Emma King: Bloggers, freebies and the readers’ right to knowMarch 19, 2013
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) This week I was bemused to read the British papers up in arms over the revelation that BBC bosses accepted free tickets and hospitality to various Olympics event. The chattering classes and BBC critics were alarmed that their supposedly objective media may have been swayed by something akin to bribes.
However, it raised a question for me, and got me thinking about the power of the freebie – and how it’s taken for granted in the world of PR.
We know that if we want a journalist to review a product, we need to send them that product to try out. Or if we’re running an event that we want them to cover, or have them interview a client, we cover the costs. Make sense. Fair play.
But when does this cross the line? When does a free sample become a gift? When do travelling costs become all expenses paid holiday? And what is demanded in return? At what point does it become akin to Faustus making a deal with the devil?
I spent some time working in West Africa. The PR industry is different there, and although we diligently prepared press releases and held press conferences, we knew that in order to secure any traction with media we needed money to pass hands – to “pay for the journalist’s or cameraman’s time”. And so editorial integrity is chipped away, as the man with the deepest pockets wins.
Back at home, like most European countries, many media outlets ban the acceptance of that which can be construed as a gift.
But this doesn’t yet extend to the brave new and unregulated work of social media, and as such the ubiquitous ‘blogger drop’ becomes ever more commonplace. Beautifully designed packs are sent out to those who are seen to matter and entered into awards shows. And rightly so – they are, one would say, a beautiful evolution of the staid press folders of old. A way in which to exquisitely bring to life our brand’s promise to those who are influential.
The public approaches the blogger or ‘online influencer’ with a certain set of expectations. We expect that when they write about something, they are endorsing it on their own accord. We buy into the concept that when they feature a product, or rave about a service, that they really do believe in it.
The problem arises when bloggers get paid to write a post or are given expensive gifts in order to review something positively.
In the States and in Europe tighter legislation is being introduced to manage how bloggers work. Posts that are paid for need to be marked as such (in the same way that a magazine needs to mark an advertorial as a ‘promotion’). It would be interesting to see whether the DMMA will be introducing similar guidance here.
I have no problem with paying bloggers for their time in return for securing content on their site. And we too put together beautiful ‘blogger drops’ to launch campaigns and introduce our products to the people that are forming others’ opinions.
But key to this are a couple of guiding principles that I believe the industry should consider working by:
- Work with a blogger and develop sponsored posts and content – by all mean compensate for the time they are spending promoting your campaign – and ensure paid for content is identified as such. Keep in mind whether your content or story is interesting and relevant enough for them to have covered it even without the payment. If not, is it really interesting and relevant enough for their readers?
- Bloggers drops are an exciting way to communicate and provide content – but only when seen within a greater relationship building strategy. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘spray and pray’ method – where stuff is sent out to all and sundry, in the hope of a random tweet or instagram post. Instead, use gifts or campaign launch materials as a tool to open up conversations and start new relationships with key people who really matter to your brand. What happens after you’ve dropped off a pack, is when it really starts to matter.
- Bloggers need to be accountable too. Don’t accept payment for reviewing a free product – it questions your integrity. Charge for creating content, but then don’t cut and paste the blurb you’ve been sent. And know your worth. Keep humble until you have built a loyal following and a fearsome reputation.
Emma King is Head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She is a columnist for MarkLives on PR and communication issues. You can find her on Twitter at @EmmainSA
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