The internet is currently on fire with a spat between a blogger and an artisan patisserie owner, and it has a hashtag all of its own: #bloggerblackmail. It would be quite funny, if it wasn’t for the fact that real people with real feelings are involved. From a distance, this is what appears to have happened. A food blogger is invited to review an artisan patisserie in Kensington, but when she arrives she doesn’t feel loved enough – the samples offered for free, in her eyes, don’t justify the eight hours she says it takes her to write a review (dude! you seriously need to work faster!). She asks for more samples, and these are declined. She then writes a bad review of the patisserie. The patisserie owner spills the beans on her blog, prompting a painful response by the blogger. It’s a complete car crash.
We haven’t had anything quite like this in the wine blogging community: the food blogging community is much bigger, and more developed, and a bit more freebie prone. But as a fellow blogger, I think this incident raises several issues surrounding disclosure, freebies and payment (whether financial or in kind) for blog posts.
Basically, if you take payment for content, then your work suffers. Readers aren’t stupid (well, some of them might be, but most are quite smart). They know when something’s amiss. The trust of your readers is a currency that’s not really yours to spend. If you want to be taken seriously, then you need to play it straight.
I’ve been offered payment for guest posts here on this blog. I’ve said no every time, because I think it would damage the quality of my content, even if the posts were marked clearly as ‘sponsored content’, which of course they would have to be. I’ve also not been even slightly tempted: the sums offered are pitiful. [Bloggers, if you are going to sell your souls, don’t do it so cheaply!] Of course, I am in a fortunate position of making a living out of wine writing, so I wouldn’t criticise a blogger who did take sponsored content if that’s the only way they can pay their bills. But it’s far from ideal, and it needs to be disclosed clearly. [I am particularly reluctant to play holier-than-thou with other writers over conflicts of interest. The more established you are, the easier it is to avoid them. But everyone has to start somewhere, and I don’t want to knock back young writers who have been forced to conflict themselves: if I were in their position might I be forced to make the same compromises? Remember: conflicts of interest aren’t necessarily bad, and it doesn’t mean the writer is corrupt, as long as they are disclosed so that the reader is aware of them. Then it is down to trust.]
Freebies? Well, most of the wine I taste is freely provided, whether at organized tastings, or as samples. The more you get of these, the less an issue this becomes: I have so many samples arriving that it is anything but a big deal, and this allows me to judge them fairly without feeling beholden to the person who sent them. My travel is also largely funded by others. Clearly, this is not ideal. But unless you want the pool of wine writers to be restricted to the independently wealthy and people with rich significant others, then there is no way round this one.
One source of tension is the issue of assigning importance to bloggers. Which blogs really matter? Who deserves freebies, and to what level? This isn’t a new problem: PRs have had to make this call for years in assigning importance to print journalists. It’s just that with the emergence of blogging and social media, suddenly everyone is on unfamiliar ground. But whether you are old media or new, it’s best to be humble, and to not have an overinflated sense of self-importance. If you ever find yourself even thinking the question – ‘Do you know who I am?’ – then you need to go to a quiet place for a few days for some reflection.
As a general rule of thumb, if you are providing content, keep it pure. Write about what you want to write about. Don’t compromise by writing bait for advertising (as many print publications do), or writing the sorts of articles that get the most hits or responses (I could write lots of deliberately controversial pieces that get my comments section whirring, but that wouldn’t be right). And don’t write for SEO – your writing style is your signature, and if you change it for search engines, then you have compromised. And you have to try your best not to let your opinions be swayed by circumstances: if you had a particularly good or particularly bad experience with a winemaker, you need to try not to let that lens distort what you see in a wine.