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:
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 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.
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.