Declaration of Independence

Independence Hall, Philadelphia PA

Blogging is a very fun way to get your ideas out in the open and generate discussion about them.  It’s a great way to show people how your mind works and how you can apply critical thinking skills to problems.  It’s also a wonderful way to sneak movie references into long form prose.  But what happens when the words coming out of your mouth aren’t necessarily yours?

This blog is the sole creation of myself.  I take ideas from all over the place and write about them.  Some people stoke the fires of my creative mind.  Others say things that get me going off on a tangent.  Ultimately though, the words that spill out on this page are mine.  They represent my thoughts and feelings.  Though inspired by many sources, in the end the posts and comments I make belong to me.  I don’t consult anyone before posting.  Only rarely do I inform anyone about a pending post, and even then it is simply to ensure I’m not revealing privileged information or breaking the law.  Sometimes I’ve been contacted about material I’ve written and questioned about my feelings on the matter.  While I do reserve the right to change my mind in relation to a subject, I do take umbrage at being told to change my mind against my wishes.

It’s no secret that some people out there are simply regurgitating information being fed to them.  Public relations people come up with creative ways to write about things that look very humble and interesting at first, only to find later on that you’ve been led into a sales pitch by the nose.  I don’t like this method of tricking me into forming an opinion.  At the same time, I also realize how easy it can be to fall into the same trap when I am the content creator in question.  I’ve always tried my hardest to stay independent when it comes to the opinions and information disseminated on this blog.  I’ve done this because I owe it to my readers to ensure my impartiality and disconnection from things.  I want people to know who *I* am, not who someone or something thinks I should be.  Due to my involvement with Tech Field Day and my related posts, some in the community have accused me of being a vendor shill.  I regurgitate information I’ve been told to post without regard for accuracy.  In return, I receive some unknown benefit or use my influence to gain an army of acolytes to stroke my ever-growing ego.

I hope you all know by now nothing could be further from the truth.

When I talk to vendors or companies about my blog, I make it very clear from the start that I am independent.  What does that mean?  It means I write with three tenants in mind:

I Write What I Want – You can show me presentation after presentation and speak to me for hours on end about your product or cool new widget.  I may whittle this down to a 3 paragraph post.  That’s my prerogative as a blogger.  I tend to cut the fat away from things when I post them as a courtesy to my readers.  If I think something you have is cool, I may focus on it.  I also reserve the right to talk about your presentation and delivery methods.  The point is that I choose the topic.  I’ve been sent “suggested topic” emails in the past from companies.  I trashed them as soon as I read the subject line.  These are my words, and I’ll be the one to choose them, thank you very much.

I Write When I Want – As a rule, I respect product embargoes.  If you have a big PR campaign that is firing up next month and you give me a product briefing, I’ll respect the street date for your information.  However, don’t expect me to churn out a post timed to be out on the day of launch.  I choose when to post my information.  I do this to avoid traps like a company asking me to hold any negative opinions until months after launch to ensure the hype machine is operating at full efficiency.  Or worse yet, asking me to post the day before a competitor’s new product comes out in an attempt to steal their thunder.  I time my posts so that I don’t overload people with information.  If I need to put off talking about something for a day or two, that is my choice.  Having a pushy PR person breathing down my neck to contribute to the hype machine before launch day tends to get on my nerves.

I Write If I Want – Obligation is a funny thing.  Once you’ve been locked in by it, you have effectively lost your free will.  Tech Field Day works like this: I write if I want to.  Sure, the companies involved with Tech Field Day usually see me as a way to generate some press about them.  However, it is never expected that I am required to write about a presenting company.  I write about you because *I* want to, not because you want me to.  Requiring me to make a post about your widget is a great way to make me not do it.  Imagine if Walter Cronkite was told he must write about the president’s new social security plan if he ever wanted a one-on-one interview again. Crazy, right?  Journalists choose their topics ahead of time and do research.  The topics they don’t think will be important get shelved.  Much is the same with me.  Rather than flood your RSS feeds with useless garbage, I try to bring entertainment and information.  Inviting me to a product briefing in Rome and then telling me I have to write five posts about it to “pay” for my trip will get you a kind “no thank you”.  Persistence will be met with less kind words.

Keeping those things in mind every time I sit down to write helps me ensure that my opinion is independent and accurate.  If my opinion is bought and paid for, it serves no purpose for anyone.  If I become a mouthpiece, my mind is no longer of use to the community.

