Feeding the Hand that Bites You

Two stories surfaced this week about companies faced with handing out prizes to businesses whose interests were contrary to their own.

One company graciously gave credit where credit was due. The other declined to do so. Is it ethical to decline to feed the hand that bites you?

The company that declined to recognize another’s achievements was CBS, which forced subsidiary CNET to alter the results of the ‘Best of CES‘ award it gives out after the annual consumer electronics show. CNET’s editors had intended to give top honours to the Dish Network’s “Hopper”, a set-top box that allows viewers to skip commercials. As reported here, CBS has been in a legal battle with the Dish Network over the Hopper, which CBS sees as threatening its stream of ad revenue. The CBS v. Dish lawsuit was cited by CBS as the reason for withdrawing the Hopper from consideration for the CNET award.

And on the other hand: the company that went ahead and gave an award to a competitor was USA Today. The newspaper, you see, had run a contest to reward excellence in print advertising. And the winner, ironically, was Google — the search giant that is cited as one of the key reasons why print advertising is on the decline.

Because both US Today and CNET are media outlets, the most obvious question here has to do with editorial independence. Media companies are in a special situation, ethically. Most of them need to earn a living, but most of them also proclaim a public-service mission, and along with that mission goes a commitment to journalistic independence. Of course, giving out awards is closer to a news outlet’s editorial function, and editorial content has never been as cleanly divorced from commercial concerns as pure news is supposed to be. But if awards handed out by media outlets are to mean anything, they need to remain pretty independent, and meddling by a parent company is bound to cast doubt on editorial independence pretty generally. CBS’s meddling in the CNET’s award has already led one reporter, Greg Sandoval, to resign.

Setting aside the media ethics angle, we might appeal to basic principles of fairness. If you hold a contest, then all eligible contestants deserve a fair shake. If you don’t want to allow your enemies to compete, it’s probably fair if you state that transparently up front. But, other things being equal, everyone deserves an equitable opportunity to compete and win. That’s basic ethics.

Then again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that business is fundamentally adversarial, and the rules that apply in adversarial domains just aren’t going to be the same as those that apply in cozier sorts of interaction. So, in the present case, we might say that the need to observe basic fairness in the treatment of contestants is legitimately overridden by the right not to harm your own interests by advertising a competitor’s product.

But the right to protect your company’s interests needs to be balanced against the kind of signal you send when you take a stand or announce a policy in this regard. What has CBS told us about itself as a company? What kind of outfit has USA Today shown itself to be? This isn’t just a matter of PR; it’s a matter of who CBS and USA Today are as companies. In many respects, you are what you are perceived to be, and what you are perceived to be reflects the actions you take in public.

1 comment so far

  1. Lori Fish on

    CBS seems to be having problems with their ethics. Karl Wallace, in “An Ethical Basis of Communication” (Johannesen, 2008) believes “we should cultivate the habit of justice” and “should not distort or conceal data that his or her audience would need. . .” (Johannesen, 22). This is just what CBS did by denying the “Hopper” the ‘Best of CES’ award. Electronic awards celebrate those who excel in their field. The fact that the Hopper “threatens its [CBS’s] stream of ad revenue” in no way negates the innovation and consumer insight of this product.

    An article in Advertising Age, CBS Tells SodaStream to Revise Brand-Bashing Super Bowl Spot, reports that CBS censored a Super Bowl ad developed by SodaStream, an at-home soda-making machine, because it took potshots at Pepsi and Coke. Both Coke and Pepsi pay for multiple Super Bowl ads and spend additional millions on CBS advertising throughout the year. These issues prove that CBS is so busy protecting its interest and the interests of its friends (Coke and Pepsi) the company has discarded its ‘habit of justice’. The company appears to be another corporate giant who expects others to play by their rules and by doing so is tarnishing its own reputation.

    Lori Fish
    Drury University Student

    Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S., Whedbee, K.E., (2008) Ethics in Human
    Communication, (6th Ed.) Long Grove, Ill. Waveland Press

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