I’ve updated this post as more information came in from Sharky. If anyone else wishes me to update anything, please let me know. I am attempting to be as accurate as possible here.
There’s this group of people who are so passionate about food that they spend a fortune and invest hundreds of hours of time engaging with the culture surrounding it.
Not only are they eating out, buying ingredients, gadgets, renovating kitchens and travelling to food destinations, buying tickets to food festivals and producer dinners but also buying up cookbooks, food magazines and devouring the weekly food sections in newspapers.
They are the hard core supporters of the restaurant business, fancy cooking stores, food magazines and newspapers.
And they blog. They Tweet, Instagram, Pin, Vine their exploits. Free of charge mostly. Even if they aren’t spending much money on something, there’s a good chance they are giving it free publicity.
As a marketing person I’d want to reward these people as my best loyal customers and promoters.
Instead it’s become fashionable for nearly a decade now to give these people a good kicking. Food writers, journalists, food festivals and chefs have joined to put the boot in whenever they can.
A few weeks ago John Lethlean in The Weekend Australian hit on the undisclosed conflicts of interest of an award winning food blog. Within 24 hours Larissa Dubecki had joined the attack while the debate raged on personal Facebook feeds and Twitter.
It neatly tied in with a clarification by the ACCC on false reviews that blogger-lawyer Claire Davie posted on her blog Melbourne Gastronome.
So what’s happening?
There’s been a symbiotic relationship between PR, marketing and journalism since the year dot. The marketers with their advertising support the media. PRs facilitate stories, manage messages and throw fantastic parties and dinners. They also occasionally pay for business class flights, $2,500 a night hotel rooms, free meals and send us bottles of vintage Krug or on a slow day Dom Perignon at least.
And let’s not forget the conflicts of interest among travel writers subsisting on travel famils (free trips) – and the many conflicts of interest among Australia’s most influential wine and food writers.
As a former journalist I have received all of the above. As a social media influencer too (apart from the Krug though I prefer smaller name grower champagnes nowadays).
Social media is a great leveller. It’s fragmented traditional media and made it easier for the small publisher to find a significant voice. It’s brought people into publishing and broadcasting who weren’t trained by professionals who showed them the ropes, navigated them through ethics and taught them to fiddle expenses.
Myself, I gave up a 25 year journalistic career nearly 3 years ago to concentrate on my digital agency Tomato because of these changes. If you are a journalist or a photographer these are threatening times.
And it is frustrating after years practising the craft to have wannabes with a laptop or a top of the range camera kit describing themselves as journalists or photographers (I might add the bane of my life right now is amateur photographers being hired by restaurants to take food shots with poor results).
This is what happened.
PRs started inviting social media influencers to events – free trips or meals. Social media influencers such as myself started offering consultancy to food and drink companies.
What happened next was that companies started paying people to post on their behalf and some of us forget to say we were paid.
I never did this. But I had one disappointed manager at Hare & Grace chastise me for not supporting them enough by tweeting their praises on my own account as part of the campaign we ran for them. More recently an Asian restaurant approached us to help with a poor Urbanspoon rating thinking we could manufacture votes – something we refuse to become involved with.
Buying votes, likes or follows not only is fooling your punters but not good value for money and in some cases breaks the law. Just look at the number of the 3,500 Twitter followers of Mr Mason on Little Collins Street who are tweeting in Russian of Chinese script. What a waste of time having Twitter followers like that in an English speaking city. Tell me those followers are real and weren’t bought and I’ll eat my words.
I have blogged, tweeted and instagramed about free dinners and not declared them free at the top of the story. I have written about people as a journalist who gave me free hospitality – I can’t count the number of free dinners at Nobu, Or Bistro Guillaume at Crown. Or my friends at The Point at Albert Park. Or Hare & Grace.
My most recent conflict started innocently at my favourite St Kilda Bar, Bar di Stasio, that place that sucks you in and usually spits you out much later and poorer.
I’ve spent a lot there. And had the odd free negroni. I mean who’s going to turn that down? Then bits of food arrive. I Instagram it. You enter a confusing place where you are not quite sure what is paid for and free.
Then one evening the drink arrives. Followed by spaghetti and the (Eastern European) white truffle. Lots of it shaved over my – and my mate Geoff’s – unsolicited dinner.
I’m corrupted. Will tweet, Instagram and Facebook for white truffle. A poorly lit picture is broadcast.
So what was Lethlean on about? It was probably the lawyers that removed the name of the offending blog, Sharking for Fish and Chips.