What about you?  What about the bloggers that are just starting out?  How can you remain independent?  Sometimes the choices aren’t as easy as black and white.  PR people get paid to influence opinion.  At best, they are a useful tool to help a company’s image.  At worst, they aren’t much better than con men.  The shady ones can trick you into doing what the want quite subtly.  They will give you suggested posts or offer to help you have a more effective message.  They’ll ask you for editorial control over your writing.  They may even write your message for you over the course of communication.

The key to remaining independent is to remember: When the words coming out of your mouth aren’t yours, you are no longer independent.  If you find yourself being coached by a vendor in what they want you to post, you’re now an unpaid employee of their PR department.  Don’t give in.  Make sure your terms are clear up front.  Ensure that the vendors and manufacturers know your feelings.  Don’t start down the slippery slope of letting someone else choose your words for you.  It’s okay to ask for advice so long as you keep in mind where the advice is coming from.

I do want to make it clear that there are some vendor-employed bloggers that I consider to be independent.  Christofer Hoff and Brad Hedlund immediately come to mind.  These guys might be employed by a vendor, but they aren’t shills.  They give their thoughts freely without reservation and make sure to define themselves outside their day jobs.  I try to do much the same.  While I do work for a Value Added Reseller (VAR), I consider my blogging activities to be a totally different aspect of my career.  I refuse to kowtow to a vendor or manufacturer for preferential treatment.  I’m nice to those that have earned my respect.  I’m frosty to those that have earned a cold shoulder.  I’m consistent because there is nothing coloring my opinion beyond my own thoughts (and the occasional glass of bourbon).

Tom’s Take

I hold these blogging truths to be self evident: All bloggers have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of blogging happiness.  At the same time, they have the responsibility to be sure their voice is the one being heard, not someone else.  Bloggers are powerful tools in the new media because we are independent voices that express opinion without reservation.  Some won’t care what I have to say about the newest Acme Widget, but others most certainly will.  I won’t influence a product success or failure, but I can swing a few people one way or the other.  So I must be sure that my thoughts and words are carefully chosen to reflect what I feel.  I also need to be sure that no one else writes my words for me, either by overt action or shady inaction.  To let me readers be subjected to marketing fluff or untrue opinions that I didn’t write would be a great injustice in my mind.  To that I pledge my blogging honor.

9 thoughts on “Declaration of Independence

  1. Love this, Tom. I stand WITH you, as both someone who works in public relations by day, and who is a committed blogger (my subject of choice: food) at all other times — including the middle of the night.

  2. One of the things vendors need to come around on as they interact with social media types like us is that the reason we have whatever following we have is because we express our own views. Vendors can go to the media trade rags to get coverage without context. That’s what the trade rags do. I’ve talked with a large enough sampling of the folks that work for professional media outlets to realize that most of them don’t really understand the implications of a new technology or product for the marketplace, so they have a really hard time doing any sort of meaningful analysis. That’s not an indictment of those folks, at least one of whom I count as a friend; that’s just the way it is. However, that’s also a major reason I don’t read media rags in any depth, with a few notable exceptions. The lack of meaningful analysis is also what makes the majority of Gartner and Tolly reports utterly worthless – most of them are PAID FOR by a vendor. What sort of an outcome would any right-thinking person expect in such a scenario? Unbiased truth? It is to laugh.

    Thus, the rise of bloggers. We aren’t professional media, although we try to write good articles. We aren’t paid by the vendors, and so we are free to be fair. Or unfair. Or whatever. I am respectful of vendors and their marketing organizations. They have a job to do and a product to sell – I get that. But I’m more respectful of the fact that the folks who read what I am writing are doing so on the presumption that I am speaking my mind freely. As soon as that trust is lost, my opinion loses a good percentage of whatever value it might have had. Ultimately, the vendor loses out as well, because if what I have to say loses credibility, then what I say about a vendor’s product loses relevancy to what would become a rapidly shrinking audience.

    Vendors, yes, many bloggers have hundreds or even thousands of micro-niche readers that make up precisely your target market. But if you want to engage the social media space, get used to herding cats. We’re the cats. We run in the direction that seems right to us. Not to be mean. Not because we get excited by being controversial (not mostly anyway), but because it’s completely pointless to do otherwise – both for you, and for us.

  3. Agree 100%! Very nicely stated.

    I get so sick of vendors sending me e-mails with “Content for your blog” subject lines. Look people. . . I don’t need content for my blog. I don’t blog for the sake of blogging. I am not going to post your press release. . EVER. Yes, I realize that there are bloggers out there that will be happy to do that, for the sake of “content”. But NO ONE reads those blogs. Seriously.

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