For all the food bloggers who have ever, or will ever, encounter a public relations (PR) person

A blogger on a food-oriented blog I visited the other day “was offered a free [cook]book in exchange for a review.” The blogger was not interested, so they offered the book to whomever wanted it. Eight other bloggers jumped up and down and begged to review it.

This concerns me. Greatly. Because making an agreement like this with a PR person is a clear conflict of interest.

Making a deal with the devil
What’s wrong with accepting a free cookbook in exchange for a review? Whenever you accept a freebie in exchange for a favor, you are serving the person offering the freebie. In this case, it is PR. But the only person you should be serving is your visitor.

This is called a conflict of interest.

Because of this deal, you are obligated to review the book, even if you decide it is not worthy of it once you have had a chance to look it over. Or, even if it is worthy of a review, you may feel obligated to say something nice (or not say anything bad), even if you don’t mean it.

The problem is your objectivity has been compromised. And even if it isn’t, even if it just looks like it is, your visitor may feel they can’t trust you.

And if your visitors can’t trust you, they will stop reading you.

Come again
A journalist friend gave me this example to help clarify. Think how you feel when a friend gives you a gift. You feel obligated to give one back, right? This is a fundamental principle of persuasion. Only you shouldn’t feel obligated to PR. You should feel obligated to your reader. That’s who you are writing for.

Who serves whom?
If this is so bad, then why do PR people do this? Because PR people serve their clients, not you.

PR is paid to get good coverage. If they do not, the client may fire them. So it is the job of every PR person to get you to give coverage, and good coverage at that. This is their agenda.

Perhaps it would help if I explained how PR works.

All in a days work
At its most basic, the job of the PR person is to promote the product or service of their company. One key way they do this is by getting coverage. Traditionally, they contact print publications, such as Gourmet and broadcast, such as Oprah, and try to get them to cover their product or service. This is how products and services get in the publications and on the shows.

Now they are contacting you, too.

The media outlet responds with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Send it over and let me have a look at it.” This is all the obligation the newspaper or TV show or other media outlet will offer. Whether they cover it, what they say, when they cover it, how they cover it, if they even cover it at all, is entirely up to them and is decided upon with zero consultation with the PR person.

The media refuses to allow PR to have any involvement in these critical decisions because their only responsibility is to their readers, viewers, or listeners. They have absolutely no responsibility whatsoever to the PR person. And they do not want the PR person to taint their decision.

In fact, media outlets feel so strongly about this that they have stringent codes of ethics.

Work ethic
The following are some quotations from the Code of Ethics of various publications and journalistic organizations. These focus on objectivity and accepting gifts, because this is the issue at hand today. Be aware, the codes are far more involved than this. If you would like me to address some of the other issues, from the proper use of quotations to accuracy, leave comments and it would be my pleasure to help.
  • The Associated Press says they “avoid behavior or activities that create a conflict of interest and compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action.”
  • The Washington Post says they “accept no gifts” and “make every reasonable effort to be free of obligation to news sources and to special interests.”
  • Knight Ridder (a syndication that owns a number of media outlets) says employees may not accept “a personal reward from a supplier or provider of services in exchange for the award of Company business.”
Let me introduce your speaker
It is always important to know the source of your information. This can help you decide if the information is impartial, complete, or even accurate. So let me tell you who I am.

Beyond being an author and freelance writer (writing speeches and Websites and so on for clients), I am also a freelance journalist (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parenting, The Toronto Star, CNET.com, and so on). I’ve been dealing with PR for well over a decade, which is why I think I can offer some insight, at least from a journalistic point-of-view.

I wanted to speak out because the agreement I mentioned (free cookbook in exchange for a review) is an agreement no journalist would agree to. An agreement no ethical PR person would ask for. But while PR people don’t ask journalists for these agreements, some do ask bloggers. And they get away with it because bloggers, who do not have journalistic backgrounds, may not be sure how to deal with PR and may not understand what the implications of their actions truly mean.

I don’t want you to be taken advantage of.

Working hard or hardly working
So should you follow journalistic ethics on your blog? I do. These ethics are the only way I know to truly, whole-heartedly, and without any real or perceived conflict of interest serve my reader. Which, in my opinion, is my only real purpose, both as a blogger and as a journalist.

But you are a blogger, not a journalist. You are not at all obligated to follow this code. So it is up to you to decide if you want to follow journalistic ethics or not. Either way, good for you for taking the time to read this. It shows you care.

No strings attached
So if you decide to follow a journalistic code of ethics, how do you review a cookbook? You act just like the media does. You take the book and tell PR you will consider reviewing it. Then you hold your own counsel for all decisions. And, if you do decide to review it, you write as fair a review as you can.

It’s as easy as that.