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Disclaimer Longer Than Blog Post … Bait for Satire, or Reality Setting In?

So funny, yet so sad. The legalese is longer than the content.

Starwood Hotels is attempting something that is sort of like, well … it is trying to be like … well, it started as faux blogging and now it is …. well, just corporate blogging. In fact, it is corporate blogging that fits many stereotypes of legal and management “interference” – some PR practitioners like to call it.

Starwood launched The Lobby.

The blog states their focus and purpose:

To help keep Starwood Preferred Guests on top of the latest travel trends, Starwood and ElectricArtists have assembled a team of travel writers to contribute to this site. Every weekday this site will be covering the latest and greatest in worldwide travel.

…there needs to be a balance between form and functionality … legal considerations are important … but, when legal concerns interfere with the message, you may fall flat…

A legitimate idea. However, the authors in the blog seem more like jingle writers than travel writers. Each post is a commercial for some Starwood hotel or amenity.

Still, that’s not too bad of an idea. It is just the way they do it that seems contrived. Too planned. Too dry. Too predictable. The posts range from 100 to 200 words, with a few exceptions – the average is about 150. (This will be important later.) All of the posts are the equivilant to sidebar contextual ads with nice photos. It is one long list of short advertisements.

Starwood is using MovableType (MT). Many sites do. That isn’t uncommon. MT makes a fine CMS, aside from just a blog. But, The Lobby’s posts have links for tagging and bookmarking the site which many/most associate with blogs more than a dynamic site.

At first Starwood’s “The Lobby” did not have comments turned on.

Some people criticized them for that. B. L. Ochman called it a “dud” for more reasons than just the absence of comments. The Inside PR podcast also felt that the absence of comments did not help the blog’s legitimacy with audiences. There was no opportunity for a conversation.

So, Starwood turned comments on for some/most of the posts. However, in this instance they only made things worse.

If one is seeking to lay blame for this, I imagine the place to point is to upper management and the legal team. I doubt it is what the creative people wanted.

…if the disclaimer is your most dominant message, what are you saying to your customers?

When Starwood did turn on comments, they couldn’t help but turn it over to the legal department, first. So, now you have one of the most ridiculous comment sections, on every post offering comments, that you will see on a blog – in blogging’s brief history. The legal disclaimer is actually longer than the posts. Seriously, the post at that link is 194 words, whereas there are 282 words in the disclaimer before you may comment. And, most of the other posts are like this, too.

Need more irony? The title of one post is: Head and Shoulders Above the Rest. Um, no Starwood. This this is more like what happens when you don’t use Head and ShouldersTM … you appear flakey (or legally anal) – people notice, and you are embarrassed.

Sigh. So, bless their hearts, at least they are trying. How they could not see that their practice will bring snickers is kind of scary, but why am I not surprised?

Admittedly, there is legitimate concern for companies and individuals regarding the comments some people may leave in your blog.

Jeremy Pepper wrote:

Is it worth pushing the boundaries in a blog to get traffic, then end up in a libel suit? Are certain blogs that we all have seen – making fun of ugly people on the Web, making fun of Star Wars fans – worth the potential for a libel lawsuit?

Corporations have traditional boundaries and standards of practice. They are loathe to change them when the fear of legal entanglement may be the result. So, what you sometimes see is this kind of silliness.
I don’t know. Starwood can defend their tactic, of course. But, isn’t it kind of funny? Their fear is worth more text than their travel related content? B. L. was right. The Lobby is a dud.

Honestly, it reminded me of contract management. The rule-of-thumb was always – CYA or CYB. Here is the complete disclaimer you must wade through before getting to the comment forms:

BY CLICKING “I AGREE” AND SUBMITTING A COMMENT YOU AGREE TO THE FOLLOWING TERMS & CONDITIONS:

You agree not to submit any comment that contains unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law.

You agree that all comments submitted by you should be relevant to the article and remain respectful of other authors and commenters.

You authorize Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., its affiliates, properties within the Starwood system and third party service providers (collectively, “Starwood”) to collect, process, use and display the information provided by you (including personally identifiable information) for any lawful, Starwood business related purpose, to store the information at and transmit the information to various locations, either directly or through its third party vendors, throughout the world, whether within your country of residence, the United States, or elsewhere; and to contact you regarding the information you provide.

You assign to Starwood the right, but not the obligation to edit, remove, modify, publish, license, print, transmit, display or otherwise use any comments you submit to Starwood and all accompanying personally identifiable information via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity, without notice to you and without compensation, and you waive any moral rights you may have in having the material altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you.

