Spokesperson Work: What It Is and How to Get It

May 232012
 

Mark Scarbrough (Photo by Lucy Schaeffer)

I’ve been on a career counseling jag lately. With bloggers asking me how they can “monetize” their blogs at every turn, and established food writers lamenting the lack of work, I’m looking for ways to generate income on all food writers’ behalf.

Ever wanted to become a spokesperson, to supplement your writing? Lots of food writers do it, and some have been very successful. Here’s an interview with two writers who have taken that path.

Mark Scarbrough, with partner Bruce Weinstein, has published 21 cookbooks at six publishing houses with over three-quarters of a million copies in print. They have been national spokespeople and developed recipes for The U. S. Potato Board, JIF, Smucker’s, The National Honey Board, and Bacardi. In 2010, the California Milk Advisory Board sent them on a two-week, ten-city tour to promote their book Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Food, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat.

Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer and recipe developer. The publisher of the award-winning food blog Cooking with Amy, she has also blogged for Epicurious, Glam and writes frequently for Cheers and Gastronomica magazines. She is the author of Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Appetizers and WinePassport: Portugal. Amy has been a spokesperson three times for two brands.

1. Let’s start with a definition. What is spokesperson work?

Mark: Bruce and I consider ourselves to be spokespersons whenever we endorse a product, commodity board, national, or regional food association. We might be asked to write editorials that will be placed in papers or on a wire service, host a radio show, develop unique recipes, be available for media interviews, or host a webinar.

For example, two years ago the California Milk Advisory Board underwrote a ten-city tour for our book Real Food Has Curves. In exchange for such generous support, in each of 29 media appearances, we had to say something like, “Milk is real food–and California milk is some of the nation’s best.” And we had no problem doing that, since we believed every word true.

Amy Sherman

But in contrast, we did a cooking demo last year at an annual goat fair, a large festival underwritten by several large goat dairies. We did not endorse any of their products, not because we didn’t want to, but because they had no money for endorsements–and thus we were not their spokespeople. We would not even say whose chevre we were using in the demos.

Amy: Spokesperson work is where you receive a contract specifically outlining duties, such as being available for media opportunities in newspapers and on radio and TV. As a spokesperson you are representing the product and communicating whatever talking points the client has identified. The PR folks pitch the media outlets with story angles, but ultimately it is up to the journalist to decide on the story. You might be interviewed or do a cooking demo, for example.I was once interviewed on the radio for Dannon about Passover recipes using yogurt.

2. How do you get paid, and is it always about the money?

Mark: Some gigs are lucrative, paying our mortgage for half a year; others are more modest, the start of a good vacation fund. And yes, for us, with over 20 books under our (ever-widening) belts, it’s about a balance of ideals and money. We are not about to say anything for pay. But at the same time, we won’t endorse a product or board without pay. In other words, no freebies. An honest day’s work demands an honest day’s pay. And to be blunt, we are quite picky about who we endorse.

Amy: Some opportunities pay a flat fee with a limit on the time and number of appearances. Another way it works is by the specific opportunity, such as a day rate. One of the best benefits of being a spokesperson, in addition to money, is receiving professional media training.

3. Is it luck or about building a relationship with marketing, public relations, or advertising people that leads to this kind of work?

Mark: For us, it’s about “none of the above.” It’s about an agent. Ours makes the pitches, opens the doors, negotiates the contracts, and handles the legalities (of which there are many). And by the way, our spokesperson agent is different from our literary agent.

Amy: I think it’s about your personal image and expertise. Are you and your persona a fit for the brand?

4. How does someone get in front of the people who make the decisions?

Mark: Again, we start with an agent. But after that, it’s about doing the absolutely best job for a client that we can–and realizing that this is a business relationship on both sides of the equation.

Amy: I have never pitched myself as a spokesperson. I have always been approached by PR folks who then pitched me to their clients.

5. What are the pros and cons of having a spokesperson agent, and how do you find one?

Mark: There are no cons. Somebody’s got your back, your best interest. An agent can call the client on a problem–and then you can show up smiling at the next event without ever having entered the fracas. However, you don’t want to abuse the relationship, calling “Mom” in every time you feel overwhelmed. And you do have to realize that a spokesperson agent is only as good as her or his contact list.

