News Analysis: Are freebies a blogosphere taboo?

In the wake of the Edelman/Microsoft Windows Vista controversy, Hannah Marriott asks whether PR companies should be more wary of treating bloggers like journalists when it comes to free products.

While most PR executives were enjoying a well-earned rest over the Christmas break, Edelman’s US operations were busy – once again – polarising opinion in the blogosphere.

The agency was involved in sending valuable laptops installed with the hotly awaited Windows Vista operating system to a number of influential bloggers, on behalf of client Microsoft and microprocessor maker AMD.

When the laptops arrived, some of the bloggers seemed baffled to have received them, and others even made accusations of bribery.

Trial and errors
Crucially, Edelman and Microsoft did not stipulate what they had expected the bloggers to do after trialling the machines, variously suggesting they kept them, returned them or donated them to their ‘community’. Edelman later caused more confusion when Microsoft apparently asked for the laptops to be returned. Edelman’s US office failed to return PRWeek’s calls on the matter.

The agency was already in the spotlight over its interaction with bloggers: three months previously its global CEO Richard Edelman apologised for ‘failing to be transparent’ about the identity of bloggers writing on client WalMart (PRWeek, 20 Oct 2006).

Giving gifts to bloggers or journalists is not specifically prohibited by the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice. Some newspapers impose their own rules on staff, however. The Guardian, for example, stipulates that gifts worth more than around £25 should be ‘politely returned’.

Media Bloggers Association president Robert Cox says: ‘The way bloggers should handle a freebie is to disclose it. If they feel they would be influenced by accepting a freebie then they ought to turn it down. If not, they should keep it if they want.’

PRWeek asks four experts for their views on the episode (see below).

Neville HOBSON, V-P of new marketing, Crayon

‘I believe that better PR planning could have avoided the kerfuffle. Edelman has become embroiled in something wholly avoidable because it approached this in a casual, informal way.

‘The agency should have planned this more carefully, and made it very clear what it wanted bloggers to do with the product after it had been reviewed – that it should have been returned or given to one of a list of charities, perhaps. It should also have stipulated that it expected bloggers to make it clear when they wrote their reviews that they had been given the machine.

‘As for other, smaller gifts – such as bottles of wine at Christmas – PROs really should not send these to bloggers unless they have an existing relationship with them.

‘If bloggers do not understand why they have been sent something and wonder what a company’s motives are, you can be sure they will blog about it.’

Justin HAYWARD, head of technology and telecoms, MS&L London

‘The blogging community tends to be made up of people with strong views, and Microsoft as a company always polar­ises opinion, so it is no surprise that people have been blogging about this issue – part­ic­ularly those who did not have the offer extended to them.

‘But sending out laptops with pre-installed prog­rammes is  necessary. These will help journalists or bloggers understand what the programme  will be like when it is in the shops, without the fuss of having to download it.

‘I worked on the launch of Windows 2000 and Windows XP, and we sent journalists machines with pre-down­loaded operating systems because some of the drivers were not final, which could have caused problems if installed onto existing machines.

‘I’m sure that in Microsoft’s mind, what to do with the machine afterwards was  a secondary consideration.’

Jon SILK, head of creative media services, Lewis PR

‘Microsoft is not the first company to send out “freebies” to bloggers, but it is still early days for this to become standard practice.

‘While the Edelman episode has sparked some  debate, I think any negative comments are just a symptom of how new all this really is.

‘We have sent products to bloggers on behalf of our clients but we make sure we have a close enough relationship so there is no ambiguity.

‘Whereas a journalist would consider a copy of Vista on a review laptop a crucial part of writing a story, some bloggers – especially those who aren’t trained journalists – have no real idea how PR or the review process works. Their reaction can range from shock at being “bribed” to delight at being considered so important as to be worthy of such a lavish gift.

‘Journalists aren’t so volatile – the review process is an established one, and journalistic practice governs the entire process.’

Ashley NORRIS, CEO, Shiny Media

‘Many of our company’s bloggers have worked as journalists, and we have the same standards as a national newspaper or magazine where products are concerned.

‘If someone loans you a product for review, you would expect to have to give it back. It makes sense for products to go back after writers have tested them.

‘Particularly because anything said in the blogosphere reverberates quickly, Microsoft probably should have been careful to state clearly that  it would pick the machine up again, to ensure everyone knew what was expected.

‘But some common sense is needed in this debate. Although much criticism came from the US, where journalists accepting gifts or hospitality from companies is frowned upon, in the UK it is common for PROs to take journalists to conferences, pay for their hotels and so on. Many bloggers work independently and couldn’t afford to do what they do without access to products or events.’


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