Are bloggers taking ‘cash for comment’? – Anna Spargo-Ryan

Are bloggers taking ‘cash for comment’?

Are bloggers taking ‘cash for comment’?

I didn’t apply to be part of the Human Brochure, because I am scared of flying and if I were to lose my head for a minute and get on a plane, it would be to Hong Kong and not Canberra. But some people did, and they were gifted a No Expense Spared Weekend of a Lifetime in the Australian capital. By all accounts there was food, booze, food, tours, food, room service, food and roundabouts.

Predictably, the Human Brochure expedition has brought with it a good deal of cynicism. Not just from mainstream media (though we do of course love blaming things on MSM), but also from the wider internet. These kinds of things always do. People say, “Of course they only invited the influential people!” as if it is in some way discriminatory, or that because this was a government funded exercise, there should be a requirement to also include the little guys who have not much to contribute and no way of getting their message out, but who would really, really like a free trip.

That is the new media equivalent of saying, “Let’s not advertise on that big billboard or in that major newspaper. What if the papers that don’t exist get hurt feelings? Let’s just give some money to someone who doesn’t have a newspaper and hope that they tell their ten mates about it.”

Smart business? Not exactly.

When the Queensland government secured a visit from Great Lord and Emperor Oprah Winfrey in 2010, the media went mad. What a great initiative! they said. She will change the way people see Queensland! in fact. Did Oprah bring her life-sized John Travolta doll and her plane full of crazed fans and her other plane full of personal chefs to Queensland because someone offered her a free hotel room? Of course she bloody didn’t. That trip cost the Queensland and NSW governments and Tourism Queensland more than two million dollars. And yet, “amazing idea! let’s get Queensland on Oprah’s show!”

Let’s get Queensland on Oprah’s show.

See also: let’s get Canberra on people’s blogs and let’s get Canberra in people’s Twitter feeds.

There is nothing new about creating events for the sole purpose of propagating a message. Journalists and publicists have long been invited to soirees packed full of incentives to attend: food, go karting, geishas or whatever (I’ve never been asked). They’re not obligated to say anything nice – or anything at all – but there is nothing illegal about a little schmoozing, as long as it’s clear that it’s not in exchange for endorsement.

This is what it looks like when money is exchanged for public endorsement.

So, is this “cash for comment”?

First, stop shouting “cash for comment”! It does not mean what you think it means.

The original cash for comment scandal centred around the fact that the comments were posing as the unprompted opinion of Laws and Jones, and that for all intents and purposes they allowed the public to believe as much. The presenters were alleged to have been given money and goods in exchange for favourable comments on air and the station was ultimately fined $360,000. The actual issue was not the fact that they had publicly endorsed brands as part of a commercial agreement, but from the fact that they misled the public and misrepresented their relationships with these brands.

These arrangements happened behind closed doors. Although bloggers aren’t bound by the ACMA’s regulations in relation to disclosure, the very nature of an event like the Human Brochure is that the proposition to influencers is made in full public view. Put forward your case to be part of the adventure, there’s no obligation to write about it, we want to show you what Canberra can do.

I’ve spoken before about how social media can’t fix your product for you. If you offer members of the public – whether they be journalists, critics, bloggers, tweeters, actors or children – an intimate engagement with your product, you’d better hope it’s up to the task. You can put a whole Human Brochure in chartered planes with strippers and cognac, but if you take them to Civic then they are going to jump on their phone and say, “Those bloody bastards just took us to Civic and it was shit and someone knifed me.”

Asking social media users to participate in what is essentially a media call is no different from inviting sports reporters to your corporate box. You hope that it will help to sway their opinion of NRL (unlikely!), but it’s not a guarantee.

Their reputation is the very thing you’re interested in tapping into, otherwise you would have asked the guy who coaches the Under 9s or your mum. Thus it follows that they are the kinds of people who want to protect their reputation and maintain their integrity, which means not endorsing a product that sucks. You hope that they will like your product enough to write something nice about it. You also run the risk that they will hate your product and write something negative about it.

All you are “buying” in this oft touted “cash for comment” is the right to invite them to make their own decision.

