WARREN BUFFETT wrote recently in a memo to his managers that just because everyone else is doing something shady, doesn’t make it acceptable.
He could have been writing about the Web today, where deception and dishonesty are rife.
Of course, this is nothing new. The Web has been a hunting ground for scammers, spammers, spies and hackers for a long time.
But what is new is a general lowering of the Web ethics bar. Today, it seems some forms of deception are accepted in business marketing and communications.
PR firms run shadowy fronts
Increasingly, it also appears that companies are being sucked into a quagmire of risky Web communication practices.
PR firms set up front organizations and websites to say nice things about their clients and their products. People using these sites are supposed to be deceived into thinking the sites and the information they provide are unbiased.
Marketers offer money to people who will write nice things about products and companies on the Web, without disclosing that the company bought their opinions.
Companies infiltrate message boards to post nice things about themselves or their products and services. They do so under fake names so that people will think they’re unconnected to the company.
Sleazy practices go unquestioned
Then there are practices in the IR industry that are just plain sleazy. For-profit agencies dress themselves up as “associations” or “societies” and hand out undeserved awards to companies who fail to ask questions.
A consulting firm pretends to have a glitzy New York address when in fact it is merely renting a “virtual address” and its real head quarters are in a place most people can’t spell.
Over 100 American companies use technology to compile detailed reports on the online habits of individual visitors to their websites, never stopping to ask if this might be an invasion of privacy.
Sometimes deception and dishonesty seem harmless. If it’s not illegal or it’s not personally or monetarily injurious, it’s seen as acceptable. A minor inconvenience to the user.
We’ve dabbled in a bit of “minor inconvenience” deception ourselves here at IR Web Report. I’m not proud of it. We used to use our articles to link to pages on the site that promote our services.
We might say something like “In our recent research on online annual reports, we found that…” The problem here is that there’s no indication that the link goes to a sales pitch for our membership plan.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Lots of people do it, from the Web’s usability guru to a former SEC lawyer who uses it to pitch subscriptions to his online services.
It’s stupid to think users are
But it’s absolutely not ok. All it does is lead someone to click on a link that they might otherwise avoid. They immediately feel cheated after you “get” them to do what you want.
It’s a stupid tactic, isn’t it? Someone who has just been deceived by you is hardly softened-up to become your customer.
Right now, I’m wondering what the hell we were thinking?
Truth is, we weren’t thinking. We just did it because we saw someone else do it.
Which brings us back to Buffett’s memo to Berkshire Hathaway managers and what he says may be the five most dangerous words in business.
“Everybody else is doing it.”
Notes: Warren Buffett’s memo can be found on law professor Stephen Bainbridge’s website. Thanks to Alex Simpson for pointing it out.