Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Product endorsements and journalism ethics

I've been trading emails today with a reader of this blog who was pleased by something I once wrote about her company. She asked about reproducing my comments in her company's marketing material. I declined, and she graciously accepted my explanation.
Now it occurs to me that our discussion might have some value for other bloggers, journalists, marketing folks and anyone else interested in new media.
Here is the email I sent to her. I'm not going to name her or her company, because it would violate a trust. She reached out to me openly and honestly, looking for guidance through the world of blogs. Here's what I said:

First, thanks for reading the blog. And thanks for getting in touch.

I'm flattered that you would like to use my comments in your marketing communications. But I don't think it's appropriate.
Let me explain. As you noted in your email, the rules of the blog world are new and often unclear. I offer my congratulations that you're willing to try and understand this new medium. I don't pretend to speak for other bloggers. And certainly there are those who would disagree with what I'm about to say. Nonetheless, here goes: I think the core beauty, the core purpose, the very essence of community journalism (of which blogging is a part) is that it involves conversation. That's a departure from traditional media, which tends to be more of a lecture. Part of that means that what I say on my blog sort of "belongs" to anyone who wants it. Anyone can quote from it, and I certainly hope that many people will link to it.
In other words, in a very real sense, I don't believe I "own" what I say on my blog, or what I say to other bloggers. My blog is something "I said" more than it is something "I published." And thus anyone is free to say "Paul Conley said x," and to link to my blog.
From a legal standpoint, that's in keeping with the "fair use" guidelines that are common in print media. As you know, the copyright rules are different for reprints. And I would guess that the same legal guidelines apply when someone reprints something from a blog as when someone reprints something from a newspaper. (Although I'm not sure if the courts have ruled on this issue.) And thus I would say that I retain the right to limit reprints of material from my blog. And I would not be willing to grant permission for you to use them in marketing material.
There is also an issue of credibility. The blog world is wracked by debate about whether blogging is journalism and about what ethical rules apply. But for me, the rules are simple. I'm a journalist by training. I've been doing this work for decades now. And I'm just not comfortable agreeing to endorse a product or provide a testimonial.
I hope that I have answered your questions. And I trust that you will have no problem finding others to endorse your product. Your company does good work. And if I were in another business, I'd be happy to offer a testimonial. But I'm a journalist, by inclination and by habit. And that must define how I communicate.

If you're interested, take a look at this post on the Corante blog about how companies can manage their brand identity in the blog world.

So what do you think? Drop me a line at correspond at paulconley.com