The great PR cock-up

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The phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” seems to be an appropriate idiom to describe a developing kerfuffle surrounding Microsoft’s latest blogger outreach campaign ahead of the launch of Windows Vista at the end of January.

Concisely, here’s what’s happening:

1. A few days before Christmas, Microsoft (or Edelman – the lead PR agency for the launch of Vista – depending on which blog post you read) emailed a number of influential US bloggers to ask them if they’d like to receive an Acer Ferrari notebook computer pre-loaded with Vista.

2. No strings attached:

[…] while I hope you will blog about your experience with the pc, you don’t have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can hold onto it for as long as you’d like. Just let me know what you plan to do with it when the time comes.

3. Bloggers start posting about the invitation they received; some have already received the computer and blog their first impressions/opinions.

4. Others criticize Microsoft and Edelman with accusations of bribery. Words such as ‘astroturfing,’ ‘payola’ and ‘PayPerPost’ abound.

5. Confusion starts to take hold as some bloggers report that Microsoft is asking for the computers back.

6. The first murmurings start that this is another developing ethics scandal for Edelman.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but what on earth are all these people whingeing about?

Oh wait. From scanning some of the blog posts and comments, it looks like many of the whingers are those who didn’t get an invitation from Microsoft!

Be that as it may, what seems to be the fuel for much of the critical blog commentaries and comments to posts is disclosure. Or rather, lack of it at the outset – few of the bloggers who first started posting mentioned the fact that they’d received the computer from Microsoft for purposes of review. Some of them have subsequently posted updates to their posts with the disclosure.

It’s all a bit messy, a situation that could have been largely avoided if there was a clear requirement that any blogger receiving the laptop must disclose that fact. That wasn’t the case.

If I’d been writing the invitation email, I would have included a sentence that might read something like this:

If you accept this invitation and receive the computer, you must make full disclosure in any blog posts you may publish that you received the machine and software from Microsoft for the purposes of review.

This isn’t bribery or astroturfing or anything nefarious like that. But without the requirement to disclose, you have ambiguity and opacity – things that got Edelman into trouble with Wal-Mart blogger relations programmes a few months ago and earlier this year.

Take into account, too, that with Microsoft, it’s a fair assumption that you can’t please most of the people most of the time.

It’s a tactical PR cock-up, that’s what it is.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Susan Getgood

    What concerns me, and I hope concerns Richard Edelman, is how many times can his agency, a supposed leader in social media, “cock it up” with a blogger relations program?

    Especially after all the talk about the ethics training they were going to do after the Wal-Mart mess.

    Edelman has done some interesting things lately, with their version of the social media press release and the activity in Second Life, but they just can’t seem to get blogger relations right.

  2. Ewan Spence

    Actually I think this is the blogosphere jsut attacking becasue they can. If you had Steve Jobs and Apple doing this with the new MacBookPro, then I tihnk there would be more ‘isn;t his a good idea’ coming from the blogs. Heck Nokia have been doing this for the past year in the USA with the Nxxx series of devices with very little ‘eeee-vil’ being tagged to the program.

    And while I do agree with the disclosure suggestion, this isn;t something you see in the raditional print media magazines.

    Finally, I have bands sending me music to play on my Rock Music Podcast (http://rock.thepodcastnetwork.com/). They are sending me a product, in the hope I’ll play it, to give them more exposure. Many want to send me a physical CD that I can keep afterwards. It’s exactly the same principle as the Microsoft Vista Laptop program, yet is almost 100% acceptted practice. Discuss.

  3. Chip Griffin

    Well put, Neville. My concern is that this sort of “Blog Mob” justice will continue to scare off companies from engaging in the blogosphere. It’s important to provide constructive feedback — as you do here — rather than engaging in vitriolic rhetoric.

  4. John Stauffer

    I don’t think this is anywhere near the Wal-Mart/Edelman cock-up. If anything, I think this shows what Edelman had learned from their past mistakes. Granted, as Neville suggested, a line in the email requiring bloggers to disclose the laptop gift would have certainly been the right thing to do. But astroturfing? I don’t think so.

    Doesn’t some of this fall on the bloggers? I mean, if Edelman sent the product to a tech reporter a major daily would the PR pro be required to remind the reporter to disclose that he/she had been given the product? Of course not, it’s in the reporters’ best interest to be fully transparent. I know there are different standards for bloggers, but I can’t help but think, somehow, the bloggers are implicated in this mess too.

    In my opinion, sending a product, with no strings attached, to relevant bloggers with a captivated audiences does not count as Astroturfing. Does it?

    I’ll admit, creating a flog for Wal-Mart helps to shut the blogosphere door on the PR profession. But this seems to be rather innocuous; merely working the kinks out of the blogger/client relationship.

