Tuesday, 3 April 2012

ethics in food blogging: do they exist?

The topic of blogger ethics has been broached by many a publication and on social media, so I am blithely aware that the below isn't a revelation. It is, however, an opinion.

Unlike the 4th estate, who are generally (there are always exceptions) ruled by a code of ethics, blogging and social media influencers have no such widely accepted, enforced framework around which to operate.

Given that the roots of blogging (web logging) come from what is in essence an open public diary entry, since when did it become OK for bloggers to don the ego and demand preferential treatment from restaurants or free stuff from PR agencies, all in exchange for a post that may or may not be that great to begin with?

In my travels, as both a PR consultant, freelance food writer, radio host AND blog writer, I've come across some pretty questionable behaviour on the part of bloggers as well as restaurants and their representatives. I've had PR agencies send unsolicited goods and then badger for coverage, and I've had freebie whore bloggers demanding free meals at hatted restaurants as if it were their god-given right. Neither of these things is acceptable and most alarmingly, the frequency of this kind of behaviour continues to increase.

Some advice, if I may be so bold:

Bloggers:

Don't call restaurants and ask for free meals

I once had a blogger call up and say "hi [restaurant], let me know if you'd be interested in inviting me down as a guest to sample some of ur dishes with maybe +2 for a blog review?"*

...Why don't I throw in a night at a 5 star hotel for your trouble? Think about it this way: A new restaurant has just invested significant amounts of money on launching their space. Overheads are high and returns slow to hit the black. While some restaurants factor in complimentary dining as part of their marketing strategy, they tend offer those comps strategically and directly. Big noting yourself enough to think any restaurant would be lucky to have you is pompous, arrogant and ridiculous, no matter how many readers you have.

*directly copied and pasted from a Twitter DM, name of restaurant withheld

Truth: Actual food critics generally turn up unannounced (and make an effort to stay unnoticed), pay for themselves and generally don't bring a posse. If you like eating out at restaurants and blogging about it, it's called a 'hobby', not a 'profession'. It's an insult to any journalist, editor or publisher for you to call yourself one of these titles without having spent years slogging your guts out in the publishing industry to earn it. Just because you have a blog doesn't make you Editor-in-Chief: it makes you a blogger.

Don't solicit payment for your efforts

Recently, a relatively well known Sydney blogger included a section on his/her site that said something along the lines of "I'm available for restaurant reviews, media launches, special events and product samples. Please be aware attending events and sampling products does not guarantee a blog post due to availability of time. If a blog post is required then guaranteed posts are available for a fee and provided within 48 hours once payment received."

That blogger has since changed their tactics, removing the bit about accepting payment from restaurants. Straight up, it is not OK to demand a free meal from a restaurant, let alone to be paid for being there and writing a post about it. 


No matter which way you look at it - this behaviour is not only uncool, it's downright unconscionable and frankly, disgusting. If you want to be paid to work in the restaurant industry, find a legitimate way to earn your coin. Advertising revenue aside, the only time a blogger should be paid for blogging is if they're doing it for a commercial publication.

However: If a restaurant wants to pay you to write a blog post (and you should be asking why a restaurant needs to pay cash for comments) and you are happy to take the money - at least be clear that it is a sponsored post, paid for by the restaurant, when you post.

When you accept a free meal or product as a gift, make it clear 

Accepting something for free and then writing about it without full disclosure is unethical. Whether you are a journalist or a blogger, you are misleading your readers if you write a glowing piece about something you got for nix. If you're OK with accepting freebies, that's your call. Just make sure you make that bit crystal clear.

Truth: In the end, the cream rises to the top. People will eventually stop paying attention to people who can clearly be bought. Freebie whores aren't engaging, they are annoying.

Don't be demanding

The managing editor of a high profile consumer magazine once told me a well known blogger would only RSVP to their event if she was the only blogger in attendance. Newsflash: You are a blogger, not Short Black.

Regardless of how many hits your blog gets, it's a bit rich to demand an exclusive invitation or coverage given that you probably don't write your blog as the sole source of your income. Don't take yourself too seriously, or pretty soon, agencies and restaurants will know to avoid you completely and suddenly: no invitations in your inbox. Receiving invitations to events and launches is a privilege, not a right. 

PR consultants and agencies

Don't generalise

Don't use a scatter gun approach to see if something sticks: do you research and know who to target for what, exactly the same way you should be doing for traditional media. Sending your fabulous new yoghurt to a lactose intolerant person, or smallgoods to a vegetarian, and then badgering them to write something about it isn't a great strategy. Using a cookie-cutter approach to targeting all bloggers as if they were one person will lose an engagement value you might have developed.