The fact that you are inviting bloggers and not the MSM doesn’t change this one iota.

  • Jade

    October 29, 2012 at 10:52 am Reply

    I like this post. At no time were we told or asked to write about anything. I wrote about it in the same way I wrote about Canberra. If something excited me, I tweeted about it. If it sucked, I did the same. I had the ´am I selling out? is this ethically ambiguous?´ thought in the back of my mind the whole time but I don´t think it was. It was smart marketing – putting a bunch of chatty people in a place and giving them experiences that they´d talk about regardless.

    I know it worked for me :) I have mates from overseas that visit Australia. I wouldn´t have recommended Canberra before – ´ don´t go there. It´s just a bunch of stodgy politicians´ – whereas now I´d recommend it for nature geeks and those who want a quick break. Was sending picture texts to my nephew the whole time <3

  • bigwords

    October 29, 2012 at 10:55 am Reply

    Can I apply here to see Edenland pash you?

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 11:15 am Reply

      You don’t have to apply, we’ll just come to your house and do it.

  • Kelly Exeter

    October 29, 2012 at 11:08 am Reply

    Ahhhh… always love a voice of reason. It annoys me that you even need to write this post!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 11:16 am Reply

      That’s what happens when people on high horses throw small brains.

  • workingwomenaus

    October 29, 2012 at 11:18 am Reply

    This is very timely for me. I’m in the process of putting together a blogger outreach event like the recent “Human Brochure” for my little town of Bright Victoria. In terms of ROI: it FAR outweighs any print ad we could pay for. The reach of the bloggers coming, and the attention of their engaged communities means that *hopefully* my tourist town will be on the radar of some travellers next time they’re looking for somewhere to go. Is the idea to wine, dine and give these social media influencers an awesome time so they shout it from the rooftops? You betya! However, there’s no secrecy about it: it’s 100% transparent. The idea that it could possibly be cash for comment is absurd.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 11:23 am Reply

      Sounds delightful Kim! And it’s smart spending – the value of these placements is so much greater than traditional advertising. If it wasn’t, no one would ever bother with PR, would they?

    • Jade

      October 29, 2012 at 11:31 am Reply

      Let me know when you start that campaign :) My family is from Mansfield so we have a special connection to the High Country. I just struggle with travelling to rural towns because the public transport isn´t the best and my partner and I don´t drive. x

  • Steph

    October 29, 2012 at 11:20 am Reply

    Hey Anna, great post. I agree!

    I was also part of the Human Brochure campaign despite not being a blogger and as Jade said, at no point were we ever told or asked to tweet/blog/instagram anything. I can honestly say I only tweeted about something I thought my friends/family/followers would be interested in. I did not ‘endorse a product that sucked’. And there were some.

    I also saw tweets along the lines of:

    ‘We are having a great time and we have been really well looked after but I to be honest I haven’t yet seen anything in Canberra that Sydney doesn’t have…’ for example.

    The opinions, in the most part, were genuine. And I don’t see how the Human Brochure campaign is different to sending your MSM travel writers on a famil – showing off the best of your state/city/experience/product in exchange for review.

    People can grumble all they like: this was the first campaign of its type but certainly won’t be the last.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm Reply

      That’s great insight Steph. I didn’t see anything that seemed contrived or that wasn’t genuine (but wasn’t surprised to see a little hysteria around this topic nevertheless). Sounds like it was a fun trip, darn my fears of everything.

  • edenland

    October 29, 2012 at 11:25 am Reply

    I love this post so much … it’s like we have to COAX certain members of society into the new ways of doing things. Come on! You can do it .. you’re almost there!

    Lots of times when people ask me how I make money from blogging and I mention sponsored posts, they’re all oh, cash for comment. Is completely different, as you so eloquently put. And a lot of times I say no to things that I either don’t believe in or aren’t a good fit for me. I heard a lot about Human Brochure on the weekend, looks like it went well. Is a completely normal way to get the message across.