You can find spokespeople agents with a simple internet search. However, almost all the good ones require recommendations or introductions.

Amy: I couldn’t speak to this as I don’t have one.

6. How do you find the right fit with the product and job?

Mark: Basically, we find a fit with the contract. We work out all questions inside the legal agreement: what we will and will not do, what our rights are and what the client’s are, how long they can have an exclusive on us and/or our recipes, how long the agreement lasts.

But before all that, we have to decide if we can live with what we’ll be expected to say. And that involves some homework–checking out a potential client, looking at their press materials, and assessing how our vision fits in with theirs. We’ve been lucky enough to represent some fine farmer cooperative boards over the years–and feel we can honestly give it our all when supporting family farms.

Amy: I did turn down one opportunity because it was not a product I felt comfortable being associated with or promoting.

7. What kinds of conflicts can come up?

Mark: Your “voice” will not necessarily be what your client desires. Sure, they want your personality for on-camera work. But they also have a corporate PR strategy and voice–and will expect you to meet them halfway. For example, you might have a snarky voice in your own writing, but they certainly don’t want that on camera.

Once you sign one agreement to be a spokesperson, you’ll turn down almost all other opportunities for a year or two, sometimes because no other corporate entity will want to work with “the competition,” and sometimes because your legal agreement will forbid you from taking on other work.

Amy: Well, obviously there is a great need for transparency! I haven’t personally experienced any conflicts.

8. What kinds of spokesperson gigs should food writers run from?

Mark: Avoid anything that compromises your ethics. For example, a chemical giant may really want your “expertise” as an organic food specialist. They’re looking for you to give them a patina of respectability in your community. Run.

However, even in those agreements that seem to meet your specific ethics, go in with your eyes open. Almost all corporate entities are not going to be as idealistic as you are when you’re at your desk, writing a blog post, an article, or a cookbook. They are not interested in your success as a food professional. If at the end of a spokesperson agreement, even a successful one, you are never able to land another [spokesperson gig] or even another book contract, the corporate entity that hired you will not be all that interested in your fate. From their perspective, the pay is your compensation, not any further career development on your part (which indeed may well happen from the spokesperson gig).

Amy: I strongly believe you should only be a spokesperson for a product or service you actually believe in.

9. Any last words of wisdom, particularly for bloggers?

Mark: I see a lot of bloggers “giving it away”–and it makes me sad. Their expertise is crucial to the modern food scene–and they are devaluing it by agreeing (often not explicitly but in truth implicitly) to endorse a product on their blogs. Sure, it’s flattering when corporate entities want to make use of your platform–but that’s what they’re doing: “making use.” A case of soup mix or wild rice is not just recompense. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. And it didn’t turn out well.

Amy: A particularly good opportunity for food bloggers is being sponsored to attend conferences. I have done this several times. While you are not an official spokesperson and it does not involve media, it typically requires personal outreach and dispersing collateral or swag and representing the brand in a positive way. I have also attended conferences where I was sponsored by a brand or commodity board. In exchange for money, I handed out goodies, coupons and offered to connect attendees with the sponsor if they wanted more information or product samples.

  42 Responses to “Spokesperson Work: What It Is and How to Get It”

  1. Thanks Dianne, another super-helpful post. Amy spoke at Camp Blogaway and this is a terrific follow-up to that.

    • You’re welcome. I think she had a whole different topic at Camp Blogaway, no? But she is always full of good information and insights.

  2. Great post and full of good info and tidbits. It’s always nice hearing from people who get paid to endorse and what their thoughts are on getting paid (and more than just some soup mix!), how to make it happen, and some inside scoop on the matter.

    • I believe you’re going down that path as well, eh Averie? Soon you’ll have your own experiences with which to advise other food bloggers.

  3. Very good information, as always I appreciate your writing and sharing!

  4. Thank you Diane for pulling this very informative article together. It really does help, especially since I haven’t been to any of these big blogger conferences. Also, thank you for help with my ‘pricing’ dilemma over Twitter the other day.

