The controversy about blogging ethics and payment took an interesting turn this week. Briefly, Microsoft has started mailing brand new Acer Ferrari notebook computers as gifts to bloggers who write about Microsoft. Several bloggers have written about it on their blogs . The discussion centers around the ethical issues for bloggers who get and keep these gifts. [Side note: the PR for the new Microsoft Vista OS is being handled by none other than Edelman, the folks who brought you the flogger controversy .]
Note that the bloggers in question did not ask for these gifts, nor are these payments in the sense of PayPerPost - the bloggers did not sign any contracts to write favorably about Microsoft products, although of course, the laptops went to bloggers who regularly write about Microsoft. Also, arguably, the laptops and their pre-installed Windows Vista operating systems could be considered "sample products"; but the laptops are gifts rather than loaners, and probably more valuable and directly useful in their daily work, compared to say a sample copy of a software game.
The question is: should companies do this? And should bloggers accept these gifts?
From the corporate side, I think the answer is easy - it makes good business sense, pure and simple, as long as it is not underhanded. If I had a product company, I would certainly want to send gifts to bloggers who write about my company (especially sympathetic pieces). Since many bloggers work independently rather than within the folds of a large corporate umbrella, you can send them gifts at a fraction of your PR budget, and even small blogs, depending on the demographics of their audience, can have a remarkable impact and influence buyers' opinions. For a business, it's an effective way of getting influential PR at a fraction of the cost, as long as the gift is not disproportionately valuable - the gift-giving should appear tasteful rather than unsavory.
From the blogger's perspective, however, things are a little more murky. Credibility, one of the key assets of a blogger or indeed, of any reporter, is inherently fragile (yes, even at large, reputable newspapers ). If a blogger starts accepting gifts, how much would credibility be affected? After all, nothing remains secret for long in the blogosphere. Although, it should be noted that this happens more or less in every domain - celebrity sports figures, fashion figures, and I imagine, those who report on them, all get "comps". Certainly no respectable journalist would accept payment for a story. But can journalists accept presents, say holiday gifts? I have no idea, I hope that a professional journalist from one of the bigger news providers joins the discussion to give us feedback on that.
So - should a blogger accept gifts from a company he or she writes about? While this is admittedly a gray area, on balance, I think I don't have a problem with it, as long as the gift or payment is strictly and clearly spelled out on the blog (i.e. a footnote in size-6 font in the bottom-right corner doesn't count). This would allow readers to explicitly take the bias into account for those posts, while preserving the credibility of the blogger for the remaining posts. As an analogy, let's say Katie Couric appeared in a late-night program that was clearly an infomercial - not that that would happen - I wouldn't necessarily discount her stories on the CBS Evening News simply for that reason. Would you?