Are Food Bloggers Pushovers?

Oct 232012
 

While preparing for my trip to Australia for Eat.Drink.Blog next month (I know! So lucky.), I came across this article in the daily paper there. It portrays food bloggers as naive amateurs willing to flog products, people, and restaurants.

A PR firm invited a handful of Australian bloggers to a demo of dried soup stock by Chef Marco Pierre White. The author of the article ridiculed food bloggers for writing about the event and endorsing the product, as did several others he quoted. A sample:

“Do you know how many newspapers ran [news] stories on Marco Pierre White during his visit?” asks Ed Charles, a prominent Melbourne blogger and freelance journalist (who did not attend the event). “None. Firstly, because most people under 40 haven’t heard of Marco Pierre White, given he hasn’t cooked in a commercial kitchen since 1999. And secondly, because what PR people have realised is that bloggers are a nicer audience to deal with than journalists. Very few bloggers are critical and if you give them something to write about they will just publish it.”

Ouch.

But then, I say the same thing when I speak at food blogger conferences. I am tired of gushing product stories, and I’ll be bringing up this subject at Food Blog South in January, where the topic is ethics.

You may not know this, but PR people are sneaky about getting coverage for their clients. I used to work in public relations, so I’ll let you in on how it works. Part of my job was to dream up fun, exclusive-sounding events like the one in Australia. People came because the evening sounded entertaining, and because I appealed to their egos and let them know they would be pampered. Attendance proved to my clients that writers thought their products had merit. About half the time, a mention or story followed. Indeed, the PR company for the event was “very happy with the coverage.”

You don’t have to tweet or post about an event or product, of course, unless you have signed an agreement to do so. But guilt is a powerful thing. Many bloggers will write a post as a thank you for being treated well or just getting something for free. So if you’re asked to events or sent products to write about, here are three suggestions on how to bump up the quality of your post:

1. Evaluate the invitation. Be honest. Will you go because you’re flattered to be asked? Because it sounds like fun? Or is this a product your readers should know about?

Will you post about the event itself (as in “I was cool enough to be asked” — I’ve seen plenty of those). Is that important to your readership?

2. If you like the product or company, don’t gush. Gushing is boring. Besides, it makes readers suspicious as to why you think a product is 100 percent perfect. You don’t want readers to question your credibility, do you? Instead, discuss the pros and cons. It’s fine to be positive. Just temper your comments with a few statements about what you thought could be improved.

And by the way, if you endorse a product, service or company, disclose that you received something for free. Above all, you want to be transparent to your readers and stay within the law (at least in the US).

3. If you don’t like the product, think about writing a post anyway, and stay away from trashing. Life is not black and white, and your post shouldn’t be either. Just as there’s no reason to gush, there’s no reason to trash.

Instead, consider the grey area between those two extremes. For example, in the case of this dried stock, it’s convenient, and we all need products that make our lives easier on hectic days. But it also contains astronomical sodium levels, and strange ingredients like autolyzed yeast extract. What the heck is that?

Above all, think about your readers. They want a well-considered, relevant post. You ARE writing for them, right? Or are you writing a love letter to the company for sending you a box of granola bars? If so, exactly three people will be moved by your post: the PR person, the head of the company, and the marketing person.

Lastly, read Food Bloggers as Marketing Puppets, an excellent response to the newspaper article, from the Australian food blog Deep Dish Dreams.

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(Thanks to Caitriona Redmond for referring me to the Deep Dish Post. Photo by stockimages, courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

 

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  60 Responses to “Are Food Bloggers Pushovers?”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Mind you I’m not so sure “enjoy” is the right term. As a food blogger it makes for uncomfortable reading. I bookmarked it a long time ago and refer back to it every now & again to remind myself of the lengths PR Companies will go to. I don’t think anybody can claim to get it right all of the time but I certainly think I can try harder.

    • Yes, it’s not enjoyable but definitely worth reading and rereading. No one gets it right all the time. We just do the best we can, and educate ourselves!

  2. There are some good points. I once in a great while review something I got for free. Last spring I decided to stop doing it because I am of the personality that is not truly critical of something that I received gratis. (In fact, I have a review I need to do since last May – my last freebie and a generous once at that.) And while I have taken few of the offers given to me, I realize that blogging about something is quite different than a product review. Of course, you just reminded me to do my review…

    • You are not capable of critical thought if you get something for free? Wow. Don’t worry, Claudia, you are not alone.