  • Michaela C (@FiveFrogsBlog)

    October 29, 2012 at 11:48 am Reply

    Oh you crack me up. Brilliant work chicky babe, brilliant work. Right. On. The. Money. Or should I say (or not say) cash?!

  • Mrs Woog

    October 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm Reply

    Major props to the organisers for a very visible campaign. xx

  • Jen

    October 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm Reply

    I applied for the human brochure weekend in Canberra. I thought it would be nice to update my Canberra in the 70s posts ( Unfortunately I wasn’t chosen, but I didn’t see it as a cash for comment exercise. I saw it as a PR exercise and it was obvious that people were sponsored to go there. Unlike Laws etc who didn’t disclose their payment as you mentioned above.

  • B Smith

    October 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm Reply

    I must be out of touch – never heard of the Human Brochure till I read your blog just now.

  • Kirrily

    October 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm Reply

    In the words of Homer Simpson…. It’s funny ‘cos it’s true.

  • katepickle

    October 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm Reply

    Great post…. found myself nodding the whole way through it.

    I just can’t understand why people don’t get this… or do they not want to get it?

  • Lisa @ Blithe Moments

    October 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm Reply

    I was astonished by the criticism of the Human Brochure. As far as I was concerned it was what goes on with travel writers for mainstream media all the time, just far more transparent. If anything it was a way more honest view. I did notice a fair bit of the criticism came from mainstream media a bit like the patronising tone of the Media Watch episode about bloggers last week. I really think that it just shows how worried about social media traditional media is and how it still doesn’t understand what is happening and how communication is changing.
    Great post!

  • Dark Matter Fanzine

    October 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm Reply

    I blog and I receive what is known in my family as ‘free shit’ to blog about (I have a teenage son who is to blame). This ‘free shit’ so far consists of books, DVDs and media passes to events. The one time I was sent bonus goodies that could be interpreted as payment for promotion, I disclosed EVERYTHING: everything that was mailed to me and the item to which it related.

    I figure there is a difference between ADVERTISING and REVIEWING.

    If someone wants to sponsor me, I’m available but I WILL DISCLOSE THE RELATIONSHIP. Eventually I’ll set up paid advertising on my website, structured in such a way as it will be obvious that THIS is paid advertising.

    Clarity is crucial.

  • Sarah

    October 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm Reply

    I liked a friends dresses on her new crafty FB page on saturday another unrelated friend saw I liked it, loved the dresses and purchased a few frocks. I dont see how doing things, writing about things, liking them or taking 53 million pics of your meal and then spreading the word can be viewed as anything other than that. Its not brain surgery its just a savvy marketing ploy. The haters are always going to hate something.

    I have sworn off Dash 8 planes therefore I will never be flying to canberra again. They dont sell rescue remedy by the bucketload in sydney.

  • Joh

    October 29, 2012 at 12:21 pm Reply

    Thank You!! Why can’t people use their influence anyway? It’s been happening for a long time. Change of guard people – expect waves:).

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm Reply

      Agreed Joh. It’s a very unsettled media landscape at the moment, will be interesting to see what comes out in the wash.

  • mumabulous

    October 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm Reply

    I have no problem with it as long as it is fully disclosed. Actually I do have one small problem with it – No one is knocking my door down with offers to spread the skinny on their fabulous products.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm Reply

      hah! I’ll let them know you’re open to offers ;)

  • Kelly

    October 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm Reply

    Liking everything about this post.

  • lexi

    October 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm Reply

    This whole cash for comments crap gets my knickers in a twist.

    Are we going to go – OH EM GEEEE – that billboard has an ad on it – it’s cash for comment. No. No we’re not.

    I had no obligation to blog, tweet, Instagram my humanbrochure trip – but I wanted to – because it was so much freaking fun. And I wanted to share it. Simple really.

    I work in PR too – and don’t see how this trip is any different than your regular press famil, or media release, or event. It’s not a new notion people.

    Love this piece Anna.

  • Carli

    October 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm Reply

    I must have missed the Human Brochure criticism but I thought it was pretty innovative.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm Reply

      Maybe you missed it because it was so same old! I thought it was a great initiative – inclusive and high profile without seeming overly contrived.

