An Ethical Dilemma

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photo by zeevveez on flickr

People trust recommendations from ‘real people’ more than they trust advertising. Consumer reviews on sites like Amazon are trusted for this reason and it’s why marketers pay people to post positive reviews there. However, in doing so, they erode the usefulness of those sites as the deceptive practice makes us uncertain which information we can believe.

Another strategy marketers use is to recruit ‘ social media influencers’ to promote their products.  These ‘influencers’ have built a reputation with an audience who see them as trustworthy, so their recommendations are of great value.

Over the last 24 months, I’ve been offered money, gifts and VIP access in order to review or raise awareness of various education events and products. When an offer comes in I’m flattered but conflicted. On one hand it’s a huge compliment, and often a great opportunity. On the other hand, I worry about the ethics and the impact on my integrity. I don’t want to be seen as someone whose opinions can be bought. I don’t like ‘cash for comment‘.

When ABC Splash employed me for a couple of months in 2015 to raise awareness of their work on social media, I tried to get around the dilemma by declaring on all my profiles that I was working with ABC Splash to raise awareness of their product. Without that disclaimer, I felt it would be unethical to even retweet something they said.

In addition, instead of providing my own reviews of their product, I provided a space on the TER Podcast for their spokesperson to inform the audience of their latest releases. I also made a somewhat clumsy declaration in each of those episodes that I was receiving payment to raise awareness of their work.

Access to events such as conferences has also raised this ethical dilemma. While there’s no agreement that I provide a positive review of events when I’m issued with a media pass to attend, even so, I wonder if podcasting about them is a form of cash for comment.  I don’t believe I have any entitlement to access and when it’s granted, I’m grateful for the privilege. This makes me less inclined to be publicly critical. It would seem discourteous to accept hospitality and then speak negatively. My reviews therefore focus mainly on the positive aspects, and I feel more circumspect about sharing any criticisms I may have.

Microsoft recently gave me a tour of their office, a Surface 3 and a really interesting overview of how their products can be used for education. There was no demand, but they did express a hope that I would blog about it. I haven’t done so yet, mainly because it was fourth term and I was tired and busy.

I like the product, so my review will be mainly positive, but having accepted a gift, am I turning the trust and good will my readers place in me into a commodity that I trade on? Am I letting that trust be exploited for profitable ends? Where does benefiting end and exploiting begin?

Being transparent about benefits and agendas is an important first step. It saddens me that in 2015 I came across a number of blogs and tweets, and sat through TeachMeet presentations, from people receiving incentives without declaring their interest.  When this occurs, it erodes trust in just the same way as fake reviews on Trip Advisor or Amazon do, and I hate seeing our education networks exploited for personal or commercial gain in that way.

But are those of us who declare the benefits we receive any different? Is declaring enough?  If we are allowing our network influence to be used by companies for marketing, to bring them profit, are we becoming part of the problem? Who is benefiting, who is being exploited, and does it even matter?

I’d welcome your comments on this dilemma, so please make use of the comment section below.

 

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20 thoughts on “An Ethical Dilemma

  1. Corinne, this is such a tricky one.
    Whenever I read reviews I try, where I can, to use other means to check the validity of what is being said. I look at price, who the customers are, pictures of the product, check the seller where possible and other products made.
    While one of my daughter is overseas I find it more effective, when buying presents to go on sites that sell in the UK and have very little transport cost. I look hard at the photos, read reviews, look at similar products, check with various companies before buying. Have actually been more than pleased with results and reviews have been spot on.
    As much as I respect people I would not hold them responsible for my attitude to a product as what works for one doesn’t work for all. If you recommended something I would trust that you would be being honest and transparent because that’s who you are, but I would not feel obliged to agree with you or buy it unless I tried it for myself
    In all things we are ultimately responsible to use our own discernment. Isn’t this what we try to teach our students?

    • Hi Anne, Yes, that’s a good point. It’s not as if anyone is actually being brainwashed by my comments. That said, I know I’m more inclined to consider certain products if they are recommended by people whom I trust. Books for example – If some friends, with very similar tastes and interests to me recommend a book, I will buy it almost without hesitation.

    • I agree. I think it is good to hear or read the opinions of others but, after all, we need to be responsible for our our decisions and opinions and be neither hard on ourselves nor on others for having differing points of view.