For those of us in the core Melbourne social media food clique it’s been an open secret that he worked for restaurateur Paul Mathis and
It’s also an open secret that a year or two back Sharky approached restaurants PRs for free meals and he’s not the first blogger to do this. (I’ve approached tourism bodies for free flights and kitchen companies for free kitchens).
A lot of us have tweeted both Sharky and Paul Mathis about the disclosure issue and Paul Mathis told me to fuck off.
“After reading Mr Shark’s reply I reread, this morning, an email chain provided by a friend that was instigated by Mr Shark (on Myer letterhead – i’ll post a pic separately). In it he directly asks for ‘freebies’ and implies an imprimatur from Epicure as well as Beer and Brewer magazine, Melbourne coffee review, Food and Travel magazine in London and Elite Traveller in New York.”
– looking for free stuff. And we were too stupid to notice. Or perhaps times changed and people started expecting better standards from bloggers (and as far as I know Sharky doesn’t ask for free meals anymore).
But the thing is he was presenting sometimes bad reviews of restaurants where he paid for food and publishing good reviews of restaurants owned by his employer where the food was free. It’s misrepresentation without disclosure.
In the scheme of food writer conflicts it’s the kind of mistake that back in the last century got Stephen Downes exposed on Media Watch and sacked from The Sunday Age.
Journalism is fraught with conflicts. For a while companies that advertised on my blog thought it would lead to me writing about them in my column in the Herald Sun. It had the opposite effect to avoid conflicts.
Right now my big conflict is declaring a client when I post online. I meet with someone and eat their food. Or run a event. Have I disclosed on every Instagram, tweet or retweet that Chin Chin, MoVida, St Ali, Bomba!, Rickshaw, 400 Gradi, Lezzet, The Moors Head, Bellota, are (or have been) clients? No.
Am I trying to cheat my followers? No.
I just want to show them food and interesting stuff.
But as with the great Matt Moran paid tweeting for Kangaroo Island incident, there are those who are alleged to have taken money to tweet on their own account.
It was the talk of the last food bloggers conference Eat drink Blog 2013 – who was the Melbourne blogger who tweeted for money? Nobody was up for naming the person publicly but I received plenty of direct messages telling me who they thought it was.
For the record Melissa Brauer seems mortified by the allegations and denies them. She consults just as I do and emphasises that she does not tweet on her personal account for money.
What advice can one of the most conflicted men in the world (the same man who next week will invite you to a free meal) possibly offer on ethics?
1. If in doubt leave it out
If you are in a situation that you wouldn’t like people talking about either in public or behind your back then don’t do it.
If you go somewhere and don’t like something be prepared to say so. Some tourism authorities positively discriminate towards bloggers with large social media reaches over journalists. And they try and demand a guarantee of publicity. I say by all means guarantee it but write about what you feel even if you don’t like it. If you are not prepared to fight this fight then refuse to guarantee you will write about something or refuse to attend.
When I went to Wellington I had trouble writing anything as I thought the food was dated though I loved the bar scene (and the Gunpowder Rum).
One blogger Sofia Levin recently wrote an article about dumplings in The Age’s Good Food with the disclosure that David’s in Prahran was a client left off I’m told because of a production error. A safer option is perhaps not to write about clients
2. If in doubt shout it out
Tell people what you are doing. “I’m at yet another of Ed’s client’s free dinners and I’m a bit pissed and having an awesome time. Oops… We’re now trending on Twitter.”
Don’t be ridiculous though. It’s impossible to be vigilant enough to label every Instagram and tweet when several hundred go out a week.
I like @StickiFingers initiative of the #myclient hashtag which is also terrific marketing as it tells potential clients who you work for.
Don’t be afraid of labelling something a #freebie. And don’t be afraid of giving feedback. With the Rickshaw we did something very brave inviting a small group in to help us critique the food. Did we suffer because of it? No. We were able to make the food better for the media night.
3. Blatantly ask for free stuff
And disclose it. When I was running my kitchen project (which was postponed perhaps indefinitely because of the spin studio project) the idea was to source an entirely sponsored kitchen starting off with the design and packaging it across all social media culminating with a launch event.
4. Refuse free stuff
Let’s face it do we want all that free stuff? Often the stuff that is posted out is rubbish or joins the collection of dubious jars of preserves in the back of the pantry. We’re then left with the task of disposing of the packaging.
We’re also time poor. I still go to some events when I know the people well, have a free night, or really want to see what they are doing but I have a personal life too. So I reserve weekends for my partner and this post’s sponsor – SpinStar.
Yes, if you wonder where I have been instead of blogging for the past six months it’s been painting, decorating, designing and building furniture for SpinStar indoor cycling in Prahran.
They are the people who bring my tight buttocks and shrinking tummy to you.
Happy eating. And burning it off.