Time to rise above blog standards (article in The Sunday Buiness Post)

There was uproar in the UK recently when details emerged of plans by one of Gordon Brown’s adviser’s to smear opposition politicians using a left-wing blog. This incident says lot about how blogs are now seen as important sources for disseminating information, but also highlights the dangers blogs present to marketing and PR professionals.

The intention to use a blog to plant the smears was that, it in the long run, it could be just as effective as using traditional media methods, but with the benefit of no proof being required to substantiate any claims made and little accountability. Information spreads very fast on the web so it would be very difficult for someone trying to keep track and counter those claims. The danger is also that, if picked up and repeated enough, it is not long before people start to believe it.

I had first hand evidence of this recently when a client’s name was being bounced around in the media to boost the profile and kudos of a company that the rumour said they were in negotiations with. The claim was completely baseless but got high profile coverage. My fear was that, if left unchecked, the story could affect the client’s genuine negotiations with another company.

I didn’t ask for a printed correction, and rarely do, as it can just exacerbate the problem.  But, where media titles that had the story on-line they were happy to correct the error and, naturally, did not want to continue to cover any inaccurate details or assist a source who had an ulterior motive.

These days though news spreads fast so the story was quickly on blogs. When I started to contact blogs I presumed that they would want to ensure that the information they were covering was correct. The reaction, however, was very different. The majority of the bloggers couldn’t have cared less whether the details they’d printed were accurate or not and seemed aloof to any approach towards their content.

I am not saying all the blogs were like this. Some are very professional in their approach, so they were happy to correct any inaccuracies. But, others weren’t even willing to discuss any amendments. They see it as their right to free speech to harp on about whatever they want. What is more surprising is these are serious business blogs talking about a grown up issues, respectable middle aged professionals who have spent years in a corporate business environment. They seemed to think they have turned into Ireland’s answer to Perez Hilton just because they were writing a blog.

Whilst others justified covering inaccurate information by saying they were simply using what was written in the papers, which is simply passing the buck. Planning how to deal with this isn’t easy for a sector that has no set rules or professional code of conduct. Undoubtedly in the future companies will resort to legal means to have content removed from blogs.

Some of the more lazy blogs simply cover, word for word, stories from that day’s newspapers. This is missing a major advantage of a blog which is that the news can be issued instantly; which is why the better quality blogs are making life difficult for newspapers who are constrained by the time it takes to get their news out in a hard copy form. By just repeating what is written in the newspapers these lazy bloggers are even further behind the news agenda; they are simply electronic paper boys.

If business blogs want themselves to be taken seriously then they need to be more professional and adhere to standards of quality and integrity. Such an approach will only reap rewards for them and boost their readership, as people will value the superior quality of their content, in turn they will get given news directly from news sources who will have more comfort when dealing with them due to their professional approach.

For instance when dealing with most media contacts I can be confident that their journalistic integrity and code of ethics means that they will deal with information I give them in a professional manner. It allows me to bring them closer to the story by giving them ‘off the record’ information, or details on an ‘unattributable basis’ confident that I am protected by their professional standards and that what is agreed as ‘off the record’ and ‘unattributable’ will remain exactly that. These are fundamental media handling rules and allow complete transparency with the media allowing them insight to confidential information in order to give them a larger background into a story, particularly one which is sensitive, such as a legal case, where the disclosure of confidential details could jeopardise the case or risk those involved.

Unfortunately this is not something I can feel confident off when dealing with most of the business blogs I encountered. If they want to be treated as a serious news source then they need to be professional. If business blogs adhered to these simply rules then they too could gain a much greater insight. Ideally the sector should have a professional membership body set up for Irish business blogs to join that outlines a code of conduct to be adhered to; even better they could come under the remit of a watchdog for blogs that would have a similar role to an ombudsman in order to self regulate the sector.

A lot of blogs are written by professionals in their own field who are just writing the blog to boost the SEO of their website, and, therefore, their priority is just to add content to help their Google ranking. Whereas high quality business blogs are genuinely trying to inform their readers of new angles to stories and add to the debate about issues of the day. To me, that is the essence of what makes a good blog: it takes a story forward and often raises more questions than it answers.

The irony of Gordon Brown’s ‘Smeargate’ scandal was that it was, allegedly, The Telegraph newspaper that went on the record with details that it was given by a the Guido Fawkes blog, but as these allegations were reported on the blog itself we have to take it with a pinch of salt; that is the problem when trying to asses the truth what is written on an anonymous and unregulated blog.

(This is an extended version of the piece that appeared in the Sunday Business Post  on 3rd May  – I have clarified issues some readers misunderstood.)

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