Bloggers bite the hand that feeds

In this column we have marketing, blogging, marketing through blogging, and questions about journalistic ethics all in one messy package.

Sprint recently launched what that carrier calls its Ambassador Program, which is a marketing ploy whereby influential bloggers are given a Samsung A-920 cell phone and six months’ worth of free yap on the Sprint Power Vision Network.

The idea is that these bloggers will sing the praises of the phone and the Sprint service in their blogs, thus buying Sprint the kind of grass-roots buzz that marketing budgets simply cannot provide.

In this case, however, the idea has not gone entirely as hoped. Witness a series of posts from one of the ambassadors, Christopher Carfi, on his blog called The Social Customer Manifesto. Seems as though Carfi has had such a hassle trying to get his phone service in working order that the device has already been relegated to paperweight status.

Sprint isn’t the first to try this seed-the-bloggers strategy, but the tactic is gaining momentum.

I’ll do my best to hide the hurt, but Sprint didn’t ask me to be an ambassador. Perhaps that’s because my blog is so new. Or maybe the company’s marketing people are savvy enough to realize that professional journalist-bloggers operate under ethical constraints that generally preclude accepting freebies of any significant value.

But reading the posts written by Carfi and others did get me to mulling: Might it be time to rethink those ethical restrictions that would have forced me to decline the invitation?

I mean, Carfi demonstrated quite emphatically that a credible voice cannot be bought for six months’ worth of free calling and a phone.

Shouldn’t professional journalists be afforded the same benefit of the doubt?

The mere suggestion will be considered heresy by many journalists — and they’ll have a good case to make. After all, credibility is everything in this business, and we have enough challenges maintaining it without adding another. As things stand, too many readers presume we’re in an advertiser’s pocket any time we write something nice about vendors or fail to slap them around.

Bottom line: Freebies just aren’t worth the risk for someone who does this for a living.

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