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Are you protecting your social capital? 

No analogies today. I'm just going to tell it like it is. The number of brand ambassadors, twitter parties and blogger trips is growing exponentially. As it does, I'm starting to pull my hair out. I hate seeing people that I like, whose company I enjoy, whose judgment I usually respect, put their ethics and reputation on the line.

The truth behind corporate charity

So many of the corporate twitter parties of late are picking up on charitable trend. Instead of the party being all about the company and its products, the company agrees to donate something in return for people participating in the party. Those donations usually include prizes for the participants and a charitable donation of some kind on behalf of the company. People who choose to participate in the party tweet using the party hashtag in order to be entered to win the prizes and to contribute to the charitable cause. The person hosting the party is generally paid a fee for doing so. So, the host benefits, the charity (theoretically) benefits, and the participants benefit.

But what about the company?

Why would a for-profit company agree to make a significant charitable donation and provide prizes for a twitter party? Is it really for altruistic reasons? I would say probably 99 times out of 100, the answer is no. If the answer were yes, their shareholders would be looking to sell as quickly as possible. The only time where it might be true is in the case of a privately owned company where the owner has chosen to sacrifice personal gain in order to support charities that she thinks are worthwhile causes. But even then, it is rare.

The reason, in almost all cases, that companies agree to make charitable donations is to increase their goodwill. They want people to have a positive view of the company, so that they will purchase more of its products. It is usually the companies that are known for practices that are extremely harmful or unethical that also invest the most in ensuring that you know about their "corporate social responsibility" activities. However, for these companies, it isn't really about being responsible or ethical or charitable. It is about getting people to focus on the good things that they are doing so that they hopefully overshadow the bad things they are doing. Or it is about getting you to buy a crappy product that you otherwise wouldn't buy because you think the company is doing good things. The more a company has to hide, the more effort it will put into promoting the good things that it does.

Tobacco companies are always a good example to look at because people seem to understand that what they are doing is damaging. The International Non-Governmental Coalition Against Tobacco wrote a position paper entitled "The 'socially responsible tobacco company' - another misleading descriptor". Their paper starts with this clear statement:
Tobacco is grown by the poor, processed by low-paid workers, sold by the poor and used by the poor, the majority of whom stay poor and get sick while generating wealth for the shareholders of a few multinational companies. INGCAT’s member organisations are on the front line tackling the diseases and deprivation that tobacco company products inflict on the world’s poor. Our patients often cannot afford the treatments they need, or even basic foods, because they have used their scarce resources on tobacco companies’ products.

Tobacco companies, whose products are now killing 4.9 million people every year, are embarking on so-called “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) programmes, focusing on selected health and welfare issues to distract attention from their own products’ devastating impact on health and welfare of the world’s poor.

INGCAT member organisations believe that the only meaningful way tobacco companies can help improve the health and welfare of poor people is to stay out of it – stop promoting deadly products to these populations, stop trapping them in a trade that inhibits their economic development, stop undermining effective tobacco control policies that will address these populations’ real needs.

They go on to explain that supporting, endorsing or cooperating with tobacco companies in their corporate social responsibility activities is essentially counterproductive.

For me, a good company is a company that makes good products AND that also practices business in an ethical fashion. Supporting the charitable activities of a company whose products hurt people doesn't make sense. Supporting the great products of a company with horrendous business practices doesn't make sense. Neither one is optional.

What does this mean for social media participants?

If you blog, tweet, facebook or use other social media, think carefully before you jump on board and participate, re-tweet, promote or share information about a company. It doesn't matter if you are sharing information about their latest product or if you are promoting what seems to be a really great charitable contribution on their behalf. Before you push the button, look into that company and its products. Ultimately, helping to promote that company's products or its charitable actions, is increasing positive exposure for the company and allowing it to sell more of its products. Are those products really doing more good than they are harm? Consider how they are made, how they are sold, and how they are consumed. Is there a net benefit for the earth and for humanity at the end of the day? Or is the company making our environment and our people sicker? That one charitable action that looks so good needs to be weighed against all of the other things they are doing in order to assess its value. This is my pitch to you to consider the greater good.

