Can the honest reputation of foodblogs survive the PR-foodblogger relationship?

Let me start with a series of questions…

  • Did you hear about the Singaporean blogger who got entangled in a mess of accusation and counter-accusation about a free meal? At first it seemed like ego, but later facts indicate it was other people’s egos, plus some PR/restaurant dirty dealing.
  • Do you sigh with disillusionment when you discover yet another foodblog that now features effusive sponsored product or restaurant reviews?
  • Did you know that there is now a chocolatier (Melb.) and a patisserie (Syd.) banned from all mention on Syrup & Tang because of deliberate pseudo-genuine comments promoting (“shilling”) their products? (And a third (Melb.) will be if they try once more.)
  • Were you invited by PR company Media Moguls to an unspecified “blogger event”, but first had to provide your visitor stats? (In correspondence I described this as “rudely presumptuous”.)
  • Have you seen comments on other blogs protesting their “genuine punter” nature and recommending an establishment? Some of those come from the restaurant’s own internet connection… funny, that.
  • Have you received PR-spam because a Melbourne blogger working for a PR company appears to have added her private address book to the company’s database? (I’ll name her if I get one more piece of unsolicited garbage in my inbox.)
  • Have you heard about (at least one) Melbourne blogger who visits cafés, asks probing questions during busy service, and conspicuously takes flash photos without asking? (It’s about the lack of courtesy, not the photos.)
  • Have you noticed that bloggers are increasingly being invited to PR events for which there is an entry/attendance fee? (They wouldn’t try to pull that one on mainstream media!)

It seems foodblogging has matured far enough to be entwined in a pretty tiresome game of cat and mouse with restaurateurs and public relations (PR) companies, egos, money and more.

This article has been brewing for a few months, as I tried to reconcile my opinions about freedoms, community, advertising and blogging. Luckily for me, Brian at Fitzroyalty was perhaps the first to loudly object in detail to some recent developments while I was still vacillating, then Claire published an encouraging post reminding readers of how diverse and interesting the blogosphere can be. Ed also wrote a simple to-the-point post back in June.

I’ve rejigged what I first intended to write, but there will be some natural overlap with other people’s articles (some of which I may have overlooked or forgotten) or comments. As each of our readerships differ a bit, I hope some readers don’t mind the overlap.

When I started blogging, I knew there were different types of bloggers, variously wanting to share, inform, diarise, explore, think, make friends, review, cook, boast, show off, promote a business, etc. Sydney blogs were already known for a bit of a commercial tinge here and there. More numerous Melbourne blogs were generally a bit less “blingy” and there seemed to be more interaction across a broad range of people.

Our first three gatherings were open-invitation, sponsor-free, competition-free, prize-free, warm affairs, with a bit of trepidation but not much showing off. They were enjoyable. Reading reports of the recent commercially-coloured get-together, I was interested to see how few of Melbourne’s long-standing bloggers attended, and I’m guessing more than a few were put off by the change in tone (though I’m not claiming that the people who did attend were at fault, or didn’t enjoy themselves).

Blogs meet commerce

Just like magazines or TV shows, the publisher/producer of a blog chooses what to present and the readers can choose what content they consume. It could therefore be argued that any blogger can do anything they choose (a point made by a number of irritated commenters on Phil Lees’s post earlier in the year that (rather inconsistently) flagged supposedly commercialised bloggers).

Bloggers develop specialisations, styles, or find themselves growing business ideas out of their blogs. Many have successfully achieved a respectful (to the readers) balance between their new business and the original goals of the blog. For many bloggers, there are also external commercial temptations along the way and each blogger has to work out how or to what degree they embrace that.

Some people believe that all commercial interactions are in some way “compromising”, but I think that’s both rigid and rather unrealistic. It’s possible to run obvious ads, for instance, without that affecting your own content (though I think it can degrade the perceived quality of a blog — see some US blogs, for instance, plastered head to toe in banners and commercial bling). It’s also clear that foodlovers can benefit from access to events and information that they might not usually get, even if this is in the context of marketing activity of some sort. Mild bias might be inevitable, but it’s unavoidable under any circumstance as a consumer anyway. Managing the bias is a more critical issue as a blog owner.