    One of the functions of deviant behavior is that allows the community to identify the acceptable boundaries. Edelman seems to be hitting all these boundaries and it’s important to sort this all out. Thanks to Neville for posting on this.

  5. Dominic Jones

    When I review products and services I tell it like it is. You can trust me to be honest. I don’t accept freebies.

    There are no strings attached, no hidden agendas. I am independent and unbiased. When I said your company sucked it was because I honestly believe that. When I said company X was the best, it has nothing to do with the fact that I hope they will think better of me.

    Unfortunately, you have no way to independently verify this and no one is overseeing or auditing my claims.

    But please believe me. My motives are completely clean. You can trust me. I won’t sell my soul and mislead you.

    You can trust me. Honest, you can.

    (Yeah, right, pull the other one.)

  6. Dominic Jones

    Chip:

    Companies will take blogs seriously when blogs can demonstrate they have real influence. Influence stems from readers trusting their sources of information. If readers have to question everything they read on blogs, of if every post comes with a disclaimer, blogs lose some of their credibility and readers trust them less. It really is all about trust.

  7. Chip Griffin

    Dominic- I don’t disagree. Trust is important. I do disagree that disclaimers cause people to trust less, I think honesty improves trust. But more important, in the realm of product reviews, trust comes from having a similar viewpoint as the reviewer. I know that I trust restaurant and gadget reviews more from people who look at the same food or gear and have a similar opinion to my own. At the end of the day, reviews have to help you decide, “is this product right for me?”

    Two people can look at the same product and come to different conclusions — not because one has been bribed, but merely because individual perspectives are different. Take the Sony Reader for example, which I went out and bought before I read a review. I love it, despite what many reviews have said. And I actually like some of the features that others pan as faults. Others clearly do and will disagree with my opinion, but those who agree are likely to trust my reviews of other gadgets in the future.

  8. Amyloo

    “My concern is that this sort of ‘Blog Mob’ justice will continue to scare off companies from engaging in the blogosphere.”

    My hope is that this sort of “blog mob” justice will continue to give companies pause when they attempt to shape the conversation.

  9. Dominic Jones

    Chip:

    Disclaimers are simply the reviewer disclosing to the audience that their judgment may be impaired or that there are reasons to question the validity of the information. That lessens the reader’s confidence in the reviewer’s judgment and the information relative to a situation where there are no conflicts.

    Ironically, the most trustworthy review of all would be one where a blogger roundly trashes Vista — after the company gave him or her a free computer. In this case, the reviewer acting against his self-interests to favor Microsoft as reward for the freebie is seen as evidence of the blogger’s true beliefs or honesty.

    Meanwhile, any positive reviews by people who received the free laptops have little credibility. People will perceive that the reviewer’s opinion is compromised.

    Furthermore, positive reviews of Vista by people who did not receive free laptops but where there is no information about how they obtained the software or review machine, also are now likely to be called into question given the revelations about Microsoft’s PR tactics.

    So what are we left with? Well, we are left with a situation where negative reviews are more believable than positive ones.

    Whoever came up with the idea of giving away free laptops really doesn’t have a clue about PR and trust. They are giving bloggers an incentive to trash the product while at the same time undermining the credibility of positive publicity.

    It’s a lose-lose strategy and the work of rank amateurs.

  10. neville

    Surely a bit of a sweeping statement, Dominic:

    the most trustworthy review of all would be one where a blogger roundly trashes Vista — after the company gave him or her a free computer. In this case, the reviewer acting against his self-interests to favor Microsoft as reward for the freebie is seen as evidence of the blogger’s true beliefs or honesty.

    Why would this be the most trustworthy? Or indicative of a blogger’s true beliefs or honesty?

    I might come to such a conclusion about a particular blogger’s post, but I doubt it would be because that blogger got a laptop and thus posted negatively about the product. Or it might be. It depends on many factors including what I feel I know about the blogger from reading his or her blog.

    Do I trust him/her, in other words. Or feel that whatever the post, it’s an honest commentary.

    Now if that blogger posted anything, good or bad, had not disclosed the fact that he or she had got the hardware/software for the purpose of a review, and that non-disclosure was subsequently discovered, I would most likely take anything he or she said with a large pinch of salt. At best.

    So it’s all about trust, which is what you said in your first comment.

    Chip, I think events such as this do scare some companies. Over here in the UK, such things add fuel to the negative focus on blogs that’s too often how some media – particularly the trade press – report about social media such as blogs. Headlines like “Protect yourself from the danger of the blogs” type of thing.