Now let me pitch to your selfish side.  Right now it is still trendy to be a brand ambassador or a twitter party host.  But the tides are turning.  You have spent a lot of time and effort developing relationships and becoming a respected member of social media communities. You have the social capital that companies want to capitalize on. You are the golden ticket to increased goodwill. But...that is only true as long as you align yourself smartly. Every time someone aligns themselves with a campaign or a company with shady business practices, their social capital drops a notch. Not only does it hurt their reputation and their relationships, but it also hurts their value to other companies who may wish to work with them in the future. Aligning yourself with companies that sell crap or have shady business practices will decrease your worth over time. Be smart. For the greater good and for yourself.

As Warren Buffet once said (and he should know from experience!):
It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.

Things happen faster than that in the social media world, but the concept still stands.

Think before you click.

Research before you promote.

Otherwise you just might be the butterfly whose flapping wings caused the tornado

(Okay...sorry...I couldn't make it through a post without an analogy)

Image credit: JorgeMiente.es on flickr

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Reader Comments (38)

So true. Thanks for writing about this.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcela

First time I have been on your blog.
Good Point!!! Loved looking at your blog.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjoy smith

Every time you write, your social capital rises several notches. Thanks again (and again, and again) for this blog.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLorien

Absolutely true! In fact I have lost respect and have drifted away from some social network mothers groups that host twitter parties or advertise junk food/soda drink companies. In these times of trying to curb obesity and to get people to eat healthy foods it is just wrong. I don't care if they donate stuff to your kids school. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth (excuse the pun) - I don't want to hang out with people that think that marketing junk to mothers is okay.

On the other side of things I am hoping that people will see the company I work for in a good light because of what we DON'T advertise - e.g. it is rare to see a parenting site these days that does not advertise formula and bottles.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Thank you for writing this. You've put into words (again) what I have been trying to say. Great post!

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKrista S.

I am fascinated by the way that the "new web" is evolving - thanks for sharing this! On a related side-note, I usually read your blog in Google Reader, and sometimes click to your "real" site - does it make a difference for you? I am reading you anyway and enjoying you anyway and if reading you on the real site is better for your bottom line then I would like to support you!

Thanks from the newby, Nicole :)

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

Nice...as always.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica

Yes. But you also have to realize that not everyone shares the same vision of what's ethical and quality. Everyone has their own hot button issue. I wouldn't work with Nestle, but obviously other bloggers have no problem with that. And I had no problem working with Kraft Foods last summer on a two week meal planner project that I felt would be immensely helpful to a large portion of my readers who are working parents who struggle with the whole dinner thing.

As for companies that make "good for the earth products" it's STILL all about the money. As I mentioned on another post yesterday, I saw a giveaway where you could win coupons for packages of pre-rinsed organic quinoa, which I've seen at Target for eleven US dollars, more than twice the price of a comparable sized package of non-rinses quinoa. It takes 30 seconds to rinse it yourself. Is it ethical to encourage people to buy an overpriced convenience product just because it's healthy and organic?

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayris


I have no problem with it being "about the money" as long as the company is also making products that are not extremely unhealthy for people or for the environment and doing so in an ethical fashion. I think there is plenty of opportunity for companies to make money by selling products and services that help people, while also treating their employees, suppliers, customers, and the environment with respect.

I do agree, however, that everyone has different visions of what is ethical and quality and people should make choices based on their own vision of what that is. However, I think that we can continue to educate people and get them to change their vision. But the main point of my post was really that people shouldn't overlook things that they also think are questionable because they perceive that the company is doing something charitable. Ultimately, by supporting that charitable move, they are fueling the very practices that they think are questionable.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Yes, but all companies are looking at the bottom line. Look at all the pink ribbon merchandise that supposedly supports breast cancer research. Couldn't you ask (and people have asked) whi those companies don't just give the money directly to the research foundations instead of giving 20 cents from each cup of yogurt? Because it's about money, and if a company was NOT about money, they'd be a non-profit. As I said on Jessica Gottleib's post yesterday, if there is money involved, you'd better take everything with a grain of salt, whether it's a mom blogger pushing Lunchables or Jillian Michaels endorsing a weight loss product.

We've all got our hot button issues. I've turned down a lot of pitches for reviews and advertising because they didn't mesh with my views, particularly when it comes to water safety and chemicals. But processed food is not my battle. And as I said before, I chose to work with Kraft because, processed food aside, the core issue was one that I have received a lot of feedback from my readers, like taking the time to cook a meal at home with your family and planning ahead so it's easier to stay away from the fast food places or delivery pizza. Another mom and I had a very interesting discussion about food and nutrition and the way people eat as it relates to us, but I won't clutter up your comments with that because it's a separate issue.

