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?