How to Learn From the Philly Food Blogger Uproar

By now, you’ve heard about the Philadelphia food blogger who wrote an exclamation point-filled email to several restaurants offering them an “exciting opportunity” to be a “host restaurant” for a “VERY innovative and effective way” to promote their establishments, on a “first come, first serve” basis.

The quotation marks, while excessive, are used on purpose so you know those were the blogger’s words, not mine.

There is SO SO SO MUCH BAD here that it would be easy to write off all bloggers as moochers…but I think there is a lesson to be learned, if you can just get through the aforementioned SO SO SO MUCH BAD. Let me list just a few reasons why I think her approach to this was a bit of disaster and ripe for virality (in the hopes that when, in just a few moments from now, you read my defense of pitches in general, you don’t just jump all over me):

  • Her presentation comes off as tasteless. Asking for a family of five to have their meals and drinks covered in exchanged for some guaranteed positive coverage (ugh) is not an effective, exciting or particularly innovative approach. It’s a barter of services, and trying to call a spade a heart just doesn’t jive. As so many commenters pointed out, it sure comes off as a blogger begging for a free meal from someone whom she expects to be excited just to be offered the chance.
  • Paid positive reviews (and I know many of you may NOT agree with me here) are not the same as honest reviews for which a blogger is compensated. I have heard very good and persuasive cases for the idea that any time a blogger is compensated for a review, whether or not she CLAIMS it is honest, and whether or not the brand has any editorial control, the entire post is tainted. I don’t fall in line with that thinking, and work very very very hard to make sure that I provide good, honest reviews when I’m working with a company. But I think that the moment this blogger offered to apparently positively and enthusiastically endorse the restaurant in exchange for the free meal (“an amazing night dining out”; “2 Facebook posts on AML’s Facebook page promoting the respective restaurant as the restaurant of choice {emphasis is mine} for AML’s family for Christmas Eve”), things got fishy…fast.
  • Her valuation does not have much merit. What she is offering these restaurants in exchange for this likely expensive meal does not, in my estimation, add up to $1,000 in PR, and to position herself as something she isn’t smacks of unprofessionalism. In fact, by calling it PR and not advertising, I think she’s made a major mistake. By attaching a dollar amount and asking for a trade of services, this is a sponsorship or advertising — NOT public relations.
  • There’s no mention of disclosure — not only setting up the blogger for backlash, but certainly putting the restaurants in bad positions should they choose to accept.

And it’s that last point that, in my mind, has the most to teach all other bloggers. It will probably come as no surprise to any of you that I’m on the pro side of bloggers getting compensated for their work when appropriate. I talk about building media kits, joining ad networks, doing sponsored posts and more. I work with bloggers every day to help them build their own pitches and cover letters, sell advertising to clients and more.

This pitch, while certainly cringe-worthy, was just a bad example of something that can be done well. It may not be to everyone’s liking that bloggers have business relationships with brands, whether it be a fitness company, an apparel store, a restaurant or else, but if you do it appropriately — legally, ethically and with full disclosure — you can at least avoid the type of backlash that the Philly blogger is experiencing.

A few notes:

  • Disclosure. Disclosure. Disclosure. From the get-go, you need to make sure that both your pitchee and your audience are CRYSTAL CLEAR on the terms of your relationship. Not just because it’s the right thing to do (AND IT IS) but because not disclosing is the quickest way to getting beat up by your readers and clients.
  • Pitches like this should be about what you can offer the client/brand, not about how beneficial the project will be for you. And they should clearly define what is being offered. Advertising is advertising (and advertorial is still advertising).
  • Own your numbers. They are what they are, and while you can always tell a good story and highlight your successes and the ways you can help a client return on their investment, you need to make sure that you’re offering something you can back up.

If I were to approach a restaurant the way the Philly food blogger did (and first of all, rather than just blanket every business in town, I’d pick a few places at which I’d already been a customer and knew I liked) my pitch might look more like this:

###

Dear REALNAMEHERE,

I’m a local blogger (my site is http://URLHERE.com) with a focus on food, events and family-friendly businesses in our area. My family and I have been guests at your business several times in the last few months, and I’ve been very impressed by the quality of food and service. I’d love to talk to you to see if there might be an opportunity to work together, especially since most of my audience is based here in CITY NAME.

I offer several advertising opportunities, including banner ads and sponsored posts, and I’ve attached my media kit so you can learn more about me and my blog. I’d love to get just a few minutes of your time next week to see whether advertising on my site might be a good fit for your business.

In order to protect my work and also your reputation, I want to make it clear that whenever I have been compensated for my work — whether in free product, cash or a trade of services — I disclose that clearly to my audience. While I can’t and won’t guarantee positive coverage or offer you any editorial control over what is posted on my website, I would be happy to share several examples of advertising work I have done with other clients that brought them new customers, traffic to their social platforms and more.