I think it's also worthwhile to point out that when a blogger first starts receiving pitches and offers of free stuff, it can be hard to not say yes to everything. It's exciting to make that leap from "mom who posts about potty training and photos and has 3 readers, one of which is her mom" to "mom who PR people think has an influence."

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayris

Of course all companies are looking at the bottom line. I just think there are ethical and unethical ways to do so. I am a small business owner and I certainly look out for my bottom line. But I do think that I provide a service of value, do not do harm, and practice my business in an ethical way.

With regards to pitches and working with companies, I got a pitch last year that I did respond to. The company wanted feedback on its products. We already owned some of their products and I was happy to try some of the others and give them some feedback. However, there was no requirement for me to promote their products. That is the type of partnership that makes sense to me when I see value in working with a company, but don't feel right providing an all out endorsement of their products. I would have been comfortable with an arrangement like that with a company like Kraft as well, but would not have been comfortable with one that required me to promote their products or talk up their charitable actions. I don't know what was involved in your arrangement, so I can't say if it is something I would have done or not.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

In a leadership development class at NASA they told us the only thing we have is our name and it is so true. Honestly this is why I don't have ads on my blog. I just don't feel like I could do the research necessary to feel comfortable with it. I feel like it would change *why* I blog. That's nothing against those who have ads - everyone deserves to capitalize on their blog if they wish.

Per usual, a very thoughtful post. And I agree that bloggers need to be more stringent about the companies they align with and tweet for. I have passed on many opportunities either because the fit doesn't make sense or (and here's the thing I don't get) the company is asking for A LOT with very little in the way of reciprocity for the blogger (that old alleged "fabulous exposure" thing) and what is involved (e.g., flooding Twitter stream) seems more offensive than anything else.

If people aren't more selective, their voices will become noise.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBoston Mamas

Very smart post. As always. At first I wasn't sure where you were going with this...because I love corporate responsibility and corporate giving initiatives, and if a company can get more exposure or funding for a charity so be it. That said, I do squirm when I see companies I dislike trying to counteract negative PR with transparent do-gooding. But then I have to remind myself that I'm being totally unfair giving a break only to companies I do like, and ascribing the motives of say, a Ben + Jerry's as more altruistic than, say a Wal-Mart.

Okay, so they probably are.

It makes a good point about branding - we're tempted to think the best of companies we do like and the worst of the ones we don't. Even if they're behaving in the exact same way.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, great post. I kind of wish that people would ease up with the Twitter parties all around. When you're every single brand's "ambassador" it kind of has no meaning. Least of all, to your followers.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermom101

I agree 100% I started my mom twitter feed as an aside from my more IRL feed but that doesn't mean that I am willing to practically give up my first born for a free t-shirt. I do some twitter parties but only if I really like the topic or company, even then all my responses begin with an @ address so they don't go to everyone. I will re-tweet like a fool if there is really good info I think can benefit my twitter stream (usually breastfeeding or eco-awareness related). The other thing I try to do is when I tweet messages to promote bloggers and giveaways is I try to do it at low-traffic hours. Honestly I do that as to not irritate my twitter stream with how trifling I can be in wanting to win some products... but I only enter for things I would be willing to pay for.

As far as representing brands, that is not somewhere I am willing to go. I have been lucky in having some entities contact me but even a free product to review has not been enticing enough short of a prenatal massage service I reviewed. You will have to be a company aligned with my values for me to hitch my name to you like that.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkia

No, it wasn't like that. I wouldn't be comfortable saying "eat this mac and cheese because it's good for you." For Kraft OR any other box mix. Boxed food is boxed food. And there was no mention of charitable actions. And I did say "I skipped this product and subbed this healthier option instead" and they were fine with that.