As any good PR operator knows, it's about developing long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that yield positive outcomes for both sides. In the same way each publication has a different audience, style and interests, so to do blogs.

Don't engage with social media to tick a box for your clients - use it when or if it has a suitable application for your client's best interests.

...and Restaurants: 

Don't encourage bad behaviour by courting it

Arguably most forms of publicity are good, but think about measurability and exponential influence before you start slinging free meals left right and centre.

While some social media influencers may have impact, consider it as only one part of the media mix - that spectrum of coverage that spans digital, all the way to traditional media. In the same way a business should never spend its last dollars on PR rather than on addressing the internal issues that may be the source of an ailing business, giving out free meals as a quick fix for any kind of coverage you can get isn't a great idea either.

When used judiciously, comping meals can be a (small but) useful tool for restaurants as part of a wider marketing strategy. In the long term however, extended use of this kind of strategy can cheapen your product - so be careful.

When treated with respect, the relationship between restaurants, above the line media and social media is one that works for everyone. The advent of social media has added a dynamic new element to the restaurant industry. Through it, people can share their opinions and experiences with others, bringing a fresh perspective to the dining experience and more options for people doing their research on their next Saturday night date. The darker side to this is that through the media and public's fascination with this new age, an unfounded sense of entitlement has emerged among some contributors. Just like the 4th estate, bloggers and social media influencers should take care to check their behaviour...and their attitude once in a while.

27 comments:

Chopinandmysaucepan.com said...

Dear Melissa,

What you have written is absolutely spot on and should be a general "code of ethics" adopted by bloggers, PR agencies and hospitality businesses. It is also common sense which is sadly lacking among bloggers who demand as though it's their given right.

Get back to the basics of courtesy,respect and common business etiquette and we will be on the right path once again.

annabanana said...

Amen!

cheekysydney said...

Dear Melissa

It seems like one section is missing in this piece. Blogger/PR (you) You may be publishing raving blog posts about the restaurants that are your client or the events you organise. Yet a public member who reads those posts may not know the restaurants are your clients or you’re not just a guest but actually involved in these events. This can be misleading for the public who doesn’t know you who visited to read that blog post. It is good to observe what is wrong with the industry but it is only just to audit one’s own behaviour.

fooderati said...

Hi Cheekysydney - if you dug a little further, you'd see my client list clearly and proudly posted on my website for all to see. I'm clear about the restaurants I represent, the publications I write for and present on behalf of.

At no point during the piece have I (or have I ever) professed to be perfect at what I do, but I do strive to be as clear and direct with everyone as I can.

Dimple said...

Mel, how timely! saw a blog post from a blogger come thru my twitter feed (RT by a friend). and i cheekily said "i could tell you a story about this blogger" - this person flouted rule #1... asked for a free meal. proceeded to bring a '+1', ate, drank and wrote a pretty low quality couple of lines after that as a post. shame, shame, shame. Glad you wrote this!

misslollylovesfood.com said...

I love that you have written this!! So many other articles going around at the moment saying the exact same thing.

Totally agree. I recently attended an evening at a restraunt, that was complimentary of the venue. I wrote a review and clearly stated that the meal was free and I was extremely grateful for their hospitality.

NEVER have I asked a place "hey can I eat here for free in return for an article" pffffffffft. Please, bloggers don't be so low!! You are giving us such a bad rap. PAY YOUR OWN WAY LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. We are not entitled to freebies because of what we do!

Other than that, Mel - beautifully written piece.

Mr Fruit Tart said...
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Mr Fruit Tart said...
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Simon Leong said...

Dear Melissa

Interesting read although I'm a bit clueless what you mean by '4th Establishment' or '4th Estate' — are you able to explain what that means, it's a new term for me?

There's many points in your article I agree with and in the name of disclosure and to perhaps clear the air I assume it's me that you're referring to under 'Don't solicit payment for your efforts'. For every invited event, restaurant and product I've attended or received and subsequently produced a blog post about I've always disclosed who invited me or if the goods were provided free — everyone should do this. All my posts are disclosed in my listing http://simonfoodfavourites.blogspot.com.au/p/reviews.html which I doubt any other blog in Australia or possibly the world has actually done as a ready-reference. With the shear number of PR events I've attended in the past I got to a stage where I simply could not find the time to post all my experiences within a preferred timeframe I imposed on myself doing it as a 'hobby' which is more an obsession now for me. To help take the pressure off myself I added a clause for any PR events attended and product samples received that it's not guaranteed a blog post — which is sensible solution. Or alternatively just don't attend the events or accept the products is another option which due to lack of available time these days I need to have this as an option.