As the years have passed, some people have joined blog networks, such as Foodbuzz, only to discover that these were intended in no small part as revenue generators seducing bloggers into a sort of interdependence with niche advertisers. And others have joined ad networks like the much mentioned Nuffnang, which is perhaps little different from Google as an display-ad provider, but has successfully persuaded many bloggers to compromise the integrity of their content by variously providing freebies for review, sometimes with editorial guidance, and arranging events or access to events where most bloggers feel obliged to write at least moderately positive things.

Meanwhile, PR companies have embraced blogs as genuine media participants and therefore fair game for a myriad of marketing approaches (Another Outspoken Female’s rants about this (1, 2) are excellent), but pay-for-attendance event invitations reveal that the respect is fairly limited.

At the same time, individual businesses and talentless PR people seek increasingly to manipulate blog readers by posting false or anonymous comments on blogs, willingly lying about their “genuine” nature, and too many bloggers let this happen (a fair proportion of such comments are quite obviously false, either through the wording or the technical info accompanying the comment).

Clean reputation matters, for everyone

Is all this a problem if bloggers and blog-readers get to choose what they write or read? Yes. There is an obvious risk that the hard-fought-for recognition of food bloggers as genuine and honest reviewers, writers or cooks is being directly undermined. Some bloggers who started to ride the PR gravy train have already reassessed their enthusiasm, becoming more careful in choosing the invitations or freebies they accept, and approaching reviewing opportunities with a far more critical eye. That’s a natural development, and I hope that trend continues.

Running advertorial content, sponsored reviews, or similar material can endanger the respect people have for your own blog, or for the whole spectrum of foodbloggers. Unfortunately, some comments on both Brian’s and Phil’s posts, show there are people who feel an entitlement to some sort of commercial reward for blogging or who will uncritically promote a product as long as it is a basic “fit” with their blog content, and I doubt they care if the scepticism they cause spreads to the large numbers of other bloggers. As the flattering PR attention increases, will we see a wave of blogging egos demanding privilege and special treatment? I’ve heard rumours that it’s happening here already.

Many bloggers have been trying for years to educate PR people about blogs, respectful engagement, and not filling inboxes with irrelevant rubbish. It would be a pity to see the public and mainstream media regarding foodblogs as untrustworthy PR mouthpieces, where previously the biggest battles were with restaurateurs who hated bloggers for telling the genuine everyday experience of a customer, and journalists who loathed the unedited and sometimes faster-to-the-news nature of blogs.

Will the good intentions and often noble goals of many foodbloggers be suffocated by tempations, egos, and the taint of careless commercialism? Many longstanding bloggers have been quieter than usual in the last six months, perhaps in part due to disquiet at the change in tone.


A note about my own sites:

I like reviewing stuff, and originally intended to do much more than I have over the last three and a half years. Only on very rare occasions have I received free samples or attended events, and usually they were too rubbish to write about. Nonetheless, I don’t oppose writing about things I discover as the result of recommendation or press release and genuinely find worth commenting on, but whatever the case, I review without fear or favour (which might also be why I’m rarely offered freebies;) ).

I deliberately separate most of my regular macaron-making announcements from the main Syrup & Tang site and RSS feed because I don’t expect my readers will want to wade through frequent commercial announcements. I think it’s a sensible, respectful approach which many other bloggers have also taken.

I own a book review website, The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf, and occasionally make announcements on Syrup & Tang about the reviews. The site was set up because there were so many crap, PR-driven book reviews out there. Blogs are particularly problematic, because most bloggers feel obliged to write positively about free books they receive (especially a problem in the US and UK). On The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf we tell all publishers that if they supply a book, they do so at their own risk, because we definitely publish critical reviews.

A note about comments:

Comments must be respectful and constructive, whether agreeing or disagreeing. There is no right to comment (this is my website), but most comments are usually published after checking. Anonymous comments for publication can be emailed directly to me (you have to identify yourself to me, but request public anonymity, with a good reason). Private emails which are rude to me might be published.

17 thoughts on “Can the honest reputation of foodblogs survive the PR-foodblogger relationship?”