    Ewan, re those CDs you receive – if you play any tracks in your podcasts, and talk about those tracks, do you always disclose that you got a CD from the band, etc?

    Susan, Shel and I had a lively discussion about this issue in today’s edition of FIR (we have different views on it) including our opinions on the PR agencies such as Edelman as counsellors. Our conversation starts about 23:30 minutes into the podcast.

  11. Dominic Jones

    Neville:

    In most readings about credibility in psychology you’ll learn that people perceive honesty in others when people act against their own perceived self-interest. In this case, bloggers who got the laptops are expected (by the audience) to say nice things. But if they go against that expectation and trash the product, people perceive that they acted out of a true belief that the product is bad. We believe they are being honest. The reverse is true if they say what we expect them to say due to being bribed, paid or induced i.e. that the product is good.

    So it’s not a sweeping statement at all. Just a bit of human psychology that experienced communicators presumably would take into account when deciding to hand out expensive gifts to bloggers in the hope they will write about them.

  12. Dominic Jones

    Thought I’d add this update. Scott Beale at Laughing Squid, one of the bloggers who got a free laptop, is auctioning his on Ebay and donating the money to the EFF.

    In his post he says this:

    “Honestly, I’m not really the right person to review of Windows Vista and at this point, it is still unclear why I was even selected to receive it, not to mention the fact that there has been quite a bit of inconsistency regarding what Microsoft, AMD and Edelman wanted people to do with the laptop after they were done testing it.”

    His point about not being an operating system reviewer is telling. So if Scott isn’t qualified to review an OS, why give it to him? If not bribery or influence buying, what was this campaign all about?

  13. neville

    The psychology point makes sense, Dominic, and I wouldn’t disagree with you on that. I must be the one who breaks (or perhaps proves) the rule, though, as I wouldn’t automatically or necessarily come to the conclusion you suggest if a blogger who got the laptop and OS wrote a bad review. Or a good review, for that matter.

    What would more likely influence my perception is a balanced review, one in which the blogger highlighted pros and cons about the product rather than a straight black or white view. There is no product out there that is either all black or all white.

    As for the matter of Scott Beale not being an OS reviewer, I don’t buy the bribery or influence-buying argument at all. More like really bad blogger analytics on the part of whoever at Microsoft and/or Edelman put this campaign together.

    It seems to me that they were more focused on the perceived influence of some bloggers than whether those bloggers were the right people to reach out to. I’ve seen other posts, too, where the bloggers are wondering why they had been contacted.

    This is a messy situation that is escalating, judging by the increasing number of posts appearing. Most are highly critical in one way or another. Some posts even express thought-provoking views – this one, for instance, by Joel Spolsky about bribing bloggers. Even though I don’t agree with his views, it’s got me thinking.

    I think it will become a real PR issue (as opposed to a blogosphere dissection) if and when a major mainstream medium picks up the story and it appears in print as well as online. The WSJ or FT, for instance. Nothing yet showing on a Google News search.

  14. Blogger und Vista at Timo Heuers Weblog

    […] Neville Hobson zeigt den Ablauf des Ganzen chronologisch: 1. A few days before Christmas, Microsoft (or Edelman – the lead PR agency for the launch of Vista – depending on which blog post you read) emailed a number of influential US bloggers to ask them if they’d like to receive an Acer Ferrari notebook computer pre-loaded with Vista. […]

  15. Dominic Jones

    C’mon Neville, you’re not disagreeing here, just being disagreeable. On the one hand you say:

    “…I don’t buy the bribery or influence-buying argument at all. More like really bad blogger analytics on the part of whoever at Microsoft and/or Edelman put this campaign together.”

    And in the very next paragraph you say:

    “It seems to me that they were more focused on the perceived influence of some bloggers than whether those bloggers were the right people to reach out to.”

    Isn’t that influence buying?

    Joel Spolsky’s views pretty much represent my own on this topic. It is bad for the blogosphere when people have to question the integrity of every positive review they read.

    Blogs have little going for them besides authenticity. Don’t people mostly read blogs because they are personal, honest and believable?

    But how authentic is it when companies like Microsoft seek to fabricate a blogger’s technology experience by giving them high-end laptops with pre-installed Vista and Office 2007? Would those bloggers have bought those things themselves or would they be using a cheaper computer and relying on Web-based tools and open source software?

    It flies in the face of what makes blogs effective communications tools. Combined with pay-per-post, this kind of thing undermines the credibility of bloggers in general and it reduces their influence and relevance. It crimps the potential of blogs to attract new readers.

    Ethics is not a clear-cut, black-and-white thing. People have different takes on what is ethical. You’re not concerned about this, I am. Neither of us is “right.” We just have different opinions. Many people think like you do and many people think like me.