      I hope you will take my suggestions to heart about not being 100 percent positive in this last product post. A post isn’t necessarily a traditional review, as you point out, but gushing is still an issue, no matter what form the post takes.

  3. 100% agree with you about not gushing. Nothing is a 100% perfect, so I always include a few thoughts on how a product, etc could be improved.

  4. I have shared on Twitter and FB and hope that restaurant owners /PR companies as well as bloggers read it. I think that reviews of restaurants/wine or a product need to be truthful. The pro and con list – great idea. I have on several occasions blogged reviews of restaurants and shared a list of ‘quick fixes’ with the owners/chefs for things that might seem trivial or picky to some but could amount to bigger issues if not tended too. 9 out of 10 restaurant owners/chefs are only too delighted to get the feedback and 75% of them actually make the changes recommended. Always thought provoking Dianne.

    • Thanks Mona, and thanks for writing truthful reviews.

      Regarding quick fixes for restaurants, I wish I could say I’m a fan, because theoretically, it’s great to give feedback to the restaurant and chef. But as a journalist, I think your target readers are restaurant goers, and you should always be writing to them. If you are writing to the restaurant owner or chef, that’s only 2 people.

      • Dianne,
        I meant I send the ‘quick fixes’ privately to the owners. I always write for myself first and the readers second. Not that the readers are less important than ‘me’ but the way I feel about most pieces I write is the following: ‘would I spend the time reading it’?’
        If the answer is no – then why would I expect anyone else to read it?

        • Mona, if a blogger’s beat is restaurants reviews, then s/he needs to keep a respectful and professional distance from restaurant owners. Giving private advice or suggestions is creating a relationship that’s invisible to the reader. It also creates, even in the smallest sense, an alliance. People are less likely to write something publicly critical (I mean “accurate” by this) if they have a relationship with owners.

  5. There are quite a few blogs that seem to do very well out of just regurgitating product PR notes. It’s of no value to the readers and does nothing for the credibility of the blogger, but seems to work for those who are keen to keep their traffic up. The reality is that the public are often undiscerning and easily swayed by a big name – either that of a well-known blogger or a celebrity chef, the bloggers are easily swayed by the promise of high traffic and the PR’s will keep doing it it to maximise product reach.
    I agree that the resultant posts lack credibility, but unfortunately that’s clearly not what the marketers are after.

    • The marketers are after endorsements to a wide audience, and that was what they got. They knew, as one guy pointed out, that the traditional press wouldn’t give them any ink, so they went the blogger route.

      I didn’t mention regurgitated press releases, but I’m glad you did. As you say, some people just want to put out a lot of posts. I don’t see how those are of value.

  6. Great topic Dianne! I don’t do sponsored editorial posts for some of these exact reasons. Maybe it is my journalist background but I want my readers to 100% trust what I say and/or recommend b/c they know that I love it, use it and pay for it myself — and that is it.

    • That’s great, Alyssa. I have seen some blog posts that seem okay, though, probably because they are clearly marked as Sponsored Posts. In those cases, bloggers have been paid to write the posts. Here they’re not paid in cash but in dinner and gifts, so typically bloggers don’t think the term applies.

  7. The tone of that article was dismissive in the extreme. It made me wonder if it was a case of an old-school journalist who is feeling threatened by bloggers competing for his job. I did wonder how I could sign up for trust fund that would allow me to blog full time. :)

    As for me, and with your encouragement, I now test three recipes per cookbook if I am giving one away, and write both positives and negatives about any cookbook, experience, or product review. I am much pickier about what I will accept… I only accept things I know I will have time to test and that will fit into my editorial schedule. I no longer do restaurant reviews because my blog isn’t locally focused.

    That doesn’t mean that people don’t get their feelings hurt. I have had authors not promote a giveaway of their own book if the review wasn’t 100% positive, which is disappointing to me. I work hard to be fair, and to write both the pros and cons in a review in a fair way.

  8. Your posts always keep me in check Dianne, and this topic has been on my mind lately. I have been debating just drawing a line and saying I don’t accept any free products of any sort because it just isn’t worth what you get from it (especially when you find you don’t really like the product, and you still get hassled by whatever company it is). I think it’s easy to get flattered but important to remember all the points you talked about above.

