Silicone Bitch: Bloggers and Brands Make Strange Bedfellows
We had a superb Social Media Club South Florida meeting yesterday at Florida International University North Campus. The subject? Social Media and the Law.
I would tell you who the presenters were but they actually told us that we might get in trouble for videotaping the session (that's unusual at Social Media Club) and so I'll leave it up to you to follow the link above, wink wink. But it was hilarious -- something tantamount to "please consult an attorney before considering this free advice from attorneys."
All kidding aside, the presenters were great and offered much valuable information on what is legal in any form of expression on the interwebz these days. It's actually so complex, it's a miracle anyone ever speaks at all through a tweet, a Facebook update or a blog post. Good grief, it's like every time you utter a word, you're walking on eggshells.
Applying for a job? Watch your ass. Own a blog? Feel free to moderate comments. It's yours and your not responsible for trolls engaging in defamation.
Or so they said. Please seek legal counsel because what I'm not liable for what I'm writing here.
Moving on ...
FOR YOUR BLOGGING EYES ONLY
I'm a huge proponent of self-publishing, so I want to focus on the topic discussed that would be of interest to bloggers -- the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rulings on disclosure. It basically boils down to this: if you get free shit, you're supposed to tell your readers that the shit was free.
But here's the deal, in all my years as a travel journalist for "magazines" and "newspapers" -- remember those types of publications? -- I never had to disclose anything. Why are bloggers treated differently than journalists?
I'd go on press junkets, fam trips and write an article for Caribbean Travel and Life or other publications and I never had to say it was sponsored. Why now?
It's basically understood that writers who focus on lifestyle subjects such as travel, food, drink etc; generally get some perks, media passes, free stays at hotels, complimentary meals, gifts and so forth. A "journalist" doesn't have to disclose anything when he or she is given a media pass. Why should a blogger?
It begs the basic question: what is a blog? what is a blogger?
I have said this before and will say it over and over again. I am a professional writer who just happens to use the blogger format to self-publish my stories to share with the world. I am NOT a blogger.
IT'S ALL GOOD, BUT WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?
Don't get me wrong. The FTC ruling is good; it basically prevents bloggers from being asshole shills who promote products. When celebrities make paid endorsements and they need to follow up on that in their social networks to keep it real and transparent. The bottom line here is to keep anyone from making misleading claims. The FTC law protects the consumer.
It comes down to type of content.
Check out this great post over at MomCrunch about Aveda and paid compensation for bloggers, which became a little scandal during the EVO conference this past summer. MomCrunch does a great job of explaining the BIG difference between editorial and sponsored content.
If you are writing advertorial and don't tell your readers, then you deserve a slap on the wrist.
However, do you think a beauty editor at Cosmo has to disclose she got a free sample of shampoo? Do you think a food critic at a newspaper has to tell you whether or not every meal was complimentary? No! This is standard practice, especially in the travel and lifestyle industries.
It's a tricky question for bloggers.
A savvy, reasonable and ethically responsible blogger isn't going to write misleading editorial.
I think it's bad blogging to do product reviews, I don't care how much you are getting paid, because that is sponsored content.
In that case you can say "my blog is endorsing this product," but then the issue is whether or not you have original content that is worth reading or your blog is suddenly "owned" by a brand and you are slaving over a hot stove for a few bucks.
Many brands are highly abusive of bloggers who just want a second in a spotlight. Seriously, would you have blogged so much and done a Youtube video for one freakin' bottle of shampoo from Aveda? I don't think so.
Bloggers, don't sell your soul for some corporate interest without making an equitable agreement that supports the quality of your work.
Ask yourself: is it worth it? In some cases, it is. That brand or business better be giving you something touched by Midas. Ideally, the partnership is so organic and germane to your topics of interest, that it makes sense to partner with a brand and get compensated for it whether in cash, goods or services. And you don't give up your voice at all; it flows seamlessly.
It's a true endorsement agreement that works for both the brand and your blog. And yes, that you definitely should disclose, but if you're good at it, you'll produce great sponsored editorial, not just content.