    As a communicator, though, you have to think about the entire audience. If an action like dishing out laptops to bloggers is going to create a problem for a sizable segment of the audience — as it has — then it’s probably not a good strategy.

    My criticism of this entire episode is not of the bloggers, but of the people who came up with the idea (Edelman, Microsoft, AMD, who knows?). I’ve called them amateurs for failing to think through the consequences.

    They didn’t forsee some basic consequences, including that any positive reviews would carry little weight and that bloggers seeking to reinforce their credibility would have an incentive to be critical of the software.

    This was just plain bad PR strategy and execution. Heck, I’m not even a PR practitioner, and I can see that.

  16. neville

    I’m very much disagreeing with you, Dominic, and it’s a shame you only see it as being disagreeable!

    Why not apply your argument of buying influence to any outreach by any company that involves the providing of a product to someone for review?

    For instance, is Microsoft trying to buy influence when they send out copies of Windows Vista to journalists for review? Or if BMW provide new-model cars to car enthusiasts to try out? Or Nokia and Motorola send free mobile phones to bloggers for review? Or [fill in your own example].

    Of course they all are as an ultimate goal, but I don’t see it in the negative way in which you portray it, as if all it is is some kind of underhand and devious activity.

    The most obvious difference between those examples and what’s happening now is that the recipients of those products for review aren’t expected to keep them. In other words, the terms of the relationship and expectations on both sides are very clear indeed.

    Based on what I’ve read to date on the many blogs posting about this issue, I don’t agree at all that Microsoft is seeking to “fabricate a blogger’s technology experience”. All they’ve done is provide a laptop and an operating system to a bunch of bloggers.

    But – and here’s where it looks as though we might actually agree – the way in which this campaign (if that’s what it is) has been planned and executed is pretty poor indeed. Neither Microsoft nor Edelman should be surprised by the widespread negative blogosphere reactions.

    As I said in my post, this is a tactical PR cock-up. Nothing more at the moment.

  17. JamesBruni

    Kudso to Neville and Shel for shedding light on this shady business. My buddy Jason Calacanis is right on target in this debate over blogola. You ask the blogger if he/she wants the gift before you send it. It’s just plain common sense. What if Edelman had done this to David Pogue or Walt Mossberg? Why should giftgiving standards be different for bloggers than for so-called regular journalists who testdrive now software and tech products. Edelman deserves the St. Sebastian award for the number of arrows this PR firm has seen during the past year. Are they ever going to learn. Let’s see when Rich gets back from India if his blog has something to say. Best wishes to all for a cleaner, and more ethical 2007.

  18. Dominic Jones

    It all comes down to the nature of the gift and who it was sent to. We’re not talking about free samples of washing powder or cookies. It’s an expensive, by my tastes, laptop with Microsoft’s software loaded on it. Some say it’s a $2,000 computer, Mike Arrington pegs the value at $4,000.

    That’s the real issue, isn’t it. The expensive, ego-stroking nature of the gift has very real potential to influence people who aren’t otherwise being paid for their reviewing expertise. You can see this in the drooling reaction of some of the bloggers to the machines they received.

    As readers, we recognize the powerful incentive for bloggers to look favorably on their gift and so we will heavily discount anything these bloggers say in favor of the product. If Microsoft had simply sent them the software, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

    If it was a detergent company sending a box of soap powder, we wouldn’t care. If, however, they sent a free new washer/dryer combo for the blogger to test the washing powder, we’d scoff at anything the blogger had to say about the washing powder, unless of course if he or she said the detergent didn’t work. We’d marvel at that!

    Which, of course, brings up the most laughable thing in all of this. Microsoft has a product that it can’t get people to use unless they have new computers.

    Now that’s funny.

  19. Dominic Jones

    I’ve read what you’re written here and listened to FIR. You’re saying that as long as proper disclosure is made by the recipient, it’s ok for companies to send bloggers gifts, irrespective of the value.

    I disagree. Disclosure by the blogger or journalist doesn’t make sending expensive gifts a good PR tactic. Disclosure in this case didn’t stop people seeing the gift as a bribe or as desperation on the company’s part.

    It all came down to the value of the “gift,” which many people viewed as inappropriate. And as I’ve said, the very generous nature of the gift makes it unlikely that people reading the subsequent reviews are going to give them much credence, so where was the ROI in this?

    You’re saying it was a PR cock-up because the company and its PR firm failed to insist on disclosure. I’m saying it was a cock-up for that reason — and because the gift was inappropriate. It was construed as a bribe by many people, which in turn undermines the credibility of positive publicity about the company’s product.

    Sorry, that’s not good PR practice.

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