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News Flash: Paying for Coverage Is Still "Taboo"

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Today on the CrunchGear Live Podcast

funny-pictures-cat-offers-you-money-to-stay-quiet2Here’s a tip: If your business is so polarizing that you have to change your name the mere passage of time doesn’t suddenly make it all mom-and-apple-pie. In the last few months I have gotten the same pitch from PayPerPost (now called Izea) all sent from different names. My favorite part is this:

“…while compensating bloggers was considered taboo a few years ago, there has been a paradigm shift in thinking over the last year…”

Really? Yeah, I guess that whole Google resetting the page rank of PayPerPost bloggers was all the way back in November 2007. I must have slipped into a coma and missed the “paradigm shift” since.

Each time I’ve gotten this email, I have written back something like, “I’m sorry, I still consider paying for coverage incredibly controversial and, for a reporter, unethical. Can you explain to me what has changed about this issue?” No response. Month or so passes, then I get the same email. I honestly don’t know if the emails are being sent to me for press consideration or as a nudge that I should sign up, because it’s just obliquely titled “suggestion” in the subject line.

So, let me address this publicly, to save the time of future Izea employees cutting and pasting the email and sending it to me again: There is no time during my life on planet earth or beyond that I will *ever* consider accepting payment for coverage. There is no circumstance or situation where I will respect a journalist who does, especially if the details of that conflict aren’t clearly disclosed. P.E.R.I.O.D.

The release backs up this assertion that it’s no longer taboo by touting Forrester Research as endorsing “compensated conversation” as a great addition to your PR and marketing strategy. The great test case? Kmart. Wow. I wouldn’t consider trading in my credibility for, say, a lifetime shopping spree at Bloomingdale’s, but it’s definitely not worth talking up the latest blue-light-specials. What’s more, I wonder how they’re measuring that “success” as I haven’t been hearing any great Kmart buzz of late…

I’ve always had massive respect for former Forrester analyst Charlene Li and current analyst Jeremiah Owyang and was shocked that the firm would endorse this. So I sent a note to  Owyang who quickly sought to put it in context and with good reason. According to Sean Corcoran, who authored the research note, Forrester said that this could work and could be OK, but with strict parameters including full disclosure of the items or services being received for free, and encouraging the bloggers to be negative if they had a negative experience. At no time, did Forrester suggest that it was no longer controversial and said that journalist-bloggers should never be considered in the “compensated conversation” mix. “We write for marketers and, like it or not, this isn’t going away,” Corcoran said. “Companies were thoroughly confused, and we want to show them how to do it the right way.”

Ok, fair enough. Reviewers are frequently sent free items with the understanding that they’ll write whatever they think. They also usually have to send the item back. I’d argue there’s a world of difference between that and cash payment that’s disclosed on another page of the blog.

Interestingly, Owyang tipped TechCrunch to the company in the first post we ever wrote on them saying he had “grave concerns” but that founder Ted Murphy was not “the devil.” More interesting, the post he wrote about it at the time, is no longer available on his site. He says he never pulls any post, and that it’s an old blog and a Web hosting problem. (I believe him.) He also notes that he wrote that in the early PayPerPost days when it was an undeniably shadier service with no disclosure rules.

As is clear from Forrester’s careful clarification, the problem with the thinking here– well, one of them– is that it lumps “bloggers” into one category. In reality, blogging is a tool that lots of professionals use, not really one profession. There are bloggers– like the ones at TechCrunch– who are independent journalists and then there are bloggers like Owyang who write about the industry and have smart things to say, but also get paid by clients. Then there are corporate bloggers or in-house employees who write about their companies’ news. It’s basically a more conversational press release and there’s nothing wrong with it, because you go to it realizing the company is going to put itself in the best light.

In each case these are professionals using a conversational tool to get across a given message. As long as we get what they do for a living, there’s no harm or foul. I appreciate the insight of an analyst, and more openness from reading blog posts written by companies like Google or Twitter.

Then, there’s the Izea concept: Sure it’s been tweaked to include vague disclosures, but as seen by how they positioned Forrester in this release, there’s just an underlying shadiness to the venture. Just go away. Or at least stop emailing me.

(For Michael’s endless rants on the subject, go here.)

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