In an ideal world I'd love to post about everything I've experienced but it's simply not possible. I simply love sharing food news but most importantly finding dishes that I think everyone should know about and try. For those PR companies eager to have a blog post about their event or product I've given the option to provide a post for a fee due to the fact of limited time on my part. It's sort of a fast track system in case they really wanted a post but eventually I might do a post anyway over days, weeks or months anyway, or maybe not depending what else I want to post about. To date this offer has not been taken up which is understandable because which PR company would want to pay someone for a totally honest review — which may or may not be in favour of the event or product. A fee to take photos of an event in a commercial role is also available which entitles the client to the photos I've taken — this would be as a photographer rather than a blogger though. Most PR events have their own photographers anyway so I haven't had a chance to shoot as a job as yet but from time to time people have purchased some of my images which is nice and shows they see value in my photos I take.

continued ...

Simon Leong said...

Continued ...

In terms of your other points I've never asked for a free meal, which I'm surprised to hear that bloggers have done this, but restaurants and PR companies representing restaurants have approached me to dine for free to have my opinion. These are listed in my invited reviews list as mentioned above. If I'm approached to dine I generally request 2-4 people so I can sample a decent part of the menu to get an idea of what I like and don't like and this would help me to provide constructive feedback in terms of my taste. I agree receiving an invite to an event or launch is a privilege. It's totally up to the PR companies and restaurants to decide who they want to be there. If I didn't get invited to another event in the future I'd be totally fine with that because I love food and love going to restaurants and paying for that — it's in my blood, or stomach for that matter. It's why I started a blog and it was never about getting a free product or getting invited to an event — these perks of blogging now were never known to me when I started my blog but i understand how many new blogs might think this way. I think a blog will survive from true passion and not being set up to just get invited to an event.

I think honesty and disclosure is very important for blogs. The readers will make up their own minds from that. I would like to point out that I've never received a media release that's purely honest. As you'd know all media releases that promote a product or restaurant are all 100% glossed up facts that only highlight positives. I hope the honesty of journalists, bloggers and social media influencers will share all the relevant facts and provide fair evaluation so readers can be well-informed to make their own decisions. Whether someone gets invited to an event or given a product for free to sample we must all strive to give an honest account of it. I've lost count how many times are restaurant has wanted my honest opinion and that's what I love to do.

Yours sincerely
Simon Leong :-)

tori said...

Congratulations on an incredibly well argued and reasoned piece. Personally, hard to think of anything more mortifying than being identified at a restaurant, let alone broadcasting it before the fact.

Hilda Tjajadi said...

Hi Melissa,

I completely respect your brutal honesty in this post.

The more popular blogging has become the more some bloggers have tip-toed the ethical boundaries, particularly in regard to paid sponsorship. I must admit this behaviour can sometimes be disappointing but as long as there's full disclosure it's up to the reader to decide how honest the blogger is being.

I recently started a blog a few months ago and today ironically was given a free dessert at a cafe after they assumed I was a blogger. I accepted the dessert because I was actually a little taken-back and didn't know how to react. Nonetheless I was completely grateful for their hospitality and thanked them for their kindness.

I can see how easy it is to accept something that is given to you in kindness and for some it wouldn't be a far stretch to start demanding more. Despite the temptation I could personally never imagine demanding freebies in exchange for a blog post because not only is it unethical it's down right rude.

Thanks for a great read, would love to hear more about it in the future.

Buggles and Squeak said...

An interesting read, Melissa.

This is something we've discussed many a time and it is a murky world!

It's funny as this seems to be such an assumed feature of blogging now that we have actually been accused of owning, or being friends with, places that we've written glowingly about. It seems incomprehensible to some that we happen to just really like a place. The assumption is that we have some kind of vested interset!

Gosh.. we've been invited to a couple of things and we have been highly uncomfortable by the entire thing. On these couple of occasions we did write good things and we were completely honest... but the problem is that there was probably little chance we were going to get a negative experience. They invited us - of course they're going to make sure it is top notch. It is not necessarily reflective of what everyone will receive.

To be honest we just prefer to be relatively anonymous and pay for our own stuff.. it's more comfortable and more reflective of a genuine experience.

I would disagree slightly with your point about the readership of blogs who engage in this kind of activity regularly. Some of these bloggers have ever increasing numbers and it doesn't appear that people are being turned off by it. This unfortunately has the knock-on effect of more and more PR companies and restaurants pursuing these bloggers and lavishing these things on them.

Maybe a piece of advice to restaurants and PR companies is to simply stop offering the freebies. Just keep doing good food and service, bloggers will come, others will come and everyone will be happy.