  1. I remember similar issues being debated several years ago over the “advertorials” that were plaguing Sydney broadcasters.

    The blogger is the one that has to take responsibility. While there is no right or wrong answer over the issue of “freebies”, the onus is on the blogger to offer disclosure if the blog entry was due to a freebie. From that point on, the reader can make up their own mind if the opinion is an honest one or simply, “advertorial”. While people seem to worry that the blogger might be too biased towards a freebie, there’s also the aspect that a blogger might be honest, but the reader discounts the opinion because a freebie was involved. It works both ways.

    On the issue of advertising, again, the readers can make up their own minds. Personally, I’m less inclined to read blogs that have too much advertising.

  2. Hi Duncan, thanks for the reference and your supportive words. One of the things central to this which is hard to write about is culture. The commercial culture of PR and advertising promoted by Nuffnang etc may be understood in Singapore and Malaysia, and to an extent Sydney, but Melbourne has a strong DIY community culture in social media as well as other areas of culture, eg art, craft etc. The commercial intrusion into what has been a non-commercial community project feels genuinely foreign and distasteful to many of us.

  3. In reply to Fitzroyalty, commercial intrusion is inevitable. However, reading your response, are you saying that Melbourne readers are incapable of making up their own minds on how advertising/freebies may affect the words of the blogger? Are we dumber than our Singaporean and Sydney counterparts? And as much as you say the commercial intrusion is “distasteful to many of us”, there are just as many who accept it as part of how the world operates.

    I’ve been involved in DIY in fanzines and local music, and you try and do as much as you can with the resources you have. However, there is sometimes a situation where you want to do more, and the only way to do that is with commercial backing. And I daresay that there would be bloggers with an eye of turning their hobby into a professional career, and good luck to them with that pursuit.

    In an online world, if someone is looking for an online opinion of a restaurant, it’s not likely they will rely on simply one blog. They will probably read a few blogs and sites like Urban Spoon. And this doesn’t include talking to friends. From that, they will form their opinion on a given restaurant, and then make the decision on whether to spend their hard earned at that place.

  4. @Daniel: I agree, mostly:) A concern for me is the assumption that average readers will make up their own minds in an informed way. Given the number of passing visitors that most blogs have, I think many readers won’t have the context/time to absorb the “honesty value” of a site they happen to discover. Marketing people know this, which is why even a lukewarm review can make them happy if it affects Google rankings for a product search. And I’d suggest that some bloggers who are just seeking revenue or ego-boosting stats aren’t greatly concerned about their readership.

    I’ve been watching how many older and younger internet users surf for info and reviews recently, and I’m not convinced that there is much multiple-site-info collation going on… about as depressing as the well known reality that few people click beyond the first page of Google results.

    @fitzroyalty: I tried to avoid writing about the gut reaction to the change in blog content, but it’s true that my emotional reaction has been one of anger and strong distaste — Melbourne foodblogs definitely stood out for a while as disproportionately engaged with issues (alongside great food, recipes, reviews, community, etc). Things go in phases, but it is a bit uncomfortable to anticipate the fallout from this highly commercial phase.

  5. When I talk of Melbourne I refer not of the ability of the audience to discern commercial intervention, but of the content creators. I suggest that the Melbourne blogging scene is inherantly less commercial than Sydney, Malaysia etc.

  6. I don’t think the Singapore blogging scene is “inherently commercial” as Fitzroyalty suggests. There are honourable exceptions, of course, but for the most part, I think the Singapore foodblogging scene is rubbish because:

    (a) celebrity chefs are cool and therefore all chefs are cool; the fact that the bloggers can judge the output of cool people puts them higher on the hierarchy and gives a massive massage to their egos;

    (b) no proper media outlet will publish the dreck that they put out – the lack of food knowledge and thought is evident on the face of their writing; and

    (c) they can’t afford to eat at the places they purport to “review” and this is an easy way to get a free meal by pretending to provide some form of quid pro quo.

    The sad thing is Singapore restaurants know this and a large number of them are happy to give free meals to the bloggers and thereby increase their online footprint. The cost of providing a free meal on a quiet night is relatively low (a third or less of the a la carte price) and the restaurants obviously believe the publicity is worth it. Of course, these pretensions all get blown out into the open when someone creatively misreads an invitation and throws a tanty when it comes to paying time.

