Since the FTC ruled that bloggers need to disclose gifts, freebies, money, etc. The subject of accepting gifts affecting blogger credibility has not gone away, nor have the questions which started the rulings in the first place.
What is considered standard in the fashion industry? What is considered professional? Back in January, In the video, ‘On Fashion Blogs‘ Suzy Menkes remarked, “Some bloggers in their innocence, actually believe they are completely independent in what they say. But I've done a lot of work in tracking how much intervention there is now, and how bloggers are being fed stories.”
I couldn't help but to wonder about the ways bloggers are being fed stories, one of the most controversial ways that puts bloggers in the hot seat, is gifting. “Gifting is part and parcel of the relationship building process between media and any given brand.” says publicist, Tatiana Read, Knot PR. Both bloggers and fashion editors alike take part in this relationship building, yet there remains a difference between the two. So what is that difference? Why do bloggers suffer credibility issues and fashion editors do not?
At the IFB Evolving Influence Conference, gifting was a hot topic, viewed very differently between the news industry where it is not tolerated, and amongst bloggers where it is accepted:
Standard Gifting Practice for Print?
As a blogger who has never worked for a print publication, I did not know the actual policies for fashion magazines. I asked several magazine editors, and did not get a response. So I asked publicists, journalists, and journalism teachers what they saw from the industry, while knowledge varied from person to person, the general consensus was, there is no Magna Carta of gift policies. Fashion journalist, Katie Hintz, shares her experience, “I've never seen a completely written out guide to gifting at the major publishing companies that I worked for. But, especially at fashion magazines, gifting seems to be very common.” Lorraine Sanders, a fashion journalism professor at Academy of Art University, San Francisco says, “In my experience, every publication, whether it's online or print or both, establishes its own policies about gifts and freebies and how those influence or affect editorial coverage.” She continued to add, “Most policies aren't explicitly described for readers, so it's difficult to know whether or when print fashion journalists have received free merchandise in connection with particular story or editorial item.” Publicist, Nik Thakar said, “Conde Nast has strict returns policies with regards to items, as does the BBC, however, smaller publishers – and ones that don’t specialize in fashion, do not.”
What's the Difference Anyway?
Fashion magazines aren't required to have clear gifting policies, nor are required to disclose their policies to the public, readers can never be certain if content is influenced by gifting or not. So why the attitude that editors can handle it and bloggers can not? Some say bloggers haven't learned basic ethics taught in Journalism 101, nor do bloggers understand the divide between editorial and advertising. In publications the two sides are run by different departements with different people, in blogs, it's mostly the same person doing both ad sales and producing editorial content. The separation gets muddled, leaving room for editorial conflicts and/or missed advertising opportunities.
“You don’t always get a response from print editors. Bloggers are usually better about gifts and usually give you press.” Says Nivia E. Prescod of Vidori PR. This can be great news for bloggers in terms of building relationships with companies to help get established. PR companies certainly see the value of building relationships with bloggers these days, and as press generated from these relationships becomes more and more important.
The notion that bloggers cannot handle gifting while editors takes away credit where credit is actually due. Even before the FTC ruling and in other countries, rigorous disclosure is practiced within the blogging community, where in print media, disclosure isn't clear at all to the reader. Readers have absolutely no idea what is going on behind the scenes, which is probably why the print industry is having such a hard time right now as readers move from print to online. I don't believe it's just because of advertising, there is certainly a disconnect going on between the publications and the readers where blogs have been able to connect.
Gifting vs. Samples
In the print world, magazines do not actually buy all the clothes used in an editorial spread. They don't buy the products they write about. So how do they write about it honestly? Samples. Nik Thakar tells us, “for bigger brands – magazines [request] products all of the time, especially if they are ground-breaking or have some celebrity identity or are simply zeitgeist and unique… For smaller brands, it is essential that PRs hammer the phone – it is the case with any consumer item, fashion, tech or otherwise. Bloggers rarely call in products to shoot, as only a select few do their own photography.” The difference is, samples are returned, Nik adds “The onus is on the PR to call back/collect the sample.”
The Real Effects of Gifting
Bloggers cannot (or should not) deny the effect gifting has on the bloggosphere. Gifting has allowed bloggers to experience products firsthand to give their readers content that they would not ordinarily be able to do if everything was paid out of pocket. Most bloggers don't get paid for the content they produce, they don't have the traffic or the resources to warrant samples for photographing, and their niche dictates that most of what they write about comes from a very personal angle. A person can't give their honest opinion about something they have not experienced.
We've all read posts that gush over a product that may not be up to the bloggers actual standard. Some of us have said ‘no' only to see other bloggers jump on the bandwagon singing praises and wondered if credibility has a price. Some might have felt like they would be missing out on an opportunity to grow a blog if they didn't play into the game. Some are just plain flattered and excited to be included amongst the elite of bloggers who get attention from companies and the media.
Symbiotic or Parasitic? The Cost of Free
Freebies, aren't free. They don't show up out of nowhere just because I did such a great job. I would like that, if that were the case, but it's simply not. Personally, I do enjoy getting gifts as much as the next person, but at the same time, when it comes to the blog, gifts come with trepidation. Do I really believe in this gift? They say ‘no strings attached, but really?' What are the expectations? Some bloggers say they don't post unless they would buy with their own money. But I'm not sure if I believe that's always the case. I've accepted and posted about things I may not have purchased with my own money, but that doesn't make it any less valuable as a post for my readers. For instance, I'm an Apple snob, but I will post about Microsoft or Android, because Apple isn't the only thing out there, and it's not for everyone.
But does the fact a product was gifted for review guarantee positive coverage? Bloggers may cry, ‘NO!' but to be honest, I don't see negative or even questioning reviews very often. Even for products that don't get good reviews elsewhere. Bloggers want to maintain good relationships with companies (I know, I try) as much as companies want positive press. It may be a symbiotic sounding relationship, but I have to wonder, for how long? How long before it starts to impede on editorial freedom and integrity?
Disclosure Doesn't Solve Everything
I don't have the answers. Even after looking for them, it's still not clear. I've personally tried not to accept gifts, and failed. Mostly out of feeling that if I don't I won't be able to keep up with the rest of the bloggosphere. I failed out of feeling like I don't want to miss out on building relationships with companies and providing quality content. Mostly I'm left with a big question mark on what is the best way to move forward. To be like the print editors? To try to stand apart?
I do know that disclosure doesn't solve everything. Transparency doesn't magically dissipate the question marks in the background. Even with disclosure, our readers still question the intentions of bloggers. We shouldn't ignore that. Not for a second.
Top image by MarcinMoga / Lolek