HR Blogging, Workforce, and Disclosure

I am looking at an email in my inbox from June. I’m not going to call anyone out by name in this post, but it’s from an HR Blogger, and in it the Blogger is complaining that they did not get a speaking slot at our Social Recruiting Summit even though they would promote the event if they spoke. Not a word about how much value they would deliver, or how insightful they’d be. Only that they could promote the hell out of it.

I have a second email from an even more prominent HR blogger in my inbox from late July, offering “guaranteed positive posts and tweets” in return for ERE covering all or part of their travel costs.

Why do these emails bother me? They show a willingness on the part of their authors to write their “thoughts” publicly, while never disclosing that those thoughts were not genuine, but contingent on favors.

I don’t think that either blogger thought of those emails in this way, but they were, in short, proposals for payola. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. And these are not extraordinary — they are just the two of the more bold tit-for-tats I’ve received.

Workforce Online recently published a piece on transparency in the HR Blogosphere. Collectively, the HR bloggers’ reaction ranged from outrage to dismissal. Nobody likes to be called out in public.

But as someone intimately familiar with many (but not all) of the players, I’ve long been troubled my many of the same things that are brought up in the Workforce piece. And so far, I’ve seen a lot of indignation and questioning of motives about the article (Old media: scared, out of line, link-baiting.  Bloggers: Great guys, opinionated, keeping it real.) but nobody seems to be claiming that any of the points and examples of undisclosed conflicts of interest in the article were incorrect.

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I think that is a disservice, because even if HR bloggers disagree with the assertion that the level of disclosure they’re currently providing about their conflicts of interest is woefully inadequate, it’s worth considering the issues raised in the article and the level of disclosure that they provide.

It’s not wrong for bloggers to make money from their hard work. But deception about the motives behind a post — even by omission — can destroy all of that in a heartbeat. (Anyone else remember the Pay Per Post scandal?)

HR bloggers: I love you. Please don’t let the Sturm und Drang over the Workforce article keep you from giving this issue a cold, sober look.

ERE Media, Inc. CEO David Manaster continues to learn about recruiting every day. His first job in the profession was way back in 1997, and he founded ERE Media the following year. Today, David spends his time thinking up new ways that ERE can serve the recruiting community. You can follow David on Twitter or email him at david(at)ere.net.

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7 Comments on “HR Blogging, Workforce, and Disclosure

  1. A sobering comment from one who usually says very lttle. I’m listening and thinking.

    “Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine were taken away.” ~ Anaxagoras (Greek philosopher of nature, 500-428bc)

  2. As the author of the “indignation and questioning of motives” post, I have to say that I really enjoyed your take on the entire episode. Thanks for adding to the discussion David.

  3. Dave –

    Deep thoughts, good food for thought. I don’t know if I qualify as a prominent HR blogger or not, but I’m going on record as saying that I’m not either blogger you are referring to.

    But I will say I’ve been the recipient of travel costs in exchange for speaking and covering an event with one or both of my blogs (HR Capitalist and Fistful of Talent). I’ve never offered a pledge for positive coverage, only to write how I feel and what I think. It’s a free market, so the folks who have brought me in likely think (at least at that point in time) that the blog coverage is a good thing. I do a lot of events where I cover my own expenses as well, just because it’s good to be an active part of the community.

    I did a post in response to the workforce piece where I wondered if any one cares about bias (http://bit.ly/A4JCq) You were kind enough to comment that you did, and I respect the view. I do think that everyone carries some bias to the table, and I captured my own bias as follows:

    “Me – VP of HR who’s hopelessly conflicted. I’m pro-business, anti-union and have a strong disposition for the value of recruiting/talent and HR having a strong opinion on what goes on around them. I like sports, pop culture and mixing it all together. I’m also a SHRM member and a contributing editor at Workforce, which is ironic. Anything that falls outside that view? I don’t like it much, which is an obvious form of bias.”

    If you read my site, you know that’s the baggage I bring to the table, so that’s how I cover events – from that perspective. That’s my positioning – to your point, it’s different than disclosing a pledge of positive coverage for a type of payment, which I don’t do. I do tell people I’ll write a lot if I come, whether they’re covering my expenses or not. Coverage, whether positive or negative, is the trade.

