A guest post by Pam Mandel
“Oh, I want to go on press trips!”
I hear this frequently from newer bloggers. I get it. It’s so appealing to have someone else pick up the tab for your hotel, your meals, entrances fees, all the stuff of travel. When you’re writing for your own blog, there’s the added benefit of working without an editor who has veto power. You go on an all expenses paid trip, you write what you want, everyone’s happy. Right? Not always.
1. What’s a press trip anyway?
Let’s define “press trip” — sometimes called a junket or a FAM, short for familiarization — first. For this discussion, I mean a trip where media travels under the guidance of a public relations wrangler. Everything is arranged in advance. It’s usually a group tour at an accelerated pace. The days are long and your full participation is expected.
At its worst a press trip is what a journalist I once traveled with called “a bus full of ladies looking at jam.” I didn’t agree with a lot of things this guy said, but in this case, I get what he was saying. You travel with a large group and stop at a places that offer things that don’t interest you.
At its best, a press trip is you, alone, with an custom agenda that you’ve created in advance and plenty of free time between appointments. A PR person makes themselves available as a contact, should you need anything, but they’re not your guide, they’re just a contact who facilitates the trip. This is the holy grail of press trips, but it’s rare.
2. Where’d those press trip invites come from?
I’ve been invited on press trips for a number of reasons. I’ve done desk research for a story and the PR folks I contacted added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve traveled on assignment and the PR group that helped me arrange the travel has added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve met PR folks at conferences and events, and they’ve added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve signed up for a mailing list and… you guessed it.
I suspect I’m on a few mystery lists, too, lists of “influential bloggers” or “qualified media.” This means that some random algorithm has been applied to my insignificant blog traffic, cross referenced with my intermittent bylines, and multiplied by the number of times I’ve spoken at blogger conferences. That math ends up in my inbox — “We’re putting together a trip to Omaha this November wonder if you’d be interested in joining. Nebraska’s about more than cows, you know.”
3. What’s it like to be on one?
Most of my press trips have been somewhere between the hellish busload of media and the solo junket. There’s me, four to eight writers plus a wrangler for four or five days, plus a minivan and an agenda. I’ve been lucky in that most of my press trips have been a good time, though I once watched a fellow writer snap “READ A DAMN BOOK!” at another traveler in my group. And once, the wrangler was a sexist alcoholic and I spent the entire trip vacillating between outrage and fear that he would kill us all with his driving. I have also been frustrated, more than once, by PR reps actively blocking me from following a story lead because I was expected to be seated at a group dinner. “Yeah, sorry, you can’t talk to those locals any longer, you’re expected at my client’s restaurant.”
A group press trip, while it should intersect with your interests, does not necessarily follow your agenda. The organization planning the trip wants you to see specific things. Your hosts — the hotel, the restaurant, the museum, the high end gallery boutique — expect that you will write nice things about them. The PR person may email you after the trip, repeatedly, “Are you planning to cover the hotel?” Never mind that you write about food or art or music, where is the coverage of the hotel? “Can we get a mention of the hotel in that post you put on your blog?”
For a while, I covered Hawaii fairly regularly. It was great, I’m not going to lie, and I went to Hawaii two or three times a year on press trips. I ate in a lot of nice hotels or high end shopping center restaurants in the company of a PR rep and a half a dozen or so writers. I like macadamia nut encrusted halibut and fluffy umbrella drinks and the company of my fellow travelers, and the PR people I worked with during those years were great.
But it’s not my first choice. You know what I like better? Ethnic joints where I don’t recognize everything on the menu. Food courts at crowded local shopping malls. Drive-ins, roadside stands, and deli counters that offer 26 kinds of poke, a marinated raw tuna salad that I’m crazy for. I like to get take out poke and tortilla chips and beer and eat it alone in my hotel room while taking notes and flipping through my photos. But this isn’t my trip, remember, it’s one planned by PR, and I am beholden to an agenda not my own. So I will shower, if there’s time, and join my group for the prearranged dinner.
Forward thinking PR folks have revised the press trip template since my first junket, maybe ten years ago, maybe more. A group may all stay in the same hotel, but be sent in different directions during the day. Or there will be a much tighter focus on a subject — if the trip is about food, it’s really about food, it’s not about hotels, or shopping, or art. This makes it easier to produce stories that align with a writer’s interests and it’s change for the better.
4. What’s tricky about press trips?
Press trips can be a great way to get interesting stories, to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to –but they’re not without an ethical cost. What price do we pay for being too honest about our experiences when junkets are bad? Will we be flagged by PR people as a bad investment and never invited on a junket again? What about the reverse? If everything is awesome because we travel like VIPs, do we deliver anything of value to our readers, or are we just parroting a PR message? Are we nothing more than advertisers? Are we a reliable source if we go from sponsored experience to sponsored experience to sponsored experience?
Some folks don’t care if they’re advertising mouthpieces, as long as they get to do cool things. Some folks err on the side of no press trips ever — that means they’re able to write for publications with strict ethical guidelines like the New York Times. I err on the side of being transparent and honest, even if it means I sometimes bite the hand that feeds me a nice meal in a hotel restaurant.
What’s your take on press trips and sponsored experiences? Do you find there’s a way to write about them gracefully? If you’ve never been on a press trip, does this post make you want to go?
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Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer. She blogs at Nerd’s Eye View. Read these posts of hers for more: