At What Point Ethics?

So my attention was called to a post by one of my favorite thinkers in this space, Olivier Blanchard (aka The Brand Builder) about a fly by night certification scam (not the first, and I’m sure not the last to sucker people in) called International Social Media Association. I won’t even try to pull the post and contents over here – it’s a goldmine of thought leadership from start to finish, in line and in comments. Go read the (long but worth it) post on ISMA for yourself, then come back – we’ll wait.

Ok, are you back? Good. This post is not about ISMA. I’ve been disgusted by the whole concept of ISMA since I read Olivier’s post and realized – I know these people. These people are in my state, messing with people that others (myself, John Herman, Christine Major, Monika and Jay McGillicuddy, and more) have worked hard to teach social media ethics based on our time in the trenches, doing the work. I’m appalled, yes, but not just at the concept of ISMA and how it takes advantage of people – I’m also rather appalled at myself. After all, the ISMAs and others like them are going to do what they do – the beauty of PodCamps and breakfasts and meetings like NHMM are that people can take what they learn and use it to make something of their own out of it – we can only hope that the knowledge is used for things that are good.

See, the more I read Olivier’s post, the more the name ISMA and the names of the founders Mark and Mari nagged at my mind. I puzzled over it for a while, but in the end I’ve been busy with several companies and events this past year and I just couldn’t place why I was getting that prickly neck feeling. Then it came to me – one or both have attended the Social Media Breakfast NH I founded over the past months. This means they’ve fully been exposed to good, “do no harm” social media practices and chose to ignore them. Then the big realization hit – at PodCamp NH we were $400 away from being fully sponsored, and I was about to pay it out of pocket (after all, it’s my event and we’d raised $5600 in a week to keep it free, I was more than happy to pony up). Then Mark came over and said he wanted to be a last minute angel sponsor. I took the check, promoted the crap out of his very generous gesture during the weekend, wondered what his organization did, and then… got busy with PodCamp NH logistics and forgot all about looking into it.

How does this pertain to ethics, you wonder? Let me tell you – this pertains to my ethics. There are a lot of people out there doing social media bad instead of social media good. It’s become a caveat emptor world full of fauxrganizations like this one. It’s up to me, and other established and practicing consultants that have been doing this for a long time, to police the scammy people in our local areas and in our national space. If I was on the ball, I would have taken a moment on one of the many laptops around at PCNH and looked up the company I was taking a check from for my event. I would not have encouraged validation by association.

To that end, in keeping with my own ethics, I think I’m about to rethink the PodCamp finance model for 2010. I’m not sure just yet what will change – I sense a team meeting coming on earlier than expected so we can decide as a group what change will look like. All I know is, from here on in, I’ll be vetting the sponsors long before the events. I’ve already turned down a few panel appearances this year because I didn’t want to validate bad information by association, I’ll have to treat the rest of what I and my team do as far as event with the same rigor.

Update, March 3, 2010:

Recently it was called to my attention that someone I really, really like was an ISMA “founding member” (ISMA term). My initial reaction was one of blunt disappointment. I try very hard to hear both sides of everything, and since this is someone I think of as a really nice person (or people, actually, it’s a two person company) to boot, I talked to them on the phone extensively about ISMA, and, more specifically since they own their own company, about why they choose to try ISMA out (as well as other teaching tools, including some of my events and Hubspot’s Inbound Marketing University, plus other tools).

I wasn’t surprised at their reason, though they were not able to change my opinion about ISMA, the organization – like I said above, the people behind it seem nice enough, I can only comment on what I think of the ISMA practices. Perhaps what I like about the person I was having the phone conversation with is reflected in how many learning experiences they tried – with so much variety it seems to have tempered the influence of one misguided group and given them a base to be a better company, and knowing their personalities, I’m not surprised they wanted as much info from as many people and organizations as possible.

So, Allen, thanks for taking the time to explain your reasoning, as a separate company from ISMA, on why you saw some value in trying their program out, and thanks for understanding that while I still have to agree to disagree on the whole ISMA concept and execution, I like the more balanced overall thing you’re doing with your company in spite of that.

[Update:  ISMA has since disbanded]


  1. Tre January 3, 2010

    Thanks for this brave, honest sharing which illustrates the value of ethics at its fullest in our practice, in our associations and in how we do things…while still admitting a desire for growth. I'm grateful for your integrity, truly.

  2. uberVU - social comments January 3, 2010

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  5. Aaron Brazell January 3, 2010

    I don't see your ethics being tainted here. I do see that sponsorship of PodCamp, etc, gives ISMA political clout when hawking their wares… gives them some kind of credibility.