    • That’s up to you, Joanne. I’m not trying to say that no one should ever talk about a product. I accept books for review, but nothing else. So that’s where I draw the line. So far no one has tried to tell me what I have to put in a review or an author interview.

  9. This is a divisive topic and it seems that bloggers fall into three categories when it comes to this subject, broadly speaking. Bloggers who write (usually relatively frequently) about freebie experiences, bloggers who are critical (sometimes in a derisive and condescending way, and who usually work in the PR industry themselves, interestingly enough) about those who do, and bloggers who are mindful about such concerns but are (mostly) happy to accept that there is room for all types of blogging activity in the blogosphere and just try to do what’s right for them and not worry too much about others. Call me a peacenik but I fall into that last category. I do understand the need for debate to encourage more awareness and responsibility, but I don’t think being excessively hostile is necessarily the best way to facilitate change. I prefer gently persuasive eloquence. ;) Posts like yours, for example, are more helpful than those who just trash the others while sitting on a high horse.

    • I hope you are talking about the people in the article and not me when you say “excessively hostile,” Leaf! I think so. I’m trying to be helpful. I do wonder, sometimes, if I’m just preaching to the converted — “peaceniks” like yourself.

  10. A couple of weeks ago I got an invitations (one of countless) from a PR firm for a VIP event to launch some brand of booze. They call a week later to confirm my attending. They sounded confident that I would.

    The fools didn’t pay attention to the following: I live 250 miles from the event. I don’t drink (medical reasons). Both things I mention in my blog, at least where I live is mentioned everywhere. I am not about to travel a whole day to flog a product I won’t consume myself.

    • Oh yeah, I get invitations to things miles away also! I don’t know what these people are thinking. It’s not like they’re offering a free room and airfare so bloggers will attend.

      Recently I bothered to tell someone that I lived too far away and she insisted that I should still come!

      Press delete. I’m not going to respond anymore.

  11. Thanks for raising this issue on your blog. Increasingly the blogs I come across are full of sponsored/PR posts and you can see how the tone/style of the post is different from others, and tend to be more positive.

    Have you read this article on fake online reviews for cash? http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/fake-online-reviews-mean-cashforcomment-is-rife-20120928-26p4e.html It examines similar issues and there are some great comments on this blog on it http://www.noodlies.com/2012/09/weekend-sunrise-online-cash-for-comment/

    Media Watch also recently did a segment on the rise of personal blogs, it’s ethics and if it’s journalism http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3616210.htm

    Thanks for coming to Australia Dianne, I’m really looking forward to your writing workshop.

    • Hi Ai-Ling,

      Usually these fake reviews for cash are by people who just write them all day and get paid for each. Typically these people are not food bloggers. They write reviews on websites that feature products. The FTC ruling was written for them. But I bet their style isn’t too dissimilar from gushing!

      Looking forward to meeting you soon in Adelaide.

  12. I tend to say ‘yes’ to PR events or opportunities where I can find out something of real value to my readers. Earlier this year I was able to tour a pork farrowing farm with the Pork Check-off program. I was pampered a bit during the trip, and I certainly appreciate that, but most of all I appreciated the chance to see what is normally a closed doors operation. I did my best to convey what I learned in an unbiased way to let readers make their decisions about the ethics of the pig farrowing world. It served to start a lot of conversations that I couldn’t have facilitated without the first hand knowledge I experienced on the tour.

    Another food blogging friend, Irvin of EatTheLove.com, uses PR trips as inspiration for his incredible desserts. HIs posts credit hosts while giving something new and valuable to readers. I love that approach.

    • I’m all for it when there’s a good story for readers, and when bloggers disclose that they were compensated in kind. It sounds like you made a good decision about that particular trip.

      I’m friends with Irvin and enjoy his posts. And I have been lucky enough to enjoy some of his incredible desserts firsthand!

  13. Whilst I have no problem with people writing sponsored posts or accepting freebies, what it comes down to for me is that I don’t really enjoy reading those kind of posts and I often skip over them. Therefore to me it would seem hypocritical to write them myself and expect my readers to want to read them. It also saddens me when I see bloggers who I respect or who seemed to have a set of values review a product or talk about an event that doesn’t fit with what their blog is supposed to be about. I find it hard to take them seriously after that. I think your pointers about what to consider when thinking about a sponsored post are very important.