You agree to indemnify and hold Starwood and its subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, agents and employees harmless from any claim or demand, including reasonable attorney’s fees, made by any third party due to or arising out of Your breach of these terms and conditions or Your violation of any law or the rights of a third party.

That is on every post where you may leave a comment. Can you believe that? I find it amazing.

Um, and you don’t click on “I AGREE” … you click on Preview or Post.

Do you really want to see and read that every time you want to post a comment?

Perhaps the better path to follow (aside from the obvious “Drop the facade.  Don’t blog.  Make it a static site.”) would be requiring all who wish to comment to simply register for your site. Then, they see the disclaimer once and are bound by the rules. As Starwood is doing it now, the blog is a chuckle on every post, at first. After a few times, it will become – simply – a pain. Are they really going to turn these posts into purchases of services at their hotels? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

Here is an idea. Take the reigns off of the writers. Be bold. Take a chance. Let them write critically about your hotels and services. (I know. I’m dreaming.)

I don’t think Starwood Hotels did any reading or research into the mindset of most bloggers and blog readers. If they get laughed at online, it is their own fault. Of course, their target audience is probably not bloggers. It is business travelers. But, they are online and therefore open to these types of critiques.

What do you think? Is this a good practice by Starwood? Will they succeed? How would you suggest they blog?

Thanks to B. L. Ochman and Inside PR’s David Jones and Terry Fallis for the link.



12 comments

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  2. Robert, I think the blog needs more work. I agree with you that the lawyers need to loosen the reins and let the writers describe their experiences. Better yet have some of the hotel employees blog.

  3. Living with Legends: Hotel Chelsea blog is the only non-corporate hotel blog in existence. We’ve been writing about fires, junkies and art for almost a year.

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  5. I was catching up with my reading and got to this post today.

    “So, bless their hearts, at least they are trying.”

    I can tell you are in the South, it made me laugh.

    As for the analysis, it’s right on. A blog can’t be marketing dressed up as opinion. Too bad they didn’t realize this.

  6. John, thanks for your comment. Yep, it does need a bit of work, but I doubt they are listening to the blogosphere, either. Their tactics and practice almost assure that to be the case. I doubt they are monitoring chatter about their sites.

    AHCB (I’m guessing you are not Ed or Robert), your blog is quite interesting. You should go help the folks at Sheraton / Starwood.

    Kami, yeah my southern upbringing peeks through. We try to be polite and caring while doling out the snark. I love that phrase – “bless their hearts” – as well. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that, growing up, while “helping” me learn. It often went something like, “Bless your heart. You are trying new things, aren’t you. Now, go out and pull me a switch and we’ll talk some more.”

    For you non-southerners – the “switch” is essentially a long thin branch or vine that makes a very useful whip as adults help “train” us in the finer points of life.

  7. Robert – (and others) Just a short note on behalf of my colleagues at ElectricArtists and Starwood hotels. We are indeed listening to the comments about thelobby.com and each week continue to make adjustments based on the feedback we hear. We’re currently working to shorten the terms and conditions on the comments page and should have this adjusted soon.

    More as it develops…

    Marc Schiller
    ElectricArtists

  8. Good work Marc, now Robert, let’s have a talk about that switch, ya’hear?

    Isn’t it amazing what insults and gossip you can pass off with that sweet little phrase?

    But seriously, I am glad Starwood is listening and acting Marc, it shows a good understanding. Plus, the less the pieces scream “marketing” and include items unrelated to your business directly, but that meet the needs of your customers, the more credibility the site will gain.

  9. Robert,
    Great post and excellent job getting a response from the people running the Starwood blog. While they are watching, I hope they are listening and will engage in the dialog.

    Marc,
    Kudos for getting out there in the blogosphere … it’s good to see early adopters take the plunge. It does take a thick skin to be out there though, so I hope that Starwood is treating the blog as a listening post and is ready to engage in a dialog / conversation with the community. Listening will go beyond just cleaning up legalese around comments and watching what is being said. It means engaging in the conversation – and it is 2 way. The ideas posted here and by the blogs linked to it are good ones that will stimulate conversation and open up Starwood’s brand to the community. I hope you take them up. Also, it means providing dialog and conversation on others’ blogs as pertinent, and not just publishing on your own.

    The benefits of doing this right can be great – service improvement ideas, increased loyalty and referrals and positive word of mouth – to name a few. To achieve this though, the fundamental shift from one-way marketing to a paradigm of engagement marketing or dialog marketing needs to be fully understood.

    Best of luck!