What price integrity?

This weekend I received an invitation to attend an event for free. No big deal. I receive them all the time. That’s not intended to be obnoxious: it’s part of my job. This one, however, was different. It figuratively screamed “pay for play” in a way that literally made me bristle.

There are various invitations I receive. Some of them are for media dinners or luncheons when a restaurant invites media from multiple outlets to sample their fare. At most of these events I will post to Twitter and Facebook; I do this enough that I’ve nicknamed them “gastro-tweets” and they are purely meant for entertainment.

Others invite me to attend an event as a VIP, or to simply have access at no charge. With these invitations it is accepted that you can lead a journalist to an event, but you can’t make her write. And honestly, I don’t write about each and every one. After any of these events, if I do write, it is always in the vein of “day in the life” editorial versus straight-up objective review. Simply put, you can’t be objective if you don’t have the same experience everyone else does, and if you didn’t buy your ticket or pay for your meal then your opinion is colored.

One type of invitation I’ve never received, until this weekend, is this:

When you send me a link to your blog post that mentions our _________  event, I will send you a link that will allow you one free ticket to the event…

Please have your blog posts up & live by Tuesday, March 23rd.

At first glance it may not seem like such a big deal. The blogger gets rewarded for their posting with a free ticket. Isn’t it OK to ask for something in return?

No. Not just no, but Hell no.

One of the concepts we discussed incessantly in J-school was the slippery slope. This invitation, this requirement to post before attendance, is a textbook example of that concept. If enough bloggers decide to write their posts to get their free tickets, then other event hosts and PR firms will begin demanding the same requirement, and then the person who relies on those blogs to figure out where to go will no longer get an informed editorial opinion, they’ll get an advertisement.

This is where the recently passed FTC guidelines come into play, or are supposed to. Bloggers are required to disclose when they receive something for free and when they have a relationship with a company they’re writing about. Unfortunately, though, I seriously question how many bloggers are going to put a disclaimer at the bottom of their post saying that they received a free ticket in return for their promotion.

Also unfortunate is that it seems this kind of pay-for-play is expected from online media. A colleague of mine recently asked for a recommendation from me for a restaurant, and he said “not one of your partners”. I was frankly offended. I felt like this person should know that I only work with restaurants I would personally and professionally recommend. But despite my individual integrity there are enough shysters who’ve managed to damage the reputation of anyone who’s chosen to write online. I began this discussion on Facebook and someone commented “I assumed that’s how it is anyway. I mean any blog that sells advertising spots isn’t going to write anything negative about an advertiser…”

Still, I do believe my audience trusts me. They trust me because my recommendations are not for sale. I’ve turned down a few offers that could have garnered me much-needed publicity. The same company that’s bartering posts for tickets also published a book about women-owned businesses in Chicago. I was invited to participate after I inquired about their online “contest”. It was no contest at all, but a pay-for-play – at the whopping price of $499 – along the lines of the “Who’s Who” books. To be included I would be required to purchase 50 copies of this book at $9.98 apiece, paying half down and half when the books arrived. When I balked at that, I was told I could pay in quarterly installments. I don’t think she understood that I was not balking at the price; I was balking at paying – period. My exact words were “Thank you, but no. I disagree with the concept of paying to be featured in a book that’s being sold to the public.”

Then there was Yelp. They wanted me to post their reviews on my listings, or at the very least to include a featured “Yelper” on my site. In exchange, I would be included in their email blast. To their list of 200,000 people. I practically salivated at the thought! Introducing TLT to 200,000 people? What I wouldn’t give for that!

Apparently, my integrity.

At the time I was approached allegations were being thrown, quite aggressively, that Yelp was forcing businesses to pay them or they’d move any negative reviews to the top. I voiced my concern and was told it was confusion about their algorithm. The drama seemed to die down and I actually came close to including them in some way. But I kept hesitating. It just didn’t feel right. Now I’ve learned that a class action lawsuit is being brought against the review site for these same allegations.

Score one for my gut, because no matter what happens, I am not tying my site to another that has that many doubts about its integrity.

In the end, when it comes to being an online authority, my word is all I have. If that is perceived as a commodity then it doesn’t matter how many people I reach because I’ll lose them as fast as I gained them, and what’s worse is they’ll never be back and neither will their friends, or their followers, or their fans…

What price integrity?