  6. geechee_girl January 3, 2010

    Yes, especially in a less metropolitan area like this one: acceptance leads to validation, association leads to validation, etc

  7. btrandolph January 3, 2010

    way to get out in front of this, leslie. the description of your thought process on receiving the last-minute donation is familiar to anyone who has been involved in staging an event. I was a pcnh attendee and benefited directly from your efforts to make it a “learn free or die” experience. I appreciate all of those organizations and (especially) individuals that stepped up to help make the event the success you envisioned.

    that said, any major conference or event will have its share of “gray area” sponsors. I think that will be even more the case with social media-focused events for two reasons. first, the discipline is still coalescing. as with any new sector, there will be snake oil salespeople as surely as there will be customers to be bilked. second, the social media community is an open community. leading practitioners are the first to admit they don't know all the answers and actively solicit suggestions and new ideas from the community. this openness is a good thing. however, it also means that any idea that comes out of the community is not rejected out of hand for unorthodoxy.

    I said above that I appreciated all the event sponsors. I have a special warm spot for those who weren't looking to get anything out of it, but I thank those with more mercenary goals as well. that doesn't mean I will blindly buy what they're trying to sell, any more than I will change the breakfast cereal I eat because brand x buys advertising on glee. nor does it mean I will necessarily judge what is being sponsored by the sponsors – it's about content, right? : )

  8. geechee_girl January 3, 2010

    Yep, I actually weighed posting this for a while. On the one hand, I am always exactly who I am online, so I like to show my thought process when I can. On the other, I worried that I was having a knee jerk response to the issue having met two of the organizers at events (the everyone is only human theory that drives my interactions). In the end, it bothers me enough as a bigger picture issue, that I thought a post about the aspect of sponsorship would be a good way to open dialogue on validation by association. I can only hope that the fact that I dislike the company/item(s) being sold and skeevyness of the method of sale and have nothing against the people who made it comes through.

  9. Chuck Franks January 3, 2010

    Leslie, I feel like a big light has just been turned on in a dark room. Shedding light on a problem almost always makes it go away or it gives you the power to deal with it. Ethics is always such a gray area. However research shows it's those who actually discuss, and question their own ethics who actually behave more ethically. I'm touched by your transparency as you share about a mistake/decision you made and the possible consequences.

    The part I like the most is that from this your looking for a learning process. We should always be looking to improve what we are doing professionally.

    Kudos to you for being real.

  10. geechee_girl January 3, 2010

    Thanks Chuck,

    I constantly strive to do the right and best thing for my business so even one 30 second oversight like that in several years of business really creates a need for evaluation for me. I work hard every day to always be better than the day before.

  11. MariSmith January 3, 2010

    Hi Leslie – Mari here, President, International Social Media Association.

    I'm confused by your post – it seems you're basing your assessment of ISMA entirely on Olivier's opinion piece. (I agree it turned into an industry-wide discussion that released much tension; and I felt many points made in the post and comments were valid. Despite the harsh tone by many, my team and I listened intently and are integrating what's appropriate).

    However, I feel your post here is unjust. I notice you didn't link to Olivier's more level-headed follow-up post about the whole concept of certification in the social media industry. Or Jason Fall's thoughtful post in response to Olivier's original one.

    I do agree it makes complete sense to do proper due diligence prior to accepting sponsorship funds. But to assert ISMA is a scam taking advantage of people is not fair or accurate.

    I wonder how much due diligence you've done in really researching what ISMA is and does. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to speak with you – I don't know that we've met or spoken before and this is the first time I’ve read your blog.

    What puzzles me most about fellow professionals in the social media industry, such as yourself, is the fact the entire industry is about relationships, connecting, engaging, listening, collaborating… and yet there seems to be a big “them and us” great divide. There are those self-appointed social media “purists” who feel justified in pointing fingers at anyone they deem not “fit” for the industry… yet the finger pointing is done without possession of all the facts.

    Yes, I see the “free-for-all” going on in this emerging industry. You just tweeted this morning with a link to yet another social media certification “out there.” I’m keeping track of them all myself – they’re going to keep springing up no matter what. Each course offers something unique to different audiences.

    Of course, there is a shakeout happening too. These are natural phases with anything new. Our intent with ISMA is to establish a solid reputation as one of the industry leaders in social media training and education.

    And, my style is – unless someone is really causing grievous harm – to allow others to follow their path and I follow mine, knowing that I am staying true to myself, my integrity, standard and ethics. I've been in the social media industry for close to three years, and have eight years' solid experience prior in relationship marketing. I'm a widely recognized social media keynote speaker and trainer, with a long list of top clients. I have a stellar “in-the-trenches” track record as does Mark.

    What’s fascinating about the great divide is, had I approached and befriended someone like Olivier say six months or more ago and he’d agreed to be on our board and actually contribute his smarts to a collaborative effort, would there be so much judgment going on about ISMA?

    With the benefit of hindsight, Mark and I may have launched ISMA slightly differently. But our trainings – both free and paid – are solid.

