Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A return to blogging

When I began this blog I expected to post at least twice a month.  After a couple of weeks however, my employer announced they were going to release a “Social Media” policy to offer guidelines to people talking about our industry.  I thought it a good idea to wait for this, so I did not inadvertently violate a policy that wasn’t written yet.   Not for fear of upsetting my employer - they are the most reasonable company I have worked for in the United States.  Rather it was the factor that guided the company to actually develop the social media policy that made me want to wait:  Fairness. 

The telephone directory represents one of the most level playing fields in advertising.  Delivered freely to every household that wants one, it expresses our advertisers messages as they want to be expressed, as large or as small, in color or in the traditional black and yellow.  Side by side, page by page, the information a consumer wants is available when they want it, without influence from the media and it leaves the decision to the consumer.   Yellow Pages publishers do not play favorites; generally in the industry, the order of advertising is governed by strict rules based on size and when the advertising was purchased.   Every business is a region is contacted to see if how much representation the advertiser wants in the book and even if they choose to not spend a cent on advertising, we still include basic information.  Independent Yellow Pages, like Valley Yellow Pages (whom I work for,) pride themselves on being as inclusive as possible.  

Since before I joined the company, there were rules prohibiting employees from endorsing an advertiser; it is not our place to promote one advertiser over another.  In the last century, it took quite a bit of effort to endorse the product or supplier, but that changed with social marketing.  Now, a person can endorse a supplier via an on-line review in a matter of minutes.  The possibility of a conflict of interest is much higher now.  For example, if an advertiser reduced the size of his or her advertising and then got a negative review from an employee, they might feel that the review was retaliatory. Yell have been accused of similar unethical behavior in the past, with some of their clients accusing them of manipulating reviews to pressure advertisers to subscribe to costly services.  We are proud of our independence and neutrality of our product and trust the public to make informed decision with the information they are given.  This contrasts with other media like radio, who often have advertisements in the form of endorsements from the presenters. 

So now the policy is in place and I must govern my online behavior by its contents.  That means whenever I talk about the Yellow Pages industry, I am required to explicitly disclose my connection:  I am the Information System Manager for Valley Yellow Pages.  I am expected to conduct myself with due order and propriety since my actions can reflect on the company.  I am expected to make it clear that what I write (like this) is my own opinion and not that of the company.  I cannot criticize the products and services of the company, our competitors or even the industry in general.  It remains to be seen if I get my hand slapped for violating this last one, as I favor honesty above all else.     

Nine and a half months after Valley Yellow Pages began the process of writing a Social Media Policy, it was finally released.  Why did it take longer to produce a 717 word document than it will take our departmental assistant to have her baby?    

It comes down to one word: Priorities.

When free speech, access to free information and the environment are at stake, then those topics take priority over minor internal matters.  I’m talking about the assault on these principles that are currently underway in the city of San Francisco.  I believe our company, along with the industry in general, is committed to those principles and to challenging what we see as an unconstitutional assault on one specific business sector.

In February of this year, the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, headed by its president, David Chiu, sought to impose restrictions on the delivery of the Yellow Pages that amount to a de facto ban.  Phrased as an “opt in” proposal it sounds like it is offering choice while restricting waste.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Yellow Pages Industry is one that has made great strides in the last decades to minimize its impact to the environment, driven not by political mandates but by a desire to do the right thing.  Few people know that it is more expensive to print directories on mainly recycled paper, that toxin-free ink and glue costs more than the alternatives on the market, that environmental concerns often trump the bottom line.  Of course, the Yellow Pages are not the only paper advertising media delivered to households all over the country.  Junk mail is a far larger use of paper and ink, 15 times more based on the volume delivered to me a few years ago.  Yet junk mail, supported by a powerful Postal union, is left untouched.  “Saving the trees” is a straw man argument against the Yellow Pages industry.

So who benefits from a de facto ban on Yellow Pages in San Francisco?  The main benefactor will be other media types who are not discriminated against in this legislation.  The most prominent, and the most outspoken at the hearing in San Francisco, were the internet advertising and internet communications companies who would be the beneficiaries of those advertising dollars were a ban to be implemented.  I suppose I should not be surprised by this; David Chiu’s biography makes it clear his internet industry connections:

Before joining the Board, David was a founder and Chief Operating Officer of Grassroots Enterprise, an online communications technology company.”   

In my next blog post, I will expound on the reason why online advertising is worse for the environment than Yellow Pages, worse for the consumer, worse for the advertiser and favors the big international corporations over the small businesses that are the heart of our communities.

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