It’s priceless.

12 thoughts on “What price integrity?”

  1. So solve that problem and make your point, name the shameless inviter. Put up an uncensored copy of the invite and any others you receive.

  2. Hooray for your gut — and for the rest of us journalists attempting to show new media can still uphold “legacy” ethics. I vote you post the invite, too.

  3. As much as I enjoy a good confrontation, I don’t think it pays to get into pissing matches with potential sources, as a general rule. Since I don’t know the name of the company that sent the invitation, it’s hard to know the dynamics, but I have several thoughts that point toward “no” on the question of naming them.

    1. If you expose this company for violating journalistic standards, how will that affect other potential sources? Maybe we should all know what good journalistic behavior is, but the fact is that not everyone has the time, inclination, or intelligence to see these things clearly. You are the journalist and thus you have the ethics obligations. The customer is precisely the one against whom you must be cautious. As an attorney, clients commonly propose things to me that the law will not allow, not because they are bad people but because they don’t know the rules. It is my job to show them where we can build our defenses, and where we must submit to higher concerns. If you frighten one source with an attack, it may needlessly cause others to fear interacting with you at all.

    2. As an extension of #1, did you simply get one inappropriate advance, or was there more of an interaction over their idea? It’s one thing for a company to make a momentary goof and quite another to insist on an inappropriate course of action even after they’ve been challenged on it. If it was simply one communication, you could still be dealing with people who would be horrified to realize what they were proposing, if they had a chance to reflect on it. But if you didn’t challenge them, they didn’t have that second chance. This situation seems sufficiently safe to allow for second chances.

    3. If it’s a big organization, are you dealing with one fool, or is this company policy? It appears that Yelp had an unethical company policy, and for that they are rightly, publicly excoriated. However, this could be someone who missed the ethics training, or is knowingly violating company policy. That should be known before you out the company as a whole.

    My three cents.

  4. Chris & Katie – I’m quite tempted to name names simply because this is such a touchstone with me (obviously!). However, I believe Thomas is right in that it would start a confrontation that may not be necessary.

    However, I have seen an “escalation” in their invitations, and spoke to another blogger yesterday who’s had similar concerns about the same company. Because of their standard business practice of charging participants to be in their book it seems they just do not understand – or are OK with – the fact that they are encouraging advertising without full disclosure. I have contacted the person who sent the invitation and directed them to this post. I’ll report back on their response.

  5. One more thought –

    There is a very easy solution to making this okay. (Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in reviewing the problem in detail.) The only problem is the the lack of disclosure, which poses concerns for both the writer and the advertiser. By adding disclosure of the sponsorship, it simply becomes paid advertising, and we’re all familiar with the benefits of paid advertising for both the writer and the advertiser. Easy fix, good results.

  6. This is a very well written post about your integrity and you use the examples to focus on that point. To “name names” could start an unnecessary confrontation, yes. More important, it would shift the focus away from the point you made so well. This post stands on its own, it needs nothing else.

  7. Thomas – absolutely! If a blogger chooses to write about it and adds the line “Full disclosure: a ticket was received in exchange for this post” it would protect the integrity of everyone involved. Of course, it’s up to the blogger to know this is not only good practice but also required by the FTC. Pay for play, even if it’s just a ticket to an event, is a disservice to the audience if they don’t know an exchange was involved.

  8. Hmmm…I have an idea who this might be. If it’s who I think it is, I had no idea they charged for inclusion in their book. But, I’m not that surprised. Being in the thick of blogging myself, I am ever more cynical about the articles I see on blogs. I receive many “advertising inquiries,” only to find the inquirer doesn’t really want to pay for advertising, but wants to pay me to write about or link to their product–something we don’t do. We always disclose our relationships for giveaways and sponsorships, and we don’t do “reviews” as such, so I feel we are blogging with integrity. Unfortunately, many bloggers didn’t go to j-school, don’t view their blogs as editorial publications, and so don’t understand the problem.

    Did you let this company know about your concerns? I would do that first and get their response, rather than naming them online right away. That could take on a life of its own.

  9. T,

    I am with you 100%. Re: that book? I had the same issue and disclosed my disapproval for their concept. It doesn’t make any sense.

    Kudos to sticking to your guns, girl!


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