    ISMA is a strong, professional organization and will only become stronger as we progress and grow. I invite anyone to reach out to any of our members, students and graduates to find out what they are learning from ISMA and what they’re doing for their clients and the real tangible results their clients are achieving.

    Leslie, I applaud you for stepping up your own ethics and sponsor-vetting system. Yet, as I say, I’m at a loss to understand specifically why you’re so intent on calling my organization a scam?

    Perhaps if our course was a training, not certification, that would make a difference to some. Or if there was no money involved and we offered everything for free, suddenly it's not a “scam?”

    As I said to Olivier, I’m always open to feedback – good, bad or indifferent – it’s all valuable to me. My team and I take what makes most sense and integrate where appropriate. At the same time, everything we have done and everything we offer is done so with heart and integrity.


  12. geechee_girl January 3, 2010

    Hi Mari,

    Glad to see your response here!

    This post is much more about the implications of sponsorship acceptance as validation and the ethics involved in sponsorship acceptance – a train of thought sparked by Olivier's post – than it is a reply to his post or a comment about his post. This is why I sent people over there to form their own opinions on his original post and the issues he was addressing regarding ISMA and similar organizations.

  13. MariSmith January 3, 2010

    Thanks, Leslie.

    Okay, fair enough. I agree there is implied association with sponsors. In fact, it's more than implied, and due diligence is a must.

    I do, however, maintain that your choice of words in this post (“scam, taking advantage, sucker, fly by night”) are/were direct hits at ISMA without full knowledge or facts.

  14. Emma L. Devlin January 3, 2010

    I'm with btrandolph on this. You realized your mistake and are getting out in front of this to admit you may have erred. You said it yourself, “everyone is only human.”
    I remember the amount of work you put into making PCNH a success. I would not spend too much time feeling angst over neglecting to validate this one sponsor. That you recognize this now, are admitting it here and are going to change your policy to avoid it in the future is the important lesson.

  15. Monika January 3, 2010

    At PCNH Jay and I talked with Mark and Mari during lunch. They were very excited about the new organization that they were starting. I listened intently and afterward told Jay I felt uncomfortable about it. I'm all for making money don't get me wrong but it just didn't sit right. The “certification” part is what I didn't get. They seemed like very nice people but the “international certification” program as I understood it seemed to me just like someone trying to capitalize on the social media wave. Maybe my impression was wrong but that was how I felt.

  16. MariSmith January 6, 2010

    Hi Monika – just FYI, I have never been to NH, so you wouldn't have spoken with me. I live in San Diego, Mark Eldridge – my business partner in ISMA – lives in NH with his wife Lyn-Dee who was likely the one you spoke with.

    I hope we do get the chance to meet in person some day… and that you have an opportunity to find out the facts about our training and organization. 😉


  17. Monika January 6, 2010

    I'm sorry… I should have checked the name on the business card. It was Lyn-Dee and she was very nice.
    Sorry about that.

  18. geechee_girl January 7, 2010

    Yep, Lyn-Dee, Mark and Mari and are all very nice people. This post wasn't about them, but about sponsor acceptance ethics, sparked by a discussion about their company ISMA and what people think about it over on The Brand Builder

  19. chelpixie January 10, 2010

    Leslie I'm glad you've posted this. Let me just share some thoughts as a Podcamp Boston organizer.

    Last year we had some of the same issues *just* prior to PCB going on with a few last minute things needing to be covered. We were lucky, we managed to find sponsors that we've worked with before and some brand new that were cool to work with. (All of our sponsors rocked it! <3)

    I would have had the exact same reaction in your place.

    It'll make me think twice in the coming year with PCB planning and knowing that the companies we exchange sponsorship ties with are getting something important in that endorsement so we have to be aware of who we're backing. It's easy when you know the company you keep but not every Podcamp has that option.

    No your ethics aren't damaged. You made a decision in good faith. You've been open and honest the outcome here which I think is important and I'm very appreciative for that.

  20. Chel Wolverton January 11, 2010

    Leslie I'm glad you've posted this. Let me just share some thoughts as a Podcamp Boston organizer.

    Last year we had some of the same issues *just* prior to PCB going on with a few last minute things needing to be covered. We were lucky, we managed to find sponsors that we've worked with before and some brand new that were cool to work with. (All of our sponsors rocked it! <3)

    I would have had the exact same reaction in your place.

    It'll make me think twice in the coming year with PCB planning and knowing that the companies we exchange sponsorship ties with are getting something important in that endorsement so we have to be aware of who we're backing. It's easy when you know the company you keep but not every Podcamp has that option.

    No your ethics aren't damaged. You made a decision in good faith. You've been open and honest the outcome here which I think is important and I'm very appreciative for that.

  21. […] which focused on ISMA, an organization said to certify social media consultants. That post inspired a semi-related post here which briefly touched on the certification aspect and on the company in question itself, but which […]

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