Freebies and the moral maze

Journalists know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But do PROs knowingly compromise editorial integrity, asks Steve Smethurst

Freebies, drinks, goodie bags, lunches and thank-you presents... they are all perks that PROs regularly arrange for journalists. The same goes for swanky foreign trips abroad and expensive gizmos sent out for review – especially when there's an 'understanding' that there's no need to send them back.

All this 'backscratching' has become de rigueur in relations between PROs and the press. But is the process becoming insidious? Is there a danger that oiling the wheels could slip into subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) attempts to influence? And should PROs take the moral high ground, or accept that this is 'just the way we do business'?

At the start of this year 25 US bloggers hit the headlines after accepting transatlantic flights from – the online presence of the Netherlands Board of Tourism – in return for free advertising. Both parties came out equally badly, and it is to avoid such impropriety that publishers are updating their ethics code.

BusinessWeek did so last year, revising the value of small gifts journalists could receive, while the Financial Times, has within the last two years compiled its unwritten ethical principles in this area into a formal document. All new staff are thoroughly briefed.

Joanna Manning-Cooper, director of communications, says: 'Our editorial decision-making must not be compromised. We pay for our own hotel bills and plane tickets and so control our own agenda.'
The guidance given to FT journalists is explicit. 'Journalists who are offered facility trips should decline them,' it reads.  It continues that only 'calendars, key rings, pens, paperweights, and corporate mementos of very little value may be retained for personal use.'

And publishers are not the only ones worrying; individual writers have their own concerns. Zoë Roberts, editor of job-search magazine Real World magazine regularly has offers from coprorates keen to appeal to graduates, including a two-week trek in Ghana, but hasn't taken advantage any of them. Her argument is that no matter how hard you strive for impartiality, if you accept freebies there is pressure to 'upgrade' that coverage in return for the gift. She goes so far as to suggest that all offers from PROs have this unwritten understanding.

'I'd be happy to trial a number of services and then write a review, but freebies aren't often offered like that,' Roberts says. 'Also, what journalist has time to trial treks in Ghana for one article?'

Work-related gifts
So just how culpable are PROs? Ian O'Leary is corporate communications director EMEA at Seagate Technology, the world's largest disk drive manufacturer. He was behind a recent campaign that allowed journalists to keep pocket hard drives worth £85. 'It's not a bottle of Champagne, it's not a trip to the Bahamas,' he argues. 'It's closely related to their work and you're on the margins of whether it's worth getting back or not.'

On the other hand, holding products back can lead to accusations of stinginess. Several tech blogs have recently reported journalists' displeasure that Apple, for example, is not as generous as other tech firms in giving away its products. IT blogger Rob Buckley, for example defends his 'inalienable right' to keep freebies. He says using products every day helps him 'to understand their flaws and strengths'.

Meanwhile, Stephanie McLeod, associate director at Samsung UK, says that 'throwing product out' is no longer the done thing, but believes it is still appropriate because it can help to 'achieve better mileage down the line'. And she, like Buckley, argues that some products require a certain level of use before they can be reviewed effectively.

Ethical dilemmas can be especially acute in the travel sector, where press trips are expensively subsidised but the experience of the trip forms the backbone of any coverage. As a travel writer for Travel Weekly, The Times and The Observer, freelancer Linsey McNeill is offered numerous trips, including a recent five-star cruise down the Yangtze to the Three Gorges. She says trips often come with the line 'this is costing my client a lot of money' – an undeniable pressure move from the PRO.

McNeill suggests that trips are designed to be make subjectivity difficult because they are so carefully stage-managed. 'You've had a great trip, but it cost you nothing. I sometimes ask myself: "would I feel the same way if I'd paid £3,500 for it?".'

And sometimes gratuities can get out of hand. Carol Lewis, deputy editor of the Career section of The Times, recalls a bizarre situation from her days as a medical journalist, on a trip paid for by a pharmaceutical company. 'It was the last day and there wasn't much to do. I went into a shop to buy a present for my boyfriend's birthday. As I chose, the PR leapt in front of the till and said, "I'm paying for it!" I said: "Absolutely not, it's a present." She just replied: "But I have to pay!"