  14. I’ve heard all the pros and cons of product reviews, event sponsoring etc and it seems everyone’s got an opinion about what everyone else should do with their blog. Frankly it gives me the shits. I don’t write my blog for that guy or the sponsors or for anyone other than the person who’s reading my blog right this minute.

    I don’t earn much money at all from my blog but honestly, if I did, why should anyone else care as long as I disclose what’s going on? I don’t write a textbook blog – far from it. My blog is a conversation about my life in the kitchen. I haven’t had anyone complain that a product I mentioned offended them but if that happens it will be “don’t let the door hit you on the backside as you go out the door.”

    I think if our goal is always to write a better post than the one we wrote before, that should be enough to keep our readers happy.

    All that said, I’ll be sitting very attentively in Adelaide next week and soaking up everything you have to share.

    • We are all trying to figure out this brave new world where food bloggers are influencers and attract companies who want visibility. I come from a journalism background, trained as a newspaper reporter, and newspapers have the strictest standards. But I have to say, I’ve relaxed them a bit over the years, as I’ve learned we don’t all live in a “one size fits all” world.

      You can’t go wrong with the goal of writing a better post than the last one, Maureen. And I look forward to meeting you soon in Adelaide.

  15. Great topic Dianne!

    I think this is a “one size doesn’t fit all” topic — what works for one blogger doesn’t work for another. I do accept products to review, especially for new or hard-to-find foods that my special foods audience may be interested in. I have adopted a policy that says if I truly dislike something I will just not write about it. This is partly because my audience is so often hampered with negative messages, and my site is focused on positive solutions that work. That said, just because I write about something doesn’t mean I gush. I tend to stick to facts (e.g., this flour blend is nearly pure carbs) and let the reader decide if that is good or bad for them.

    Interestingly, I just communicated with a magazine editor who is about to review my book, who told me that they only publish positive reviews. Their rationale is that they receive so many books (and other products) to review that they want to focus on the ones their audience can benefit from the most.

    • Colette, this sounds fine to me, except that once in a while, it would be good — just for the sake of your credibility — for you to dislike something and print it.

      I was a magazine and newspaper editor for several years. Our policy, like most publications, was to publish mostly positive reviews. There is no point in telling readers, over and over, not to bother with a restaurant, product, or service.But every once in a while — maybe once a year — a stinker deserved a mention. We only did so if it was a big company, an expensive product, or a big restaurant opening.

  16. I have gone nutral or negative on restaurants before. I try not to take free stuff to maintain my integrity.

    • That’s great. Perhaps you’d rather not take free stuff and then have to disclose. Many people don’t like being in that position.

  17. What a great and timely piece, Dianne! I share in everyone’s thoughts here, as well. These events are becoming quite frequent and I’ve been seeing the blogosphere populated with “brands” being written about. I’ve always wondered if the ordinary reader is attracted to the post because of the brand and personality behind it or will it have the adverse effect? I’ve also noticed that the line between PR work and bloggers’ ethics has become blurry in some instances. Your article is an eye-opener . Thanks for sharing this insights and the links!

  18. Thank you for this article. As a fairly new blogger, I’m starting to get requests to review products or attend events and while flattering at this point, often it’s just not a good fit. This is a good reminder that I’m not in this business for the freebies and to stay true to what my blog is all about. Certainly, if the product or opportunity is a good fit for my blog, I’d be happy to take a look at what’s being offered.

  19. Thanks for starting this discussion, Dianne.

    I’ve come up with my little formula that works for me and I feel good about. Most of my posts are not prompted by PR companies. Any posts that are for a PR company or food company are almost always paid (as in money) and are very clearly marked as sponsored. And I only write those posts with organizations that I have long-standing relationships with, as part of a larger project. Not just to make a quick buck for a post.

    Cookbook reviews I don’t really count as part of the equation since of course to write about a book one must see the book and cook from it. Most traditional media require a copy, as well. But of course, I still disclose that. Always, always, always disclose relationship.

    On occasion, if I am so moved by a free product I receive and if it is new or improved and if it is inline with my brand and I think my readers will appreciate it, I might post it on Twitter or Facebook. I tend to do this for the smaller food companies, the underdogs. My little way of giving back. If I don’t like a product and wouldn’t buy it, I don’t write anything. Maybe I’m too nice.

    Michelle

    • And to add to this, sometimes I might write a post having to do with a client, but not compensated in any way. Like a few weeks ago I shot a commercial so I showed the behind the scenes. My readers loved it.