Daniel's Food Diary said...

There are always bad eggs in every basket. I believe readers will be discerning enough after a while. A good read is a good read

fooderati said...

Hi Simon, If you feel the general tone of the post hit a little close to home, that wasn't the intention. While it's true that I can't agree that it's ok to offer a payment system as a way of expediting posting coverage of certain events, the points discussed have been something I've been thinking about writing for quite some time. It takes all kinds to make up a community, and we each have to decide where we want to sit within that spectrum. If you are ok with asking restaurants for meals, (which you say you haven't done, but which I have correspondance to the contrary), then that's fine - but again, I can't get on board that train.

Ethics or guidelines are there to give people a compass to navigate their experience. Beyond that, we're guided by our own subjectivity and we'll just have to agree to disagree on some points.

lavucciriaristorante said...

Great piece. As a fledgling restaurant to Sydney's dining scene, we invited several bloggers to dine for free shortly after we opened. One responded that they needed to bring six guests to try every item on the menu and the drinks list. I was taken aback by this, not only because it seemed excessive, but as a former journalist working in the world of creme de la creme of freebies (the fashion industry) I would never have requested such a thing. Cue a media policy expressly for bloggers which equaled dining on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening for two people. I don't agree with paid pr, reviews or any type of editorial, which is why we refuse to pay to be listed in guides. I wrote most of Wallpaper's guide to Milan and I paid for every meal I ate at some of Milan's most well-heeled dining establishments. Some food bloggers seem to perceive restaurants are overflowing cornucopias of food, wine and fun times for them and their posses. Behind ours at least is a young family struggling to pay the bills. We won't be pursuing blog reviews as part of our future marketing strategy.

Simon Leong said...

Hi fooderati, I don't think it's hit close to home for me and I think a healthy debate on the subject is good to air for the benefit of all readers and bloggers — and perhaps journalists. I'm happy to be corrected but to my knowledge restaurants and PR companies have always approached me first to invite me to dine at their establishment in probably the hope that I'll blog about my experience or at least provide feedback to them directly. I don't approach restaurants and say if you invite me I'll blog about you. I seriously don't have the time to entertain such things. I've mentioned new restaurants or events in twitter which I've come across which sound interesting to me which go in my long list of places I'd like to visit one day if I ever have the time and opportunity. It's all about sharing information which primarily is of interest to me.

I'd like to think my blog is a vehicle to showcase food and places worth knowing about. If for some reason it seems my direction is not particularly clear I welcome readers to let me know and provide honest feedback. It's always been a two-way street I hope. There's no benefit of me providing a glowing review of something I did not enjoy. It doesn't benefit me, the restaurant, the product or the reader. My views might be different to someone else which is fine — we all have our own opinion. I can only provide feedback on my own experience to my own liking or dislike. If I know about a place then it's more than likely I will be able to recommend it if I think it's suitable. There's been many cases where I've been asked what I would recommend. It's horses for courses. I'm very much about sharing information about restaurants, food and venues to help whoever is looking for it. I hate wasting my money and time so I'm hoping my blog will help like minded readers that want to know what I think.

I still have a lot of respect for your blog and you because you obviously know a lot about the industry and it's kind of you to share your experience and expertise. I look forward to reading more insights into the food industry and what you recommend.

Buggles and Squeak said...

We were recently emailed by a restaurant where we had a fairly bad experience and our blog reflected this. The owner of the restaurant took the time to explain the changes that had taken place & asked that we visit again some time. No offer of a free meal, nothing to encourage us to return....and that is the way it should be.
We are very grateful they took the time to read our review, respond and explain a few things to us.
We will gladly return to this restaurant and are more than happy to pay our own way.

Further to 'lavucciriaristorante' comment about a blogger wishing to bring 6 of their 'friends' and wanting to sample the entire food and drinks menu. Seriously, the wankery of some bloggers is unbelievable.
So glad that they won't be pursuing blog reviews in future.

Lara Dunston said...

Great post! I actually have a draft of a similar post that I keep adding to each day after we meet chefs in Melbourne and hear the appalling stories they tell us about their contact with bloggers.

My husband and I are professional travel and food writers (he's also a pro-photog) who also blog. We would *never* ask to bring along our friends, esp. a group of 4-6, which I find absolutely appalling. That's the height of unprofessionalism.

Especially considering how most Australian restaurants are struggling in the current economy, with high costs for rent, staff and premium ingredients.

Trying a range of dishes is simply not an excuse - professional writers (not critics - very different to critics who should go incognito) will liaise with the chef and the chefs will often do much smaller tasting size dishes so we can try a greater number of dishes. We will offer to pay for any drinks if it's a small independent restaurant and we always tip staff generously.