  2. @brettelockyer says:

    As a reader of your blog and a listener of the TER Podcast, I expect nothing but challenges from you -and Cameron. I like having my buttons pushed, my assumptions challenged. Commercial interests are coming at me from all sides – Twitter, Facebook, Teachmeets, Educonferences. Through healthy discussion with my PLN, I can begin to work out who is taking me for a ride. If I feel I am being exploited by your links to commercial interests, I will just tune out. Meanwhile declare your partnerships, but continue to do what you do well: be critical, talk hard, poke a stick at ’em, let them them know you’re a thinker and not a pushover.
    Cheers
    Brette

  3. Bias and some conflict of interest is largely unavoidable, and this is pretty low level and unlikely to impact directly. Public disclosure in these instances is sufficient and appropriate from my perspective.

  4. This is a great discussion following your interesting post, Corrine. I do like to read reviews. I critically examine any review as I would any other information though. Sometimes I will be swayed to buy a product immediately, sometimes with happy results sometimes with disappointment. Other times I hang off for a bit and see what else I can find out. The integrity of the reviewer is of importance and I think it is necessary to publicly disclose any kick-backs or connections. However I enjoy reading the opinion of someone who has tried or trialed a product in addition to the advertising material. As long as the expectation is not that the review be “good” but that it be honest, I think to provide one is fine. If you don’t like a product and you feel uncomfortable saying so having received a free copy, you could always decline to post a review; like the adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.

  5. danlaw7 says:

    Corrine,
    Hi, You have built up respect among your audience. We appreciate your thoughtful comments and reflective style that encourages us to challenge our own thinking, as again demonstrated on this interesting post. I would appreciate you maintaining your critical approach – reflecting on the positive and negative features of a product or idea. I am sure that the people that are supplying you with their goods and services would expect you to maintain this approach. The producers/ suppliers may also take into account your feedback to improve their products.

    Keep up the great work. I for one enjoy your independent thinking. Hope you are enjoying a bit of a break over the holiday season though.😊

    • Thanks Dan, I really appreciate your comments, and your encouragement. I have to say I’m having a wonderful break. Barely thinking about work which is nice. Hope you are having a great start to 2016 as well 🙂

  6. This is certainly a bind. I don’t read your blog religiously, but I do read it often, and I must admit that I had not noticed that you received things to review. As for the arrangement with the people who offer you things, it seems fair enough on both sides. They take the chance that you will find positives to say, based on the idea that people do take your views seriously. And you find positive things to say, while still being honest.

    And vendors are keen to get positive news out there, and if people are just not buying your product in great numbers (the Surface seems like a good example of this) then you need to take a bit of a hit to get them into sympathetic hands.

    And realistically, it is hard to review only the things that you can personally afford. When people still wrote about music, they didn’t personally buy all those albums, and when I reviewed films I only paid for about half of the movies that I saw, the rest being in free press screenings.

    Probably the best idea in this day and age, when you are in control of your own final product, is to explicitly mention that you were given the object or access when you mention the product.

    Also, and I don’t know how this works in your state, but the organisation that I work for prohibits accepting gifts. You can “buy” gifts that you are given (with the money going to the department) if you want them, but I just refuse gifts from parents (who are the only ones in any danger of giving me anything) because I don’t want their kindness to become an expense for my family. This is a recent policy and until recently it was quite common for principals in particular to collect ten, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in “gifts” from vendors, and it certainly seems that this had some influence on their decision making. Even when you declare gifts like this, it is all too easy for it to appear that decisions are influenced.

    I guess this is all another way in which people an official and un-official leader is a tricky business.

  7. Deborah Davison says:

    I strongly agree with with both brettelockyer and danlaw7 in that you should above all else give your honest and critical opinion. I feel it’s also important to publish your reviews of products Even if those reviews would be negative.

  8. Hi Corinne, I sometimes get sent books for review, or am asked to give a quote to go in someone else’s book, and if I don’t have anything positive to say, I just decline to review or comment at all. To a certain extent, I think we can use any ‘influence’ we have to ensure that a wider spectrum of voices get heard. The ‘old boys’ club/network is still very prevalent in the UK, so it is useful to be able to disrupt that a bit by ‘bigging up’ some alternative voices.

    There has been quite a lot of scandal recently about complimentary ‘sock puppet’ reviews on Amazon, and apparently the company have tried to root out where this is happening (although I still see an awful lot of examples of where it is clearly going on). I try not to worry too much about it though because in the end positive word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool of all, and people tend to rely on word of mouth rather than written reviews in many instances.

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