, Shel’s doing us all a significant public service by sharing this great information. More marketers should share case studies and best practices.
All in all, it’s just frightening how an undefined and evolving code of ethics seems to whiplash so quickly out here on the “dark side of the moon.” In fact, it’s surreal sometimes. The only defense seems to be a brutal sense of honesty/transparency, a listening approach to negative feedback, and then a quick admission of error with a prompt amends — in justified situations. Even then an honest mistake can blow up.
Consider Jenifer Laycock’s experience with BentoBox. She says, “The bad news is, no matter how carefully you tread, no matter how genuine your involvement is, you may find yourself getting slammed by the very audience you are trying to reach.” Jennifer’s post has some great tips on how to weather blogodramas.
Blogosphere ethics are fluid and evolving. The reality is that we must do our very best by centering on principles rather outcomes. One can only hope we will be held to a human standard. When our best is not enough, we just have to roll with it and adapt to the correct ethics.
My company’s approach to social media PR services are open, honest and transparent. Whenever we speak or do something for a client, we insist on disclosing ourselves as a supporting PR firm. Further, we push our clients hard to deliver content and activity that centers around participation and creating value for readers, not selling junk. Using Ike’s chart, I believe we to fall into the realm of social media PR.
At the same time, we do not claim to be zen masters of ethics. We simply try to do the next right thing. In this environment, it’s fair to say that our services will likely evolve to meet the changing world of social media ethics.