• United States
News Editor

Sprint’s ambassadors of ill will

Mar 27, 20064 mins
Network Security

This week we have marketing, blogging, marketing through blogging, and questions about journalistic ethics all wrapped up in a messy little package. And at the end I get caught taking a freebie from Verizon.

Sprint recently launched what that carrier calls its Ambassador Program, which sounds like a frequent flier deal but is actually a marketing ploy whereby influential bloggers are given a Samsung A-920 cell phone and six months’ worth of free yap on the Sprint Power Vision Network. They get to keep the phone.

The idea is that these bloggers will sing the praises of the phone and the Sprint service in their blogs, thus buying Sprint the kind of grass-roots buzz that marketing budgets simply cannot provide.

In this case, however, the idea has not gone entirely as hoped. Witness a series of posts from one of the ambassadors, Christopher Carfi, on his blog called The Social Customer Manifesto. Seems as though Carfi has had such a hassle trying to get his phone service in working order that the device has already been relegated to paperweight status.

“Guess I mothball the phone for six months,” Carfi concludes.

Sprint isn’t the first to try this seed-the-bloggers strategy, but the tactic is gaining momentum as the influence of blogging escalates.

I’ll do my best to hide the hurt, but Sprint didn’t ask me to be an ambassador. Perhaps that’s because my blog is so new. Or maybe the company’s marketing people are savvy enough to realize that professional journalist-bloggers operate under ethical constraints that generally preclude accepting freebies of any significant value. (Or maybe it’s the fact that my blog is, ahem, relatively undiscovered at this point.) Whatever the reason, it was never going to be.

But reading the posts written by Carfi and others did get me to mulling: Might it be time to rethink those ethical restrictions that would have forced me to decline the invitation that Sprint never offered?

I mean, Carfi demonstrated quite emphatically that a credible voice cannot be bought for six months’ worth of free calling and a phone.

Shouldn’t professional journalists be afforded the same benefit of the doubt by their bosses and readers?

The mere suggestion will be considered heresy by many journalists – and they’ll have a good case to make. After all, credibility is everything in this business, and we have enough challenges maintaining it without adding another. As things stand, too many readers presume we’re in an advertiser’s pocket any time we write something nice about vendors or fail to slap them around.

Bottom line: Freebies just aren’t worth the risk for someone who does this for a living.

So what ever possessed me to take one from Verizon mere hours after writing those words on Buzzblog?

Would you believe because everyone else getting off the Massachusetts Turnpike at my exit was doing the same thing? (I know that excuse never worked with Mom, but . . . )

“Tolls paid today by Verizon Yellow Pages,” read the flashing neon sign situated 50 yards or so from the booth. And it soon became clear that yellow-clad Verizon employees were standing alongside exiting traffic waving at drivers whose tabs their employer had so graciously made disappear. From afar I could see that one of those waving was an African-American fellow, kind of rotund, and the thought flashed through my mind: “No, it can’t be. I mean the movie career isn’t what it used to be, and he does make all those commercials . . . but it can’t be.” It wasn’t.

Still, the gimmick was a good one, as marketing gimmicks go. For the price of a 50-cent toll Verizon got a bunch of grumpy commuters to smile . . . not to mention a plug in Network World.

Direct your comments and James Earl Jones spottings to