  7. Hi Duncan,

    I’m usually a lurker but feel compelled to voice my opinion re this topic. For the record, I’m a Sydneysider, I run Foodbuzz ads on my site and I used to work as a feature writer (admittedly well over 12 years ago) for a newspaper in Malaysia.

    What I’d like to point out about the freebie situation, is that PR companies have been doing this for as long as I can remember when it comes to newspapers and magazines. Grab any mag and chances are that the products they feature on their “what’s new, what’s hot etc” pages are products that they’ve been sent for free. Also, newspapers wouldn’t exist without advertising.

    Since blogging has been touted as new media, is it surprising that advertising and PR companies have tried to approach and work with bloggers the same way they did with the old school press? True, many of these attempts have been clumsy and cringeworthy, but they are only trying to do their job.

    As a blogger, I have accepted a couple of freebie products, but I always make it very clear where the products in question came from, and the products I chose to accept were things I’d have bought off the shelf to try anyway. But there’s the clincher, I chose to accept these items, I chose to blog about them, my readers can choose to read and make up their minds about these producs, and choose to stop reading my ramblings if they want to. This choice was not something I had much of when I worked at the newspaper.

    And while this is may be a bit off topic, I’m sure we’ve all heard of pharmaceutical companies who offer freebies etc to doctors to recommend their drugs. This is the way the world works, and I’d rather read a blog that is transparent about their freebies, than to wonder if my doctor has ulterior motives!

    I do apologise for the super long comment, but before I go I’d like to suggest further reading for anyone who’s interested about PR and blogging to visit the Foodblog Alliance (, it’s a very American site but I think quite relevant.

    Thanks for the soapbox 🙂

  8. Hello Shaz. I’m familiar with the media-PR relationship, and with the arguments you present, but I feel there are three points that don’t hold up. Firstly, the mere fact that other media or other people do X, doesn’t in itself mean it’s without ramifications for a broader community. Secondly, the treatment of bloggers by some/many PR people is not equivalent to their treatment of old media, from pay-for-invitation media events to outrageous content-manipulating agreements with camera companies. And finally, I think bloggers need to move beyond the belief that their readership is mostly regulars who are able to discern unbiased from biased content — it’s likely that most blogs attracting reasonable traffic get a major part of that via search engine results, and those visitors are not “readers” in the conventional sense and may not read product reviews carefully, for instance — the marketers know this and are looking for the search engine hits for their product via numerous blog placements, etc. The “discerning loyal reader” is a minority in the broad statistics of visitor hits on blogs.

  9. Thanks for the links Duncan. I’m feeling like I’ve turned into such a moaning Minnie on this subject that I’m attempting to just ignore the plethora of stupid PR mail I get and likewise not waste my time reading blogs written by those who are easily flattered by the thought of getting something for free.

    I want to read blogs that amuse and/or inform me. Others might read blogs to feel like they are ahead of the pack on what is new and cool. Then of course some of still write and read food blogs that will teach us how to cook better.

  10. It’s a shame that months to years of hardwork & reputation can be destroyed in seconds.

    From this incident there seem to be so many grey areas in the business of social media for the food blogger that he/she needs to play by the acceptable rules & etiquette in order to protect themselves of such possible repercussions.

    It cannot be forgotten the business work both ways. As much as an established & powerful food blogger can make or break a business, the business of food blogging can also make or break you.

  11. Hi Duncan, again I’m late to the party. Great article and you’ve managed to go more in depth on this topic. I think we’ve reached a fork in the road now with commercial endorsements on blogs threatening to swamp any kind of cred. Those who kowtow to the filthy lucre IMO relinquish the currency of their voice, hard earned amongst the white noise

  12. Hi Duncan,

    I’m one of those dreaded PRs who specialises in food and hospitality publicity and I see that you’ve failed to mention the other side of the Food Bloggers/PR relationship, the freeloaders. At least 2 to 3 times a week we are sent requests from bloggers both here in Melbourne and Sydney asking for free dinners at our restaurants and VIP invitations to events (and no we have never asked bloggers to pay for admittance to any promotional events), we’ve even had some ask for free tickets to charity fundraising dinners (being a charity fundraiser we paid for our own tickets, as did the media), to the point where we’re starting to ignore these requests as they are often quite rude and demanding, and yes I refer to the ‘Dont’ you know how popular my blog is?’ emails.