    It’s a good conversation. What’s the answer? Should bloggers AND journalists AND Speakers disclose whether they are being paid? Should orgs that chair events like ERE do the same? Not sure, but I can tell you this – there’s probably no better form of creditability for me as a blogger than having someone cover travel for me, then me turning around and being critical in a constructive way of an event, speaker, etc.

    Thanks for the conversation, interested to hear your views on the best path regarding disclosure for writers, speakers and organizations like ERE.

    KD

  4. Kris: I’m not saying that your sentiments are inherently wrong, but I would say they differ slightly from at least some journalistic ethical guidelines. (Perhaps that begs the discussion of whether a blogger is a journalist.)

    One example of such guidelines is at
    http://www.asbpe.org/about/code.htm

    Those guidelines suggest: “If someone other than the publication has paid travel and other expenses, the publication should disclose the payments to the readers, if coverage results from the travel.” They also suggest “A publication should pay or split the cost for meals purchased in the course of discussing editorial matters with a source, a public relations representative, or an advertiser.”

    It’s hard to say what’s right and wrong, but for me, generally speaking, it would feel a little funny if I and one person from Taleo were to go to an expensive dinner, and they paid. On the other hand, if Taleo handed out a pen to everyone at a conference and I took one, I wouldn’t feel funny. Somewhere in between the pen and the fancy dinner, there’s a gray area.

  5. Hi David,

    I was one of the people featured in the article and I do take exception to the way they describe any supposed conflict of interest. I have already made that clear to Workforce directly so I don’t feel bad saying that here.

    In the article, they implied I haven’t always disclosed my conflicts of interest. Specifically:

    “Haun says revealing conflicts of interest is “incredibly important.” But his site hasn’t always done so.

    “He wrote about the new job in a blog post in August. But Haun’s “About” Web page did not mention the position for much of August—meaning readers new to the site might not have known about Haun’s financial stake in the incentive and rewards industry and MeritBuilder in particular.”

    Which would have been a conflict of interest had I wrote anything remotely related to the incentives and rewards industry after my blog post about my new position. I clearly didn’t though.

    So what conflict of interest was I supposed to reveal to my readers in posts about social networking, HR avoiding political subjects or having fun at work? How exactly would my new position (and the readers lack of knowledge about it) create a conflict of interest? It wouldn’t.

    We can have a serious conversation about the issues brought up in the article. Maybe a forum like ERE or the Social Recruiting Summit is the type of place to address it?

  6. @Maureen – In person I talk too much.

    @Mark – Thanks for the comment – I’ve been following the back and forth on your post closely, and there’s some good opinions there that everyone who is interested in this should read.

    @Kris – We’re not dealing with black & whites here, but various shades of grey, which is why there seems to be a pretty wide range of opinion over this. (I’ve had a few conversations with people here in Florida about this in the last few days.) You’re right – everyone carries a lifetime of experiences and biases. But payment and favors take this to a significantly darker shade of grey.

    Bias I understand, to a point. But the part that pisses me off personally is when I perceive bias but don’t see it disclosed.

    @Todd There’s a pretty long history of of tension over blogging ethics vs. journalistic ethics – check out these two links for a recent one, with a lot of good points on both sides:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/business/media/07ping.html

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/06/07/the-morality-and-effectiveness-of-process-journalism/

    @Jason – True, although to his credit Joel disclosed the JobCentral relationship plenty.

    @Lance – In reading your blog, I don’t see you pimping anything for your employer prior to your disclosure. I’m not sure how the writers of the Workforce piece would answer your question. Maybe they could clarify here in the comments or on their original article.

    For what it’s worth, here is my take: We are dealing with some serious slippery slope issues here, so I don’t think that its out of line to suggest that disclosure begins with transparency about the hand that feeds, even if you have taken care to make sure that it doesn’t affect your posts.

    I don’t think that the SRS would be the best forum for this conversation (it’s more focused on recruiting practices than blogging practices) but I am happy to host the conversation here on ERE, to the extent that people want to participate.

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