  5. Terrific article, as usual, Dianne. I’ve just signed on as a spokesman for SC Johnson and for a small Dallas based start up. The range in pricing noted here is spot on.

  6. Hi Dianne,

    This is another great post on the whole topic of being a food writer in this new environment and how to make money doing it. I did find it ironic that Amy Sherman was featured since there was a heated discussion on Twitter last year about product endorsements and monetizing your blog and Amy said that receiving money to write about a product on your personal blog is “just plain wrong”. Is it okay, however, to make money through your blog as long as it is not written on the blog? Seems this is a little too close to separate the two.

    This topic and some of these remarks were the reason that the panel discussion I participated in at IFBC last August was put on the agenda. People were so energized over Amy’s remarks. For many people, starting a blog is what allowed them to move into other areas of writing or businesses. I personally do not have a problem with people making money through their blogs. The most important thing is to stay true to who you are and not to compromise that in order to make money.

    Gwen

    • For me there is a huge difference between what you do on your blog and what you do “not on your blog.” The conversation on Twitter was specifically about sponsored posts, NOT about being a spokesperson. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am not comfortable taking money to write about any product on my blog. But as a paid spokesperson, that was never part of the deal. I have no problem with anyone making money on their blog, I just think it’s best to choose each opportunity wisely. Selling my editorial blog space to advertisers is simply not something I’m willing to do.

    • Exactly, Gwen. You have to do what feels comfortable. I must say that many bloggers are comfortable going way too far in endorsing the product. Not the big ones, but the small ones who get excited by a free $10 product. I hope they are learning and maturing about what their blog is worth.

  7. I love this quote from Mark, “An honest day’s work demands an honest day’s pay.” So very true. Just today, I was contacted by a big PR firm to help promote a very large food-related event. What they offered me in return for essentially coming on and doing their PR were coupons for discounted admission to the event that I would also (freely) offer to my readers. It took everything in my power not to reply with, “Thank you, but coupons don’t pay my bills and I suspect they don’t pay yours either.”

    The fact is, many big companies and the PR firms that work for them contact bloggers knowing they can get them to do a substantial amount of writing/work/promotion for either samples or small freebies. This has become an acceptable practice and begs the question, are we shortchanging ourselves by not asking for some sort of compensation, however small? Don’t forget that when you give it away to a big PR firm or food company, you’re the ONLY one that is working for free.

    Kendra

    • Agreed Kendra. Great comment! It is hard to say no. I had one of these recently too. And I politely, respectfully declined sort of with your logic above, and they understood. Value of our time, and expertise as well. I too loved that quote from Mark. We should ALL take it to heart and not work for free.Short changing is the right word.

    • Sounds to me like you already know the answer to your question. Now it’s a question of getting other bloggers to know the answer too.

  8. Thanks, Dianne for another super-informative post here. I’m glad Mark said what he did here: “I see a lot of bloggers “giving it away”’96and it makes me sad. Their expertise is crucial to the modern food scene’96and they are devaluing it by agreeing (often not explicitly but in truth implicitly) to endorse a product on their blogs. Sure, it’s flattering when corporate entities want to make use of your platform’96but that’s what they’re doing: “making use.” I think what usually happens is that it becomes expected of you as a food blogger to continue endorsing for free. If this is our business, our livelihood, then somehow we have to figure out how to lay down the groundwork for getting paid to do just about any service we provide.

    • Well, I don’t know about “just about any service,” because your main service is to provide good content to your readers. But yes, I agree, there is no reason to endorse for free, unless you sincerely love a product and think it would be a good fit for your readership. Probably not too many products fall into this category.

  9. I think it’s really interesting that Mark and Bruce do spokesperson work, and are also such prolific cookbook writers. I wonder if the restrictions that are placed on them by companies that hire them as spokespeople ever end up limiting their choice of cookbook subject.

    I like what Mark said, and some of the other commenters echoed and expanded upon, about getting paid for an honest day’s work. I have had to learn the hard way, unfortunately, not to do work just for the “exposure” of it, unless that exposure is guaranteed to get my name into the New York Times. Come to think of it, at this point, I have something of a Pavlovian response to the word “exposure.” I see it as something of a b.s. bellwether.