  • Vicky

    October 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm Reply

    I was part of the human brochure, and have yet to put up a post about my experiences. I’m still digesting, and thinking and considering the whole event. Plus I’m knackered. It was full on.

  • Bronnie

    October 29, 2012 at 2:40 pm Reply

    I think you’ve summed it up all very nicely. As an aside, I never wanted to go to Canberra until the kids and I enjoyed my now ex – their Dad – on a work trip a few years ago. Loved it (as a family holiday destination), tweeted it, and blogged about it. Did suggest it to several publications as a travel story (am a travel writer and journo by trade) but was knocked back because ‘Canberra was boring’. So the idea behind this was interesting. Had no idea there were so many fun things to do in the capital, and that so many were free or cheap. The kids often ask if we can go back. Go figure!

    • Bronnie

      October 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm Reply

      Hee hee. I met we joined my ex, and enjoyed a visit there. That kind of came out wrong!

  • Caz Makepeace

    October 29, 2012 at 10:48 pm Reply

    As a travel blogger who attends these sorts of press trips and campaigns, I totally relate to this post. The mainstream media are kidding themselves. I am often on press trips with them, they have been wined and dined like this for years. Business class flights, fancy restaurants and loads of alcohol. And they are not shy in their expectations of it. They just have their knickers in a knot now because times are changing and they are afraid.

    I think bloggers are way more transparent and authentic with the way they present the destination they are visiting. I am not discounting the value of traditional media, because they do play an important and different role. But, I know as someone who is involved in social media when I am on a trip, I’m busting my butt off working the whole time while they are sitting back relaxing and enjoying. I’m live updating constantly and trying to push blog posts out of a night.

    I think it is extremely important for bloggers to be very selective about the sort of trips that they take. We did not apply fo the Human Brochure because Canberra doesn’t float our boat. They however did ask us to attend on their food and wine tour. We jumped at this because it is very relevant to us and our audience and I knew I could get enthusiastic and passionate about it.

    However at the last minute they changed us to the family trail, without the kids, which we refused. We don’t write about family travel unless the kids are with us (Again it is that authentic experience that bloggers must present) Then they put us on the Arts trail which is like my idea of watching mullet jump out of the water. I had to pull out because I knew my post would say, “I have never been interested in going to Canberra because I thought it was boring. And so then I went and it was. The end.” Disclosure: My trip was on behalf of the human brochure.
    Completely sucky and not what my readers come to me for. They come for inspiration and helpful information.

    I am going on Kim’s Discover Bright trip which will be fun, lots of activities I love to do and the kids will be with us. Something I can get excited and passionate about and a new destination my readers to learn about.

  • Maxabella

    October 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm Reply

    Of course it’s not ‘cash for comment’, as long as they disclose the relationship. To me it’s whether the comment is worth paying cash for that is the interesting bit.


  • Johanna, The Zigazag Mag

    October 30, 2012 at 11:33 am Reply

    Wow, great perspective Anna! Erudite :) I do think though that Canberra’s initiative of inviting ‘cash for comment’ by inviting lots of people, is more honest and more open to honest comment than paying one media star millions to give just one view, which could be positively tainted because they are being paid millions.

  • Cat

    November 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm Reply

    Could not agree more. I work in the tourism & events industry and this kind of promotion of a destination is common practice. Nothing sells a destination better than showcasing it after all! That bloggers were invited just means that one tourism commission has half a clue about how to tap in to the power of social media. There is nothing “wrong” with this model in the slightest. It all makes me a little cranky that bloggers are slighted for this type of thing!

  • Daniel Boyle

    November 2, 2012 at 2:22 am Reply

    Hi there, very interesting post. Of course these sort of blog trips are becoming more and more common around the world, particularly in tourism. Of course these have long been done in all kinds of media (not only mainstream, even street press writers will get free tickets to see bands, or free music.

    As someone who worked in tourism in Canberra, I think it is a good program, something I think other Australian programs could do. Another one of Queensland was the “best job in the world” campaign, which simply went to one person.

    I wrote a few thoughts on the program here –

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