I hope that makes sense: sponsored content, editorial, advertorial and "sponsored" editorial.
THE SITUATION HERE AT SEX AND THE BEACH
In my case, I have worked with brands such as Ford and GM, as well as numerous travel entities, venues, businesses and events. For the most part, I try to tell my readers who is supporting what, but I'm not going to disclose every single stinking penny that I didn't spend. That's just ridiculous.
I have accepted "media" perks and passes in order to produce great content for my readers. I have never lost my voice or become an exclusive brand ambassador. I'm a lifestyle blogger. I get invited to stuff. So does the same editor or contributor at Miami New Times, Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. What's the difference?
Regarding the FTC ruling, I pride myself on being obnoxiously honest, but you all know that I tell it like it is. If I don't like something, the heavens roar. Or maybe I just won't write about it. PR loses. Rogue journalists like myself have to maintain a delicate balance with businesses and interests in their communities.
I don't see why or how I could possibly get in trouble with the FTC, but the question did cross my mind last night and I think it's a hugely important one for all bloggers to consider as they evolve. When should I disclose? Why am I working with this brand or business?
You will not believe the many requests I get to do straight on product reviews or offers of text links, which I always flat out refuse. Oh and as if I needed content, some companies offer me blog posts that they write in exchange for nothing. Are they nuts? Why would I put something unoriginal on this blog? Nobody parks their ass on Sex and the Beach just because. A blogger has to choose their partnerships carefully. Keep your integrity and dignity.
There are two kinds of bloggers in the world -- those who want to monetize with ads and are forced to kiss the ass of brands and those who can monetize indirectly, like myself. I will not have any brand take over my blog, not even Google Ads. I will not have my content controlled by businesses and for this reason I don't accept advertising of any kind. I used to have barter ads, but no longer. If I link to anything, it's because I genuinely believe in it and enjoy it. Or it's a business that's supporting a particular project so I can bring you great content.
Also, keep in mind that when you start engaging advertisers, you are no longer a writer or a blogger. You are now not only a publisher, writer and editor of your own content, but a god damn salesperson, marketing department and coffee maker plus janitor. It's exhausting. That will sap every living ounce of creative juice out of you and then what's the point? You started a blog because you loved creating unique content, right? Who can wear so many hats?
Read my friend Stephanie Quilao's post on why she decided to move on from blogging to mobile publishing for some additional insight from a highly experienced top blogger.
BRANDS MAKE STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
I started this blog because I am a writer who loves to share and I find self-publishing to be a an exhilarating exercise that opens many doors. But if I were to sleep with brands every day, the spark and inspiration would be gone. It would have to be some excellent collaboration, like the Ford Fiesta Movement, to make me have that affair for a spell. I partnered with Ford because I knew it would give me opportunities to provide fun reads. It was never about the car. It was about the experiences that the car afforded me. Remember, I went gator wrestling. You can't top that.
So I want to say it now: every time I go to a "media" event, you will notice that I tell you it was a media event, so you better assume it was free, just like it was for the "journalist" from Miami New Times or the Miami Herald or whatever. And when I plan a travel series like Trail of the Pirates, I tell you in a final paragraph what businesses and institutions supported my travel and vision, just like the credits at the end of a PBS documentary.
I only work with businesses and brands that I genuinely like, but I am not an "endorser" of anyone brand or business in particular. I love many and am attached to none -- call it promiscuous.
My favorite PR people? Those who offer something for nothing. That's RESPECT ... because then it's coming from me because I want to, not because I have to. Those PR people get it.
You know you are getting 100% original opinion from yours truly, with no bullshit. There is no way to be a lifestyle blogger and get around this. If you are going to write about life and be a travel, food, drink, adventure blogger or whatever, you are inevitably going to be out there in the world and have to deal with the reality of brands and businesses who court you. You are writing about your niche; opportunities are there to be seized. Nothing wrong with that.
But that's it. You can and should do it all with transparency and integrity.
And if you are a business or brand, don't even bother to send me a request for a text link or blog post inclusion. I don't give up my Google juice or SEO any more than I spread my legs for some jerk.