19 July 2010

Whither ScienceBlogs?

UPDATE:  Bora's leaving.  He's my favorite.  Wow.

I've watched the science blogging community blow its collective stack about "Pepsi-gate," the quickly-canceled sponsored content blog hosted at Seed Media's ScienceBlogs called "Food Frontiers" that featured scientists (and, perhaps, their lawyer-approved ghostwriters) from Pepsi writing about nutrition issues.

The folks at SB made two big mistakes - they botched the disclosure of the sponsorship, and they did a less-than-stellar job telling the other SB contributors that the sponsored blog was coming.   These mistakes, along with some issues that may have been percolating for a while there, prompted at least a dozen bloggers to leave the SB community. (Bora kept a decent list of reactions to it here.)

Shortly after the pepsipocalypse, The CEO of Seed Media started his own blog on SB.  His introductory post said he'd be addressing the issue, but in the two weeks following none of the posts he's published ever addressed the substance of it.   I'd argue that's mistake number three - but the fact that the management addressed the issue a bit in a pair of posts at Page 3.14 mitigates this somewhat.  This is the most important passage in a post there, written by the CEO: 
We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.
I've worked in the public affairs industry for some time now, and I've done my share of crisis communications work.  I've done work for more than one major, multi-national beverage company - though I've never worked for Pepsi, and I'm not doing any work for beverage companies now.  I'm also a longtime fan of science blogs and science writing generally.  I've had discussions with people who write for SB, people who read SB, and people who follow the PR issues around SB.   So I hope I have something of value to contribute here.

From a crisis PR perspective, what SB should do is relatively simple - it's basically a by-the-book response.  Acknowledge the mistake, apologize for it, and explain how you won't let it happen again. (the post I linked to above is a decent start, but not close to sufficient.)  Do this emphatically and repeatedly for a while.  Avoid the passive voice, or qualifiers to your apology or explanation. Embrace the bottom line - you screwed up, you're sorry, you won't do it again, and you're implementing substantive changes.  Let the aggrieved parties know that you really care about them.  Then shut up and listen for a while. Make at least some of the changes those aggrieved parties recommend.

Having gone through this process with clients a few times, I know it's a lot harder than it looks.  People have pride. They may feel that not all the facts are getting out there.  They may be worried about liability, and they retreat to a bunker, thinking they should remain silent until the whole thing blows over.  Sometimes they feel they really haven't done anything wrong, even if the wrongdoing is obvious to everyone else.  When it's your company, or your organization, or your reputation, these are all understandable reactions. The actions these reactions prompt, however, typically make matters much worse.

From an issues management perspective, the desire to partner with SB is a no-brainer.  SB's brand is enormously credible, thanks to the contributions of the bloggers there. Of course Pepsi would want a space there. When making soft drinks is your core business, you're going to have challenges to your reputation on health, environment and science grounds. You have to be creative to address those challenges, and building relationships with "validating third parties" is one of the things you do.

Further, it's not like Pepsi is some fly-by-night operation.  Their communications team isn't a bunch of idiots. I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt they had any intention of hiding the fact that this was sponsored content, written by Pepsi employees.   Frankly I don't think SB had any intention of hiding that relationship either.  I think the mistakes about disclosure are more likely the result of poor management of the relationship or poor communication between the parties involved.

That said, I don't question the decisions the now-former SB bloggers made to leave. For many of them, particularly the science journalists, objectivity is paramount. Sharing a blog platform with a network that has even the appearance of a conflict may be too much to risk. 

But it's as a fan of ScienceBlogs that I hope and expect the network will endure this, develop better internal systems of communication (particularly between management and the bloggers), and rebuild and strengthen their reputation and their credibility.  I've talked with enough people close to the situation to know the mistakes were unintentional and there are efforts underway to improve lines of communication there.  I hope they'll continue to apologize, and I hope they'll make the substantive changes necessary to survive.  They're a big part of a vibrant and important community.

Let's not forget why the sponsored blog came about in the first place.  The current business models for online publications don't work very well. The management is trying to find new revenue streams, and they're bound to make mistakes along the way.  I hope the people who protested this arrangement will be just as assertive and vocal about developing new ideas to sustain the community.

You can't compromise your integrity or your credibility, but I would think science bloggers understand this better than most: you have to adapt and evolve to survive.

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