    At this point, I’m glad for any discussion that shines daylight on making money from food writing. It’s long overdue. Thanks, Dianne.

    Nicole

    • Hmmm. I wonder what kind of work for a product would get you into the NY Times? That is a good question.

      Yes, it seems that food bloggers are finally getting tired of all the requests for coverage in exchange for exposure. It took a long time.

  10. Great article Dianne, with good info. I hope to do some of this kind of work, enjoy doing it when the product is a good fit. Considering the mix of my background (sales, culinary, etc) plus I love to teach and am comfortable in front of crowds and cameras, I hope some of these opportunities come along as I grow. I did do one TV event for San Diego Living TV and it was because of an agent who I knew. I got to intro a new product for a company with one of my recipes because their chef got sick at the last minute. That was a great toe-dip into the arena!

    • Thanks Sally. Maybe you have to seek them out, vs. wait for them to come along. The one you mention sounds like a great way to start. Now you might figure out which products are a good fit. I bet you’ve received quite a few pr pitches, so maybe you could contact them about opportunities.

  11. What is everyone’s opinion on this scenario? I-Pad App Newspaper contacts me and asks to include recipe (with photo) in their “Arts & Leisure” section. They will ‘link’ the recipe and photo to my blog. Is this considered a freebie? I asked for an estimate for payment and was politely told they do not pay for recipe links.

    • Smells like a freebie, yes. Perhaps they think you will do it because the recipe and photo already exist on your blog? That would be different than if they were asking you to create original material for their app.

      • So, if I have already written an article with photographs on the blog~ apps, newspapers, and online publications get those for free (with a link to the blog)?

        It’s only when someone asks for ‘new content creation/photographs” that I ask for payment? Grrrr…trying to figure all of this out.

        • I am not sure. From my standpoint, if you have already created the info and it is available free on your blog, it is hard for me to justify paying for it, unless you change it in some major way.

  12. Thanks Diane for another great article!

  13. Dianne,

    It’s almost as if you’ve been able to peer into my brain. This is a topic that I’ve been pondering for quite some time. I’ve had several conversations, all in my head, about how to approach this. Working with brands is of genuine interest to me. I’ve made a list (in my head, again) of brands for which I would like to associate. Thanks for the little nudge!

  14. Very helpful and illuminating. And thank you, Leticia (above!) for pointing me to Diane’s blog!

  15. Really useful information – it got me thinking in ways I hadn’t before. The free element is a tricky one isn’t it – but at the end of the day how far will someone compromise their principles for a free food processor for instance.

    • Good. Re the “free element,” some people will go pretty far! At least that is my experience.

  16. Hi Dianne,

    Great post. I do wonder though – is this a feasible avenue for food writers who do not have the reach of Amy or Mark? Presumably you need to have a certain level of exposure and/or experience already to be considered a plausible spokesperson for a food company? Do you think this is a viable option for food writers who are less established to spend their time chasing?
    It would be great to get your thoughts on that.

    • I do not know what these companies consider “reach.” I doubt if they have specific numbers in mind. I have met food writers with a low profile who were chosen as spokespersons, so I think it’s possible.

  17. Thanks, Dianne! This is a great post. I like how you put both sides together. I like the part where Mark says “I see a lot of bloggers giving it away…” He affirmed what all of us know deep in our gut, but sometimes we end up “giving it away” for yes, a soup mix. I have resolved not to do this anymore. And Amy’s advice on being sponsored during conferences, that’s a great idea. But just curious, how big of a following must a blogger have before companies consider them as a viable spokesperson?
    Thanks for the valuable lessons here, Dianne, Mark and Amy!

    • Very good decision, Elizabeth.

      Re how big of a reach you need to have, someone else asked this question also. I don’t think there’s a number, written in stone. It’s up to you to sell yourself to a company and see if they think you’re a good fit.

  18. Hello and Good Morning my name is tanesha melendez aka isha Im bilingual Im welling to become a spokeperson for almost anything seriously ok have a good day and god bless as well

    • Well, thanks for letting us know that, Tanesha. Now you have to figure out who would hire you and why, and then go after them.

  19. [...] Spokesperson Work: What it Is and How to Get It by Dianne Jacob [...]

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