Church of the Customer Blog« 20 questions toward ethical word of mouth | Main | Welcome to Crayonville »
October 26, 2006
20 questions toward ethical word of mouth
For nearly two weeks, "Edelman" was a top 10 search term on Technorati. At the least, that demonstrates there was a lot of interest among bloggers of why the largest independent public relations company in the U.S. was helping Walmart, the world's largest retailer, create fan blogs without disclosing the quid pro quo involved. If you believe (or can quantify) that what a significant quantity of bloggers talk about is a leading indicator of subsequent offline conversations, then both companies had a not-insignificant PR problem. All of that adds up to word of mouth and the forming of opinions. Since Google's memory is infinite, many of those discussions will be surfaced for years to come.
WOMMA has taken a few hits in the ensuing discussion, too; some people have called on it to suspend or kick Edelman out of the organization. At the least, some say, WOMMA should add teeth to its ethics rules and punish members who violate them. (Sounds reasonable; why shouldn't it?) What WOMMA does with Edelman's membership remains to be seen but in the meantime, it has released a pretty good list of questions to help organizations to avoid the bad word of mouth that astroturfing inevitably fuels.
Honesty of Relationship
1. Do we insist that our advocates always disclose their relationship with us -- including all forms of compensation, incentives, or samples?
Honesty of Opinion
2. Do we insist that all opinions shared with the public express the honest and authentic opinion of the consumer or advocate without manipulation or falsification?
3. Are those individuals who are speaking for us free to form their own opinions and share all feedback, including negative feedback?
4. Is all of the information provided to advocates, consumers, and the media factual and honest, and are all of our claims accurate?
Honesty of Identity
5. Have we repudiated and forbidden all forms of shill, stealth, and undercover marketing?
6. Does everyone working on our behalf use their true identity and disclose their affiliation with our company and agencies?
7. Do we forbid the blurring of identification in ways that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individuals with whom they are communicating?
8. Do we forbid the use of expressly deceptive practices from our employees/advocates, such as impersonating consumers; concealing their true identities; or lying about factors such as age, gender, race, familiarity with or use of product, or other circumstances intended to enhance the credibility of the advocate while deliberately misleading the public?
9. If we use agents or volunteers of any sort, do we actively instruct them in ethical practices and behaviors and insist that all of those working under our instructions similarly comply with this standard?
10. Do we instruct all advocates to repeat these instructions and responsibilities in the downstream conversation?
11. Do we have a plan to monitor any inappropriate word of mouth generated by our advocates?
12. Do we know how will we correct any inappropriate or unethical word of mouth done by volunteers or resulting from actions taken by us?
13. Do we insist that campaign organizers disclose their involvement when asked by consumers or the media and provide contact information upon request?
Respecting the Rules
14. Do we respect and honor the rules of any media we might use, including all such procedures and stipulations as may be deemed appropriate by specific websites, blogs, discussion forums, traditional media, or live events? (Examples of actions that break the rules: violating the terms of service of any online site, spamming, violating privacy rules, or defacing public property.)
15. Do we prohibit all word of mouth programs involving children aged 13 and younger?
16. If our campaign involves communicating with or influencing minors aged 14 to 17, do we a) have mechanisms in place to protect the interests of those teens, and b) have parental notification mechanisms in place, where appropriate?
When Hiring an Agency
17. Does the agency subscribe to the same high standards of ethical behavior and practice, and are they willing to guarantee the ethics of their own work as well as that of all subcontractors?
18. Do they have reporting and operational review procedures in place permitting us to ensure full compliance with all ethical standards?
19. Have they previously engaged in unethical practices?
20. If they have ever engaged in such practices in the past, do they now prohibit them, and will they guarantee that they will not use employees who have engaged in fraudulent practices to work on our behalf?
I would add one:
When Things Go Wrong
21.If it turns out we have violated an ethics rule or rules, do we disclose what happened and why and explain how we plan to change our processes to avoid a future mistake?
Things go wrong. There's always pressure to fast-track results. That often means shortcuts that play fast and loose with ethics. If someone is moving far too fast, sometimes laws are skirted or broken. Word of mouth often works on its own schedule, and the randomness involved doesn't make it very predicatable, either. So when mistakes are made and causes a public or media stink, most PR firms counsel their clients to quickly come clean, make full disclosure on what happened and promise to improve. The only thing that's been missing from Edelman is how this leader in social media could have possibly been involved in some obvious astroturfing. I can't understand why Edelman hasn't offered full disclosure of what went wrong unless it is... falling on its sword for Walmart.
If that's the case, the question a year from now will be: Was it worth it?
Other blogs that reference 20 questions toward ethical word of mouth:
» A Blogging Scam... from Employee Factor
“In case you haven't heard about it here is my understanding of it all. Edleman and Wal-Mart had teamed up to manage their corporate communications in the social media realm. One of the 'ideas' that came out of this partnership... [Read More]
The real question may be: Why didn't WOMMA walk the talk? Questions are great. So are rules. But action defines an organization.
I think WOMMA has been a bit slow off the mark on this, too, but I think that it's partially due to being a new thing for the organization to consider. My hunch is that they'll put something forward on the Edelman issue soon.
#21 is a good addition. I'll post it to the task force that developed the questions as part of the public comments we are taking.
Not only has WOMMA been slow to react, I'm also disappointed that I've not yet heard them pull Edelman's session at the December event. After all, I'm not sure I'm crazy about seeing Rick Murray, President, Edelmantalk about:
"WOM 104: Participation: The Right Way to Join the WOM Conversation"