      The bottom line is that if I write something, my intent is to do so in a way that I think will be interesting to my readers. Not regurgitating the press release or main talking points.

    • Maybe you are. It’s a problem for most food bloggers.

      The rest sounds good to me, except that if you receive a free product and you post about it on Twitter or Facebook, you need to disclose the freebie.

      • Oh yes, I disclose all freebies and disclose relationships. Even on Twitter, Facebook , Pinterest and Instagram. I take the disclosure thing seriously.
        Cheers.
        Michelle

  20. Hi Dianne,
    A perfectly timed post for me since I’ve been percolating this very topic of late. My inbox is inundated with offers of product, events, books to review, etc. Some for pay, most not. I think you nailed it when you said “guilt is a powerful thing.” One approach I’ve taken is that if I genuinely like a product/book, etc., but don’t feel it’s worth an entire post, I’ll send out a tweet or put something up on my FB page. I also think flagging anything sponsored is essential.

    • That sounds good. If you got the product or book for free, you need to disclose that on Twitter or Facebook. That makes things more complicated.

  21. I often contemplated the above scenerios and always promised myself I would never sell out, I try to be honest with everything or everwhere I review wether I am invited to a restaurant or ask to review a product, yes it’s awkward to say negative things but at the end of the day if I lied or kiss a$# then I would be doing my readers an injustice. Great article and look forward to your visit to Auckland.

    • I’m not sure those bloggers sold out, or that it even occurred to them! The bottom line is whether the post was appropriate for their readers, and whether they disclosed the relationship. The reason newspapers didn’t cover the story is because there was no good enough news angle. I wonder what criteria the bloggers used?

      Looking forward to meeting you soon, Kevin.

  22. I read this a few days ago for the first time, and I’ve been letting it marinate since then. As relatively new blogger, I’m still trying to figure how I want to represent myself. I think that this post is useful to me for many reasons, in particular because it never occurred to me that if I didn’t like or agree with a product or event given to me, that I could choose not to write about it. It means I can give myself permission to just NOT blog at all about something I don’t think deserves it. THANK YOU!

    • You can choose that, but then, when all your reviews are positive every time, after a while readers won’t have to bother reading what you have to say — they’ll know.

      • Dianne, what I was trying to say is that I am going to make it more a point to not do endorsements or reviews at all. I do write “field trip” posts where I visit local food producers to see how food is being made on a local scale. These are set up by me at my request. I am a little worried that people will think they are endorsements for which I received services; not true. I had an experience in the past where I was given a free meal. I was never asked to write about it, but I felt compelled to do so anyway. In the future I will not feel like I have to write anything at all, even if it means I don’t get free meals.

  23. Very interesting … Doesn’t surprise me at all :)

  24. You know, I know a blogger who has risen in the local food world. She basically knows zip about food, comes from a marketing job, read p.r. background.
    Because of the laziness of most of the media, she is given credibility. Sad.
    And worse yet, impacts local businesses.

  25. [...] reading Dianne Jacob’s post about food bloggers being pushovers (or not), I want to state clearly that even though I eat at Fenn’s Quay and Electric at least once a [...]

  26. Diane, thank you for your insightful talk at EDB in Adelaide. It was a pleasure to meet you.

    Thank you also for this interesting article, a timely reminder as just yesterday I declined an invitation to the launch of a new ‘snag’ outlet (sausage store) on the other side of town.

    I particularly like that you mentioned not trashing something. I would rather not mention something at all, in preference to being too brutally truthful.

    I am a food writer, now blogger, who has also worked on the marketing side of the fence, so I know how it works, Nonetheless, I appreciated reading this. Thanks again.

    • Hi Lizzy! Great to meet you as well. I enjoyed the conference and meeting all of you.

      I guess your readers really didn’t need to know about a sausage store, then. Fine with me! As long as you apply the test of whether it’s right for them, you’ll be fine.

      There’s very little writing that trashes. For a recent example, see this review of a 500-seat restaurant in Times Square.

  27. Fantastic tips! Last week I went to a restaurant for dinner and didn’t love the dessert, so on my blog I wrote that, not in a mean way but it wasn’t fair to wire that I loved it if I didn’t.

    • Absolutely that would not be fair at all. Most bloggers would have just said something neutral or not said anything at all, so good for you for saying so.

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