TBH, I tend to skip pitches from a certain consulting company too because I feel there's too much pressure to give a good review, regardless of what I actually think. And that doesn't feel right to me.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayris

Well said. The way that some tack a new Ambassador pin to their stack on their labels really reduces their endorsement to the level of someone giving samples at a Sam's Club. Which is fine, nothing wrong per se with that, it's a job, though I'm going to avoid them just like I avoid that store, but attaching an "Ambassador" label to the Twitter party of the night and thinking it's about influence in really baffling. It's important to look behind the curtain of cause marketing,too. Some efforts truly are stellar and I'm proud to endorse or support. Some not. And just because the cause is great doesn't mean that the product is. Ronald McDonald House is a fantastic charity, for example, but that doesn't change how they get their funding, does it? I love the idea of people really thinking through who they want to work with and where they draw the line.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeb on the Rocks

This. I agree with you. I've had to stop following people because of their allignment with certain companies ::cough::nestle::cough::

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSlee

Great post. I'm also hoping that bloggers will become more refined in their brand representation. I tihnk it's fine to love a brand and promote it, but over-doing it also lessens your message. If you come across as someone who's willing to promote anything, your message is less.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaty

Having worked for one of the world's largest corporations in marketing for many years I can assure you of one thing -- it's always about selling the product. It's not that some companies don't have charitable arms that do great things. They do. Bottomline, though, it's ALWAYS about the bottom line, and I think most blog consumers are aware of that.

There are lots of women who help put food on the table by the commercial partnerships they make, and it's not my place to question that. I will say I've begun avoiding tweeps and bloggers who ONLY talk about giveaways and brands just because that's not what I'm reading blogs for. The ones who have good things to say and who also have a partnership here and there don't bother me as much. They seem to still be in the game for the content and remain dedicated to the original missions of their blogs.

I do think it's important to point out as you did that these bloggers need to be prepared that the opinion readers have of them may change due to product placement, advertising and the like.

This is timely for me as I have been kicking around a post for Bloganthropy (and just submitted a HARO query) and would love to quote some of this (with credit, of course). It is tangentially related--I am thinking about the effectiveness of these "Tweet out" or "Update your status with" fundraising + awareness campaigns.

And on a different note, maybe it is a guilty conscious but I do see some of myself in this post. If you have people with whom you personally feel a connection, and you feel they are "selling out" themselves/their audience/their credibility, I would try the direct approach with that person. Which is not to say you shouldn't blog about it as well, because it is certainly an issue and an ongoing conversation. Just that it may elucidate for you why a particular blogger, who you like or generally respect has agreed to endorse a particular brand. And you might either come to understand that decision even if you do not agree with it or that blogger may even come to see things your way and consider her options differently in the future.

As someone who co-owns a blog that focuses on product recommendations, I receive a ridiculous number of pitches every day. I choose the ones I think fit best. Sometimes I regret my choice but mostly I am proud of the choices I make.

I'm not perfect but I am always willing to listen and learn ;)

The brand ambassador thing seems to be really taking off. I am getting regular emails of this nature now. Speaking only for myself, I have a hard time aligning myself with any company that way. I can see accepting paid ads, when the division between editorial and advertising is very clean-cut. It feels less invested to me, somehow. But there are very few businesses that I feel strongly enough about to be their ambassador, and provide free advertising for.

If you make a different choice, that's fine. I think we can respect each other. But I also hope that you're not compromising your principles just because you feel flattered.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Thank you for your comment Candace. This post wasn't about any particular blogger or particular company, but more about a trend that I've seen. I was perhaps pushed over the edge by the recent #lunchables twitter party and related sponsored tweets (I have no idea if you were involved in that or not), but it is something I've blogged about in the past with regards to http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/12/22/should-you-donate-kraft-dinner-to-the-food-bank/" rel="nofollow">Kraft Dinner. It isn't one blogger or even a handful, it is starting to be more than I can count. I don't feel comfortable approaching a specific blogger and questioning her motives in supporting a specific brand, because that really is her decision. However, I just wanted to put out a general blog post and plea for people to be sure to consider more than just the charitable action of a company when deciding whether to jump on board and help them promote it (whether as an "ambassador" or merely a twitter party participant).

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I was no where near that particular campaign -- and I've become less and less enamored of Twitter campaigns as they become more about just Re-tweeting a message or tweeting for prizes without a conversation around an issue. I've been pretty vocal, as you know, about the right of the community to push back when they disagree with the message or the medium.

And I also consult with some medium and small companies professionally on these issues and there are very limited parameters in which I recommend a Twitter party.

I agree that it is up to the individual blogger to choose which brands to promote--but it is still the Wild West here and I think sometimes it is easy to forget that we all come at this with varying degrees of media savvy. Those who have worked in media, marketing or advertising, have had a little more time to think about authenticity in regards to promotion.

I think of bringing that issue up with someone with whom you have a relationship as more of a favor to them--helping them to think through the issue and how their actions are perceived.

