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August 21, 2017

Why demanding free PR work from bloggers is ethically wrong

Ethics_of_free_PR_WorkPublic relations is having a few relationship problems right now.

Our relationships with bloggers are taking a hit because some practitioners are unhappy with the fact many of them won’t work pro bono on clients’ publicity/advertising needs.

A recent LinkedIn article, “Why I stopped pitching bloggers,” shared a Miami PR pro’s frustration with bloggers directing her to their media kits rather than accepting her pitch about doing free work on behalf of her clients.

The overall tone of the piece was rather incredulous.

The blogging community did not respond well, and the backlash led to the author rewriting the original article. Here’s a link to the rewrite.

Bad PR move #1: You never publicly insult a key group you need for your success.

The Miami pro is not alone in her views. While attending a blogging conference a few weeks ago, I heard another PR pro say the brands she represents expect bloggers to work for free on things such as product reviews, promotional campaigns and social media outreach. If her clients like what they see, maybe, just maybe, a blogger could be compensated for future work.

She also said her clients expect good reviews if they pay a blogger to review their products.

Bad PR move #2: Just a tad bit unethical and possibly illegal, but more on that later.

The industry’s own code of ethics states PR pros are supposed to avoid deceptive practices when dealing with the public and media, and they’re supposed to support the free flow of accurate and truthful information so that people can make informed decisions. Per the FTC disclosure rules, it’s a bit ill-advised to expect good reviews simply because you paid a person a few bucks or gave them a free version of your product.  (These same rules require a blogger to prominently disclose if she has received anything material from an organization.)

To be fair, the PR attitudes like the ones mentioned above get under my skin for two reasons. First, I’ve worked in PR for more than 20 years, so I know how our industry should operate. Second, I am also a blogger.

“Some blogs are worthy of payment, most are not”

Here’s an excerpt from the original  “Why I stopped pitching bloggers,” captured by Gabrielle from StrawberriCurls.com.

 “While some blogs are worthy of payment, most are not. I think this is also where a lot of bad bloggers are making good bloggers look bad. Some charge just to charge because they want to make money. Well, you have to give me a reason to pay you. Today, everyone has a blog and most would not offer any ROI by paying for a post.”

Most are not worthy of payment? You have to give me a reason to pay you?

Yes, she said that.

In response, another PR pro commented that bloggers should not charge for the blessing she gives them by providing content. See below.

Yikes.

Bad PR move #3: I have no words.

Public relations is supposed to be about creating mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its numerous publics. Working for free does not create mutually beneficial relationships. If a person provides you with a good or service, they deserve to be paid.

We seem to forget bloggers are self-employed writers who’ve worked hard to build their audiences.They deserve to be compensated for their service and influence because we benefit from that service and influence. We need their audiences.

Furthermore, many self-employed writers earn a living with their blogs. They aren’t paid by newspapers, magazines or television stations; they make a living through the advertising revenue generated from their sites. Before anyone starts arguing that we wouldn’t pay a morning news producer to run our content, check out the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Reporters, editors and producers are paid by their media employers and cannot ethically accept payment for their services.

See the distinction, yet?

The real budgets behind marketing communications

Those of us who work in PR know most of the material we pitch for brands doesn’t have a strong news peg, and if we approached a newspaper or television station with the same proposal, they’d transfer our calls to one of their advertising sales representatives. We somehow overlook that fact when we ask bloggers to run that same content. We make it worse when we ask them to prepare it – for free.

We can try to insist PR people don’t do advertising for their clients, but in today’s reality, we do. We call it “marketing communications,” and our campaign budgets contain a mix of resources for advertising, marketing and public relations needs. That includes money for ads – and a little for freelance help, too.

Why can’t we tell our clients it’s much more cost-effective to pay a blogger a few hundred dollars to promote our event on her social media channels and reach a guaranteed target audience rather than spend a few thousand on commercial spots that may or may not reach the people we need?

Why we no longer have free interns or free employees

It wasn’t all that long ago that student interns worked for free, and the courts began putting a stop to that practice. Why? Blame the Fair Labor Standard Act, which basically stipulates that the only way to have an unpaid internship/employment is if the job is a learning experience and doesn’t have any immediate benefit for the employer. If not, the person deserves to be paid.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me promoting our clients is certainly not a learning experience for self-employed writers, and we PR pros get an immediate benefit from their labor.

Every time I hear fellow PR professionals talk about why bloggers should not be compensated for their work, I have to wonder if they go to restaurants, order everything off the menu, and tell the chef, “If we like what we get, we might pay for some other meals later.”

Why do we think doing that to a blogger is OK?

We’re better than that, and they deserve better than that.


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5 Comments on Why demanding free PR work from bloggers is ethically wrong

  1. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it’s ethically wrong, but I do completely resonate with what you say.

    As long as there are bloggers out there willing to work for free (which I imagine will amost always be the case, as new bloggers try to get established), there will always be people requesting that bloggers work without remuneration.

    With time, what those people might (or might not) start to realise is that they’re not attracting the “top” bloggers. The top bloggers have been doing what they do for years – they can only do that if it is sustainable (ie. they make money). So, those who never assign budget will always get a second (or third) tier of blogger – one that is still trying to get established, one that is still struggling for traffic and one that is still trying to build social media followers. As a consequence, they may think that the benefits from travel bloggers are negligible (because they’re not working with the top travel bloggers) and this creates a vicious circle… negligible benefit means no budget is assigned for future campaigns.

    Meanwhile, we (the bloggers who carry influence) continue to serve those who do realise our worth and put their money where their mouth is 🙂

  2. It is about time someone in the PR industry said this. I get so tired of getting upwards of 50 emails a day, asking me to write about their clients products, all for “exposure” and “the chance of getting paid work in the future”. If they don’t think what I could write about their client is worth the ROI, why are they pitching me to start with. It is a waste of everyone’s time and bandwidth.

  3. Thanks so much for this nice blog about this topic. I was so upset by this article when it came out on LinkedIn. Thinking about my experience with PR companies so much of it seems copy/pasted, not great for my audience and blog, and just not a topic I would be interested in writing about at all. I’d rather come up with ideas on my own or do a google search/look at what’s trending to get ideas if I get stuck.

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