Wednesday, April 27, 2011...12:00 pm

Is offering bribes to bloggers any different from old-style PR sweeteners for journalists?

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Paul Bradshaw has a timely post here on the legal position of bloggers who accept payment or other incentives to post content on behalf of brands or other interests.

It’s a warning to the sponsors of this as much as anyone – Bradshaw points out that a PR firm offering entry into a prize draw as an incentive to review a product needs to be aware that this comes under the jurisdiction of the Gambling Commission. And bloggers who accept payment for creating content may fall foul of the Office of Fair Trading.

But the key point is that bloggers shouldn’t sully their hands with this kind of thing. All we have online is our reputation, and this kind of activity tarnishes a blogger’s integrity quicker than you can say “backhander”.

I’d love to be offered a freebie to blog about something, as the offer itself would give me something to blog about. But like him I wouldn’t touch the actual offer with a barge pole.

It’s an interesting debate though. The implication is that PR firms and brands are devaluing web content wholesale, with the knock-on effect that readers will switch off if it isn’t nipped in the bud.

Allotment blogger Soilman comments (well, rants) about it here, saying it’s blogging’s “dirty little not-so secret”.

Every secret paid-for post, link or review erodes trust in ALL bloggers, ALL writers. Every opinion, every ‘recommendation’, every ‘fact’, every SEO-optimised headline, every URL itself becomes suspect.

But how different is this really from the good old days, before the internet, when the only outlet for PR activity was the mainstream media?

I’m not talking about the hard news, fourth estate model of journalism that is held up by journalists as the paradigm of good journalistic practice. Rather, this is about the vast swathes of niche, magazine-type journalism that you could make a reasonable living in up to about five years ago.

Magazines such as Manufacturing Engineer – an engineering institution journal that survived for years with a staff of about two and a half – which I joined as I entered this noble profession.

I remember being taken on a glamorous working trip in a private aircraft to see a sandpaper factory in France, for example, and being given a goodie bag at the end full of brandy and foie gras. The implicit deal was “we give you treats, you write a bit about us in your rag”. Was this ethical? Did we declare it to any authority? No chance.

[Disclaimer – I did write about the sandpaper factory; I gave the foie gras and brandy away as I was, and am, a vegetarian and I didn’t ever like brandy.]

No, you didn’t have to write about your visit. But between the company that paid for it, and your editor or publisher wanting you to justify your time out of the office, there was very little chance no copy at all would come out of the trip.

Yes, in comparison, the internet today seems rife with sponsored rubbish, not least from companies such as pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap publishing company Demand Media.

But in some ways, all this graft and corruption in the media may be better exposed now we are all digital. If Bradshaw is correct that the Office of Fair Trading requires blogging sites to declare any payment for content, then maybe things will be more transparent now.

In any event, what’s required of the reader now is what was required before – to get to know and trust your media sources before you believe unquestioningly what they say. There never was such a thing as a trustworthy media…


  • I’ve never been offered payment in kind or otherwise for writing about something, but my blog has so few readers and is so unfocused, that’s not surprising.
    However, many blogs are offered stuff to review with the implicit assumption that they will feel obliged to be nice about it. Bloggers groups like British Mummy Bloggers are trying to raise awareness about why it matters that you don’t become an arm of the marketing industry –
    As you point out, many bloggers are amateurs and may not even feel there is anything wrong with bigging up a product they have been given.

  • I agree with you about ‘payment in kind’ for reviews, or for anything else. No professional organisation, i.e. a theatre, expects a journalist to consistently flatter them; the best of them (i.e. Chichester Festival Theatre) accept plaudits and punches.
    As a freelancer, I publish several small websites; and do B2B, interviews, travel and health features for different publications.
    Occasionally, PR people ask me to place their material, or to mention their ‘enterprise’ on one of my websites for a small fee, i.e. £10.
    On the first occasion involving a placement of material that seemed useful for readers of my travel site, the exercise led to several emails and a serious editing job. They didn’t like me removing the superlatives and waffling. Useful lesson. Charge shallow water sharks in advance for editing their copy.
    In the second kind of situation, I was stung by a company wanting a tag for their ‘enterprise’ in one of my stories. Well, I use tags all over the place. No harm in that. So I put a discreet tag adjunct the world university (accounting courses), but no, they wanted a 30-word description built into my copy.
    I promptly removed the tag (they wanted to see it) and said forget it.
    Basically, this kind of thing is not worth the time and trouble involved.

  • Hi Vivienne
    Yes – it’s not only the moral and ethical questions, nor even the effect on your reputation. There’s also the sheer tiresomeness of dealing with these people. And once you step into their playground, you find yourself suddenly playing by a new set of rules…

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