The Golden MWith one foot in traditional PR and the other in the SEO camp, the current debate about MacDonald’s blogger outreach campaign, got me thinking about ethics.

As a child, who didn’t get excited about the prospect of a MacDonalds? As a student travelling around America, it was definitely an everyday staple when budgets were running low. However I’m happy to report a Happy Meal would not be on my 3 and 4 year olds favourite food list (yet!)

MacDonalds seems to generate a Marmite-type ‘love it or hate it’ response in many people and the current blogger relations issue seems to have added fuel to the fire.

Paul Stallward does a good overview here and I agree with many of his points.

Having worked in financial PR for a decade or so, I was fairly familiar with the ethics codes of various financial sections of newspapers about what was and what wasn’t considered appropriate. At the time, the FT had a policy whereby gifts above a certain value were deemed inappropriate and I believe were raffled off for charity. Other newspapers were gradually adopting a similar approach. The outcome was that if an organisation was acting inappropriately there were strict codes of ethics and within reason, newspaper journalists would only be able to write fair, unbiased coverage. And there was always the concern that if gifts were staggeringly inappropropriate or press trips deemed totally OTT, you could always end up with ridicule in a City Diary or column.

But it got me thinking that the same ethics do not seem to apply in the blogger world – or at least not for a number of lower key bloggers. If I had more time, I believe I could prove the point by ranking as a Mummy blogger fairly quickly and seeing how quickly the freebies rolled in. I hope I’d had enough common sense to review things impartially and let my readers know that I’d received samples of gifts for free. After all, the value in my blog would be significantly reduced if I didn’t.

Whereas newspapers are clearly commercial organisations, it can be very difficult for readers to get a handle on whether each blog is a fully fledged business operation, someone writing for fun, or anything in between (paid for advertising, to promote a book or to promote another company).

The onus in the blogger world seems to lie with the organisations rather than the bloggers. I can’t knock MacDonald’s strategy – blogger outreach seems a sensible way to go but may be they need to review the way they go about it.

Too many free parties, vouchers, holidays seems to be like the old school MacDonald’s of my childhood. Their adverts have come a long way since the quite scary-looking Ronald MacDonald took to our screens. Today, the adverts aimed at children/families are all about better ingredients, wholesome living (I’m particularly thinking about the children running around on the farm) but this current social media push seems to be rather at odds to this.

At this point I should say that the blogger outreach in question is in the States and clearly my knowledge of their advertising is UK based.  But the blogger activity issue has very much reached our shores so in today’s online world, nothing can be ring fenced as location specific.

The odd press gift, corporate hospitality really shouldn’t bother anyone – it’s been going on for years and will never stop. But where bloggers are now more ‘persuadable’ than journalists, perhaps there should be a better blogger code of conduct too. I suspect that FMCG and food related companies are more likely to carry out this type of activity too, simply because their product range is well suited to offering mass freebies.

Having said that, I suspect that this may in time become self regulating – it will become clear which bloggers are openly taking bribes and writing promotional blurb for the companies that are networking with. The best writers may of course openly declare what involvement they’ve had with the company they are writing about. And of course, I do some injustice to their readers here. As I said earlier it can be difficult to ascertain how a blog operates but Joe Public is not completely stupid – in many situations they will smell a rat and choose to unsubscribe.

Blogging community – please don’t slate me. I know there are loads of ethical bloggers out there just in the same way there are many ethical SEO agencies.

My final word on MacDonald’s: I think the company has come a long way in the past 20 years. Rather than offering parties and holidays I am sure the company could create something of more inherent value that would still interest bloggers and their communities without running the risk of more coverage of this sort.