In what marks one of the new year’s first public relations blunders,Microsoft’s move to buddy up with bloggers has backfired.
The software giant recently gave dozens of expensive laptops loaded with its new Windows Vista operating system to bloggers. Instead of goodwill, the gesture generated contention in the blogging community.
Some are slinging accusations against not only Microsoft, but also their blogging brethren. Microsoft, they write, is bribing bloggers, and those bloggers, they add, are engaging in unethical behavior.
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
At the root of the controversy is a US$2,200 Acer Ferrari laptop. Several bloggers reported last week that Microsoft had sent them the machine. Microsoft has since gone on record to acknowledge that it sent out about 90 computers to bloggers who cover technology and related topics, including photography and parenting.
Members of the blogging community who did not receive laptops took the opportunity to remind their fellow bloggers that it is inappropriate to accept expensive gifts from companies about which they write. Bloggers, they insist, must maintain journalistic standards by refusing gifts that could bias them toward a vendor.
“This reeks of ‘crossing the line’ to me,” said one comment on Long Zheng’s blog. Zheng, a teenage blogger living in Australia, was one of the many who received the laptop. “It comes across as nothing more than a bribe.”
Brandon LeBlanc, another blogger who received an Acer Ferrari, received critical commentary on his blog: “Looks like you just lost all your credibility — who will trust anything MS-related you say after this?”
Bloggers Belt Back
Bloggers are belting back in what has become a divisive subject in a traditionally unified blogging community. Blake Handler, a blogger in Los Angeles who accepted a laptop, said he plans to keep the machine.
“Being provided an evaluation computer from Acer is not a ‘bribe,'” he wrote in his blog. “It simply allows me to accelerate my evaluations, documentation and demonstrations of Windows Vista.”
The Voice of Reason
The crux of the issue, as marketer and blogger B.L. Ochman sees it, is the lack of transparency.
“Obviously, companies send free products to reviewers all the time, and people accept free products all the time. But Microsoft didn’t make it a requirement for the bloggers to say they had received the laptops,” she told TechNewsWorld. “It was only after one blogger disclosed that he received a free laptop that other bloggers began saying they received them, too.”
This lack of transparency doesn’t fare well for bloggers who wrote reviews without disclosing the “gift,” Ochman argued, but Microsoft should have set parameters with these recipients, most of whom aren’t accustomed to receiving products for review.
As Microsoft’s trusted public relations advisor, Edelman PR is no stranger to online controversy. The company is also a target of criticism in what some bloggers are calling a “pay per post” Vista scandal. In addition, Edelman got into trouble a few months ago with Wal-Mart’s blogger relations programs when it was discovered that the retailing behemoth was running fake blogs. The common denominator behind both publicity stunts is Edelman.
“This whole controversy is about taking a very traditional means of marketing and applying it to a nontraditional medium. It just goes to show at a very fundamental level that Microsoft didn’t understand how the blogosphere would work,” Ochman remarked. “That is inexcusable when you are working with a PR firm that says it’s the master of the online universe.”