We have already done considerable research before deciding which restaurants to cover, so the meal is almost like a fact-check, so there is no way we would not write about the restaurant. If the experience was disappointing, we would say what disappointed us.

Aside from the appalling behavior and arrogance of these food bloggers, what makes it even more astonishing when I hear these stories is when I go and look at the blog and check the rankings only to find that some blogs (including those belonging to people who consider themselves "social media specialists" or top bloggers) only have 200 readers or don't even appear onlist because their ranking is so low. And then I look at the Comments and see it's only other food bloggers engaging. When did these people develop such egos?

fooderati said...

Lara, I'm already on the train you're driving. The question was asked today "Why do ethics even need to exist in food blogging"

This question infuriates me. Why should bloggers have the right to dictate their own means of operation when everyone else - journalists, PR agencies, SOCIETY is run along a set of guidelines that tell us what is right and what is wrong.

Being human, there are of course grey areas and 100% agreement isn't always going to occur, but given decent common sense and half an ounce of humility, we should be able to judge what is appropriate behaviour.

Sadly the moral compass seems to be broken for some people, but we can only assume that people will lose interest eventually.

Jeremy@Taste Explorer said...

It's a shame we even need to be having a discussion on this.

Ethics are non-negotiable because a failure to behave ethically, whether intentionally or unintentionally doesn't just bring an individual blogger into disrepute, but other bloggers by association. More importantly it also hurts chefs, restaurateurs and other small business owners.

On of the first things I did when I created my blog was to list a code of ethics that I would adhere to as a minimum standard.

This is based on a code of conduct created by some bloggers in the US.

http://foodethics.wordpress.com/

It's not comprehensive, but it's a start and I feature it in the 'About' section of my blog for everyone to see.

If you think something you're about to do might sit in a grey area, err on the side of transparency. If you have no idea of what is or isn't ethical, then hang up your camera and stop blogging til you figure it out.

Lou Pardi said...

Great discussion.

I have to admit I've been taken aback and embarrassed by stories I've heard recently of bloggers attending new restaurants, downing expensive plonk and letting the restaurant foot the bill.

I think anyone who truly respects hospitality professionals (and also designers/artists/business) knows that generally at the beginning the margin is small and taking advantage of or requesting freebies is a bit on the nose.

I do attend events, and they give me ideas for stories and an opportunity to network with PRs/writers - but I wouldn't base a story on that experience alone as if it were a punter experience - I think you need to attend anonymously to do that.

More blogger/ethics debate in the fashion sphere here: http://www.ladymelbourne.com.au/2012/04/what-is-a-blogger-part-ii/#comment-93032

I wonder if some of the issues are common to both food/fashion?

Al said...

Great discussion.

I leave a restaurant pretty quickly once a pack of food bloggers arrive.

Way back before the proliferation of social media it was our 'ear to the ground' - how we found out about the cool and the new. Nowadays it seems to be little more than cheap marketing ploy by restaurateurs to reach the cool kids, and a free lunch for the bloggers (and seemingly their friends and extended family). As Lara quite rightly points out - is anyone else actually listening? None of the world wants to read an almost identical blog post by you and your 6 mates!

I'm generalising fair bit, as there are some really good bloggers about who are genuinely passionate and care about the industry.

BurgerMary said...

Great article Melly.

DId you hear the one about the blogger who ate 4 free serves of "crazy popular dish" at a launch event, then slammed the same dish as overhyped and expensive? That's one of my faves.

:)

cusinera said...

Great post!!! As an amateur food blogger, I'm just scared stiff when PR agencies ask me to attend gatherings (I had a couple of offers but too busy to attend). I'm so innocent/clueless with the whole deal...I always think "free" in the blogging world has strings attach to it.

I'm confuse on the term of "food blogger" as there are so many facets on this area....but you can tell anyway if the blog is paid up cause when you read the post it is like paid advertisement, no soul/passion what so ever.

Before, I envy blogs that have freebies sent to them but now I realize being independent have tons of benefits attach to it...for one, I can use or say anything I want because I've paid for it =)

foodpornnation.com said...

Love this post Melissa. Thought provoking, an incredible insight & on point.

This baby kept me going through the wee hours of the night! Great that you wrote about this. Hopefully it keeps those in check!

I am deeply astonished to know that there are bloggers out there demanding free entry, money and exclusive rights of coverage.

If you sincerely love food blogging you shouldn't be doing it in exchange for freebies or even in the hopes of special treatment. You should be doing it because you love it.

joey@FoodiePop said...

A must-read; thanks for the post.