PR Ethics: Pay-For-Play Poses Conflicts

Providing freebies, or “comps,” to travel writers has been a long-time destination marketing tradition. However, as the editorial landscape continues to shift, requests for free hotel stays, air and train travel, and attraction tickets are increasing. 

It used to be that top-tier travel writers could accept media rates but not comps in order to maintain their objectivity. Now, many editorial outlets are relaxing their policies for staff writers and freelancers to keep travel expenses down. As a result, travel brands are frequently asked to pay for rooms and meals for visiting writers and photographers working for major national food and travel publications. When journalists writing for mainstream media accept free or discounted trips, they are not required to disclose it because their story is subject to an editor’s review.

Bloggers are subject to different rules than journalists writing for newspapers and magazines. The Federal Trade Commission requires bloggers to disclose a “material” relationship with a brand when they are compensated or provided freebies. That means the blogger needs to state in his or her blog post that they were hosted. It’s also becoming more common for bloggers, especially those who are self-employed, to require payment for their services. In addition, when a brand compensates a blogger, it must report that income to the IRS via a 1099 form, and the blogger needs to claim it as income.

Not all bloggers are the same, of course. Some wish to be treated as objective journalists and bristle when viewed as “endorsers,” as the FTC does. Others are clear about requiring payment for services rendered.

The essence of the conflict is this:

  • With travel reporters receiving freebies and travel bloggers getting compensated, how can they be truly objective? 
  • Are mainstream journalists beholden to mention the businesses providing the freebies as bloggers are, or does that reduce their credibility? 
  • And, if the travel brand is not included in the story, what’s the incentive for them to provide comps?

Here are some tips for navigating your way through this pay-for-play world:

  1. Support writers crafting stories for traditional media with an affordable media rate.
  2. Earmark budget to help freelance writers and bloggers with travel expenses.
  3. Create and share a blogger disclosure policy. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) provides guidelines you can follow.
  4. Support the travel media and blogger community in a way consistent with your brand values, whether that’s through advertising, special rates or other means.
  5. Encourage objectivity so that stories written by travel writers are credible.

Most tourism marketers understand the importance of transparency and honesty in all consumer communications. But the play-for-play world of travel writing poses some ethical challenges. Please give some thought to how this situation could improve and comment with your ideas. Thanks.

Tags: blogging, media, pr, travel
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