Sep 042012
what are the rules when asking for something for free

Something went badly wrong in Samsung’s PR department last month as their strategy of engaging bloggers turned into a series of embarrassing arguments over control.

First, a pair of Indian bloggers found themselves stranded at Berlin’s IFA 2012 fair after arguing with Samsung then French blogger France Quiqueré told of her similar encounter with Samsung’s control freakery at the London Olympics.

Both encounters raise the issue of what is expected when a journalist or blogger is given a free trip to a conference or event.

Freebies are always a difficult issue, the blogger or journalist is always going to be in a conflicted position and the organisation paying the bills has an interest in what they report.

In an ideal world, we’d all follow Sarah Lacy’s example where no-one accepts freebies. The problem with that is that most media companies, let alone bloggers, don’t have the funds to attend high priced conferences in their own cities and going to one half way across the world is out of the question if someone else doesn’t pay.

Sarah’s journalist model works fine when you have a well funded operation like Pando Daily’s VC investors or someone prepared to work for nothing – the digital sharecropper model.

With the collapse of newspaper revenues, most media companies long ago gave up their ethical objections to accepting paid trips to conferences – in sections like travel, tech and motoring the freebie has been well established for decades.

Basically, if event organisers didn’t pay the bills for journalists and bloggers their conferences or product launches won’t get much media attention because most of the reporters simply couldn’t afford to attend.

This is simple economics and where disclosure comes in. If a blogger or reporter has been given free travel or accommodation so they could attend an event then readers should be told.

What really matters in all of this are the audience and the reporter’s ethical compass. If the readers or viewers can trust and value what reporters produce and in turn the reporters are comfortable within their own moral boundaries then everyone is a winner.

The danger is getting the balance wrong. If readers lose trust, PR people start taking liberties (as Samsung tried to do) or bloggers and journalists are uncomfortable with what they do then it’s time to stop doing it.

One quick way to destroy credibility is for PR managers to expect those blogger to act like performing monkeys in return for ‘winning’ a competition or believing that ferrying a journalist to an event will guarantee fawning coverage.

Any decent journalist or blogger who respects themselves and their audiences won’t do that, if only because it will damage their brand or career prospects. This is the lesson Samsung have learned.

For the record, I do accept freebies and disclose them at the bottom of any related blog posts. If an investor would like to bankroll a down under Pando Daily, you know where to contact me.

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