I have turned down companies before when I felt that the contribution was not significant enough or if I just cannot work with that company. But I've also participated with large companies I don't love (but can live with) when I've felt the constribution was enough and the conversation genuine enough.

I agree though, ultimately, with the point that we need to be aware of greenwashing and...is there a cute name yet for a socially irresponsible company making a minor and vague charitable contribution in exchange for major publicity?

I think Katherine makes a great point about bloggers who ONLY do reviews or brands. An acquaintance of mine does just that, and that's fine, but I was so bored with it, I removed her from my reader. I've NEVER read a negative review on her site (and she does a LOT) and I wonder if it's because she only accepts pitches that she thinks she'll like? Or does she not want the parade of free stuff to dry up if she says something negative?

I've deleted three pitches in the past couple of days that were form emails asking me to "apply" to review a product and I'm just not interested. If a company values my opinion that much, they can come to me, not the other way around. And I'm not interested in aligning myself with a company that seems more and more like a giant machine cranking out positive reviews and giveaways. (I don't want to say the name but you've probably heard it.)

It's a complicated issue, lots to think about here.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayris

I agree with Candace. I like to think I have enough friends out there that someone will drop me a cautionary note if they think I'm about to jump the shark.

Just stumbled upon you on Facebook. I Like the way you think and am impressed by your site. Thank you for the suggestions, you are spot on with them.

Peace. Love. Light.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteradiaha

I wanted to share a great article by the CIO of NASA (where I work) about managing your online reputation. She has some great statistics: http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/NASA-CIO-Blog.blog/posts/post_1267929973075.html

I immediately thought of this post and thought the general ideas here would be helpful.

As always, Annie, wonderful post. Thanks. :)

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHaley-O (Cheaty)


July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria

Thank you for describing why I'm not participating in twitter parties, accepting free stuff, or advertising on my blog. I recently accepted a job writing for an upcoming blog about breastfeeding, and I have total respect for the company who is hosting the blog and paying me to write. However, I have a job that supports my family and this minute amount of blogging pay is just a bonus. I can understand how others who need more money may be willing to compromise their ideals, but fortunately I'm not in that situation.

August 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAbbie

Thanks for this link! A school superintendent from a neighboring town has come under fire for posting on FB on his first day that his job was so easy, he slept late and then shared some confidential information. I sometimes wonder how people could be so stupid!

August 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAbbie

[...] themselves with. You probably all remember the Nestle Family affair and may remember my post about brand-supported “charitable” twitter parties. The Striderite / Robeez private party that was held at the same time as BlogHer ’10 (but not [...]

[...] you really comfortable recommending them to others given the potential hazards? How do you think it affects your social capital when you tweet about toxic products under the guise of keeping babies healthy? Is it worth it for a [...]

Well said!

As a contract blogger for a specific company, I appreciate their transparency as much as my own. The day they say I have to tout something I don't believe in/wouldn't use/think is rubbish is the day I quit. To date, that's never happened. They've let me have a free voice. But people ask me all the time to tout their wares and I wonder: if I do that for everyone, what does that say about me & my brand?

Thanks again for a great post.

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRacheal

[...] a lot to a blog and keeps me on my toes.  She was involved in in-depth discussions on posts on protecting your social capital, school vs. homeschooling,  reporting marketing of breastmilk substitutes, calling out a mom who [...]

oh this is a great topic and thanks for posting. Interesting that I think it is not only relevant a year later but even more relevant.

When I read that post, I couldn't help but realize how this type of activity is starting to ruin social media for me. The value of social media for me is that it connects people and removes much of the noise that gets in the way.

Unfortunately, this type of activity whether it is overtly disclosed or not, makes me believe that more and more, social media is turning into a platform that is starting to closely mirror many others in the sense that genuine human interaction is being interrupted by brand noise.

The result of this is that is starting to create an environment of distrust. I don't trust people interacting in social media anymore. I don't trust brands interacting in social media and I find that, in reference to Twitter specifically, it is turning that specific platform into a channel no different than television.

My advice for anyone looking to interact on social media is still the same: do it for pure, one to one interaction and to facilitate human connection. Nothing more or you will just damage the view of yourself, and if applicable, your brand.

April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanny

[...] want us only for our social capital and that ask us to do unseemly things in return? The very same social capital that will go down the drain if we take them up on offer after offer after [...]

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