    We still treat bloggers with the same respect as ‘old’ media, and do hold blogger specific famils, and while there is an expectation that the blogger will write a post (much like a media famil), we always expect them to write an honest review and to feel free to be critical about their experience. When a blogger contacts us about a client, we always ask if they would like a comped visit or if they simply want to meet the chefs, we have only ever had one turn down a comped visit.

    While I see your post certainly has a lot of valid points, and I too am horrified at the thought of asking bloggers to pay for what is a free event for everyone else, I really had to present to your readers a side to this debate that they are no doubt unaware of.

  13. @Jackie: I think you’re a little too defensive in your comment. As it happens, I *did* mention that bad behaviour from some bloggers appears to be happening occasionally. And dare I say it… if the clumsy PR machines hadn’t sought to exploit the greed of some people, there’d be fewer instances of the behaviour that you are focusing on. Nonetheless, it is certainly good to have confirmation that bad behaviour is going on on both sides, as it’s something not often spoken about.

  14. Jackie you make some excellent points, and while I have had primarily negative experiences from unsolicited contact from PR people, this in no way excuses the reciprocated greedy behaviour from some bloggers. Duncan and I and others who have written about the ethics of food blogging obviously have not been able to see the approaches you receive from bloggers, and I’m glad you have contributed to this conversation. To me you have provided further evidence in favour my broader argument that there are some bloggers who simply don’t have the critical or analytical skills to understand their place in the media economy and ecology and the judgement to behave appropriately. Please publish the worst of the freeloader requests!

  15. @fitzroyalty: I have to disagree with you on the last point Brian. Bloggers can’t be held to higher standards than other media participants, and those of us with media involvement know that some journalists and others seek favours and advantage from PR companies without often being exposed – in fact it’s a given in many areas of media.

    I know of one egregious example of greed by an Australian foodblogger which I’d love to expose, but I won’t because I don’t think there’s been enough time for the more commercial Australian foodbloggers to work out what they should be doing in the aftermath of these PR-blogger-issues conversations. The greedy bloggers are a small minority and I would hope the various discussions online (not including the bitchy little Tweets) are making most of them think more clearly about their role.

  16. As a relatively new foodblogger, and one in the States, I will say I think you bring up many good points of consideration. There is alot of presumption about one’s credentials as a foodblogger (naively so in some cases I think) as well as variablity in who the blogger ultimately serves thus reflecting their views. It really is a call to arms for readers to educate themselves on their blog source and for what it stands or represents. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  17. I had NO idea this was going on! I’m a blogger of a different calibre though. Our little blog of several contributors is imperfect in execution because we’re none of us experts, certainly not in writing.

    I can’t speak for the other bloggers on our site, but I really only blog for myself, and if someone wants to read it now and then, that’s a bonus. There are a small selection of other cooking/food blogs I visit, and I think, without doubt Syrup and Tang is the most professional one. It’s such a joy to read, sometimes funny, always informative, and I enjoy the reviews on The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf too. What I read on those two sites often feels like something I would have *willingly* paid for in magazine form. Sometimes I feel things are going over my head here and I’m not sure I am even qualified to comment, though Duncan you do a great job of being as respectful to the likes of me as people who do understand on your level.

    Most of the blogs I visit though are much more amateur in presentation, and I LIKE that about them:) I certainly am not keen on advertising banners or promotions based on a freebie. The idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I am prepared to read entries with spelling or grammatical errors now and then (something I’d not want to see if I were paying) and slightly out of focus images because I believe I am reading a genuine and heartfelt post from someone like me, and I appreciate that person taking the time to share their recipe with me.

    I guess all I’m trying to say is that I’m grateful to Duncan and other commenter’s for allowing me to learn can go on with some bloggers (on both sides) because it will make me more aware. I’ll more easily spot an in-genuine blog entry in the moments when I leave my cocoon of regular bloggers I enjoy.

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