This kind of devotion to duty is laughed off by most journalists. Ellis Bacon, deputy editor on Procycling magazine, points out: 'It is clearly done to give you a better impression of the company involved. While experienced hacks are more cynical, I worry that rookie journalists might be easily swayed.'

But are PROs really fretting as much as journalists? 'If someone gave me an expensive gift, I'd be way,' says O'Leary. 'But if it's a bottle of wine at Christmas, I don't see anything wrong. It's courtesy.' Rachel Martin, account director for the St Lucia tourist board at DSA, is also philosophical. 'We might send journalists out for the jazz festival or to promote the cricket World Cup. But there's no pressure to write something favourable. Magazines don't have budget to send someone to St Lucia, so we do it. Journalists write what they like.'

It is a point echoed by Sue Ockwell, founder of Travel PR. 'The journalists we deal with aren't swayed at all – even if it is a £25,000 trip to Antarctica. We offer them a press trip and they report it factually.'

Freelance journalist Joy Persaud supports the view that any ethical dilemma lies with the journalist rather than the PRO. Persaud writes on HR issues for The Guardian and The Times, and says freebies 'can foster goodwill'. She believes any journalist worth their salt should be able to ensure they do not endanger editorial integrity. As Amy Pemble, a former journalist and now a consultant at reputation management and B2B PR firm KLW Communications, says: 'It is our job to create good relationships. It is the journalist's job to decide what goes in and what is kept out.'

So should PROs continue to operate as normal and ignore any whiff of malpractice? Grant Currie, MD of Inferno Communications, says it is journalists who specifically ask for freebies that arouse suspicion. 'We've run press trips where journalists have asked us to tack on mini holidays and fix hotels for girlfriends. That's not what we do. Those who you value shouldn't ask these sorts of favours.'

Pragmatic approach
At the PR trade bodies there is a call for pragmatism. CIPR president Tony Bradley says: 'We temper our desire for members to act ethically with the realisation that people do expect free samples.'

Meanwhile, PRCA managing director Patrick Barrow says: 'It's a question of context. Problems only arise when incentives go way beyond what's appropriate for the sector, time or place.'

But let's not pretend. PROs know that they stand a much better chance of getting coverage by sending out a freebie, so to that extent they are active conspirators.

Maybe one message stands out in this moral maze. Given that everyone knows freebies work – no matter how awkward they make some people feel – PROs should not make journalists any more uncomfortable than necessary. Paul Rees, editor of music monthly Q, recently opened his post-bag to find neither a mug, nor a T-shirt but a 'sick in a bag', sent out by rock band Wild Hearts.

'It was actually vegetable soup,' says Rees. 'It referred to their song "Sucker Punch" where they puke on each other in the video. Anway, it's not what you want first thing on a Monday morning.'

My best freebie

Ellis Bacon, deputy editor, Procycling
'A tyre company paid for cycling journalists to go to the Paris-Roubaix race. As I walked into my hotel room, I found they'd laid out all this branded gear on the bed, just like they would for the professional cyclists. Then they set us up with racing bikes from the team and we went for a ride with a couple of the professionals
across the famous cobbles of the route. The next day we watched the race itself and they gave us big branded ski jackets so we wouldn't be cold. At the end of the trip we got to keep all the clothing.'

Keith Elliott , columnist, Independent on Sunday
'I was sat next to a guy at a dinner once, and as we were talking, he recognised my name and invited me on a boating holiday. I thought he was talking about the Norfolk Broads, and thought 'sod that'. But I gave him my card and didn't think too much of it. Then I got an email and his boat turned out to be a 100ft luxury catamaran cruising the Great Barrier Reef. I took me about 10 seconds to write back to say, 'yes, I think I'm  free'. It was a week on his boat, a week in the rainforest and five days in Alice Springs.'

Paul Rees, editor, Q
'The best thing anyone has sent me recently came as
a present at Christmas. It was a box full of music – probably about 20 box-sets of CDs. I don't want to name who it was from – I think he'd be quite embarrassed about it – but he's a PR at a record label and it was sent as a 'thank-you'. It was fantastic freebie as it wasn't just any old rubbish that had been lying around, the music was all carefully picked out for me. That's the one I've appreciated the most because so much thought went into it.'

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