I was at a blogging conference, throwing cats amongst some pigeons by discussing ethics, public relations and why I don’t mix public relations and my own blog in a panel with Cyn from The Food Pornographer, who does. I ate the sponsored food, which I’ll never review. Here’s why.
Blogging was a very different place when I started in 2005. I felt like it spun off from independent publishing and zines, and the blogs that inspired me to start were all writing stories that nobody else had ever thought about writing before. It was a reaction against a media that wasn’t covering the food stories that I wanted to read and not treating food with the same journalistic rigour applied elsewhere.
I also started writing in Cambodia, where the travel journalists that were parachuted in covered the food in the country with undisguised disdain, flitting between luxury hotel and Angkor Wat with naught but a sneer for what locals eat. Local food wasn’t part of the hotel- or tour group sponsored freebie and most of the people who cooked Cambodian food didn’t speak English, so journalists could write it off as too hard and get away with the same repeated platitudes from every other journalist before them. Everyone loves that eating spiders story.
Cambodia is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Anything can be bought. When one of my near neighbour’s house burnt down, I found out that to make the fire engine turn up, you need to bribe them and the first person to call is responsible for gathering that bribe. If you see your neighbour’s house on fire, people are forced to do the cruel calculation: do I let it burn and hope it won’t reach me or do I risk a year’s wages having it put out, just in case?
It’s a society where trust in any institution eroded to a point where all but the family unit and village of birth were suspect. I decided early on that I wouldn’t accept anything in exchange for writing posts on my own site, just to prove that not everything in Cambodia has a price. The responsibility that I felt for my audience, however small, was that my favour couldn’t be bought. It took a few months before the PR offers started rolling in. At first, I kindly declined then ignored, then blacklisted their domains in my email so that all future communications landed in my spam box.
There’s a huge range of ethical positions to responding to requests and freebies from PR people, from openly appealing to PR folk to ensure a more “passionate” review to naming and shaming any PR company that dares contact a blogger. There’s a range of positions in between that disclose their material relationship to what they write about, or not disclose that relationship at all.
Since 2005, the interest of the public relations industry in blogs has changed. The mass food media is sinking, leaving both PR people and bloggers to sift through the flotsam and form their own cargo cults. In food, blogging has become the mainstream media. Worldwide, there aren’t many salaried positions left to write about nothing but food and blogs are left to fill the yawning gap. The interesting thing about the modern food media is that the successful new print publications are also the most brutally independent with the clearest editorial agendas, from Lucky Peach to Gastronomica.
Food is the least objective topic that someone can write about. Writers bring their own inexplicable biases to the table which is passed off as taste and taste is so subjective that you can convince other people what something tastes like just by mentioning it to them. You can’t be objective about something that becomes a part of you like food. Apart from lists of ingredients, a restaurant’s location and opening hours, everything else is personal. It’s hard to argue against this backdrop that getting something for free will affect the objectivity of a reviewer.
However, if you get something for free, most people who aren’t sociopaths will respond in kind because the norm of reciprocity is powerful. For bloggers that accept freebies, this is compounded by the general aversion to publishing criticism – it seems common for the bloggers that accept free things to say that they knock back most of the offers that they don’t like – which means that they’re only publishing broadly positive sentiment about what they receive for free.
For the audience, this looks like this positive sentiment can be bought.
Google hates sponsored posts.
Blogs rely on Google for a huge portion of their audience, and Google’s Matt Cutts has mentioned in the past that Google will penalise sites that link to other sites via advertorial or sponsored posts.
A small part of Google Plus is the ability for authors to claim ownership of their work, by adding a few lines of code to their website and then verifying them with Google. If I could make one prediction for the future of ranking in Google, it’s that Google will begin to look at the authority of individual authors alongside the websites on which they write. My guess is part of the benefit of claiming an authorship for Google is that Google is building an index of the quality and credibility of authors as individuals. If an author is writing sponsored posts or advertorial, and Google penalises them in the same way that they penalise sites, then this will be hard to remove as a black mark against an author’s credibility on a subject.
Google has a memory that lasts forever.
Why transparency is not enough.
Part of being independent is paying your own way and if you’re not buying food or travel with your own funds then the underlying message is that what you’re writing about isn’t worth doing with your own money. The appeal and success of blogging is closeness to your audience and community. If you wouldn’t pay to do something, why would you expect them to do the same?
PR will always have a bias towards whoever can pay to make the most noise or the most appealing approaches: large industrial producers over small business; supermarket duopoly over smaller markets; established restaurant groups over new upstarts. When you write about something given to you from PR, it’s most likely a vote for the incumbent and an endorsement for the food system that already exists and not one that might be. We write about the world that we want to live in (or at least, I do) and the status quo food system is broken. The stories that most need to be told about food are the ones that public relations agencies are hired to nullify rather than promote.