Sincerely,

ME AND ALL OF MY LINKS HERE

SO: agree or disagree? Do you think that bloggers who make money on partnerships like this can do it ethically or is there just no way? What is/was your reaction to the backlash this blogger received from her pitch-gone-viral?

Note: minor edits made to this post after original publication to add more material from the blogger’s pitch.

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting. Hadn’t heard of this until just now. I feel kinda bad for the woman for getting viral press for this embarrassment, but I can’t say it’s totally unwarranted. Since I started working in social media and PR a couple months ago I’ve been paying more attention to the PR pitches I get for my blog, and it’s astounding how careless and poor some of them are. I think email marketing opened up a door for people to market quick and cheap and somewhere along the way poor quality creeped in as well. I’m not saying she could have gotten a bite, but there’s definitely a way she could have pitched this better that would have been more professional and respectable if she had some training and some more forethought.

  2. says

    I completely agree with you on this topic. I also believe that you can make money on partnerships ethically. You don’t have to beat around the bush and be “sneaky” to get paid for stuff like this. I haven’t really read any of the backlash but I can imagine this blogger got a heated handful.
    If you want to be prosperous not only financially but also in business in general you have to be honesty and true. I would never approach any company to work with if I didn’t believe in them 100% and want to help their product or company out. If it is just about the money then there are a million other ways to go about making it where you don’t have to be weasly about it all.

  3. says

    Great read Katy. What a great way of taking an example of something done poorly and turning it around as a bit of a case study. Being a new blogger is hard to navigate, there is so much to learn that you may not know you are doing it wrong until it is done. that blogger in Philly probably didn’t realize how badly that came off to her prospect.

  4. Marcy says

    While her pitch is tasteless, it doesn’t say she guarantees a positive review for the restaurant. The blogger is offering promotion through her FB page, instagram and newsletter but she does not say she will guarantee a good review of the experience after her family dines.

    • says

      The last section of her pitch states:

      “Be THE top restaurant we recommend this Christmas Eve to our HUGE audience!!!!”

      The word recommend to me strongly indicates that the review will be positive — perhaps if she had said something like, “have my family join yours this Christmas Eve” I might feel differently. She also says “promote” throughout the letter which is too vague for my tastes. Promote could certainly mean just “expose to her audience,” but in the context of the rest of the email, I (and apparently gawker and most of the commenters who have weighed in on this story) see it as not as a review opportunity but as an endorsement offer.

      Perhaps the lesson is — whatever she meant was unclear and when you don’t specifically lay out what you are pitching, it opens you up to backlash, deserved or not.

      I think she’s probably been judged too harshly by the Internet, and I do feel for her. I just don’t want anyone else to go through the same thing. Thanks for your comment!

  5. says

    I’m with you Katy. At first glance, I knew this would be more about how they went about it rather than the overall concept of what they did. Until you reach a point of success where you get paid money to write, compensation for blogging is always going to be an exchange of goods and services… but there’s still a right and wrong (corrupt, classless, unprofessional) way to do things.

  6. says

    A wonderful post, as always – but just a note about the introducing $$ making it not PR, and instead, advertising.

    At least within PR agencies, there is a metric called CAV (calculated advertising value) which is meant to show what this earned media would have cost had it been paid media. I think it’s an outdated model that worked best for print…and also that this blogger wasn’t that savvy :) The CAV model typically, actually, undervalues most bloggers.

  7. says

    Thanks for dissecting this! I am a fitness blogger and am starting to think about monetizing my blog with ads and sponsored posts…so this was very helpful for me!
    I’m also working on creating a media kit based on your examples…thanks for posting such informative things! :)

  8. says

    Disregarding the Philly blogger’s ridiculously shameless attempts, I must say something that will be hard for 99% of you to hear:

    If you get a free meal and blog about it, that is not a review. Period. It is tainted. It is not honest. It was a free meal given to you by someone who knew you were going to write about it. If you accept a free meal, you are the problem – if you then go on to write about it.

    I like to challenge bloggers who think I’m crazy: Send me a negative review of a free meal from your blog. Oddly, it almost never seems to happen.

    • says

      I think that’s fair feedback and I always welcome good commentary like yours…frankly, without debate or criticism, bloggers would never learn or change what they’re doing. I know I’m a better blogger because people have disagreed with me or even called me out on behavior they don’t like.

      Your point about reviews (or whatever you’d call them) is one of the main reasons I think clear and up-front disclosure on posts is so important (in addition to being an FTC requirement, of course). If readers don’t like to read that content that may have been influenced in any way, at least they are informed before even starting to scroll down. And if they do choose to keep reading, they are better able to consider the review with the potential bias or, in your words, taint, in mind.

      In terms of negative posts, I think most of my product reviews address some “cons” or things I didn’t like, including some serious issues — believe me or not, I really do keep in mind that people may be spending their hard-earned money on the strength of my review and I don’t want to burn them or lead them astray — but you’re right that I have never published a strictly negative review (perhaps with the exception of a major issue I had with a Ford PR campaign and a case study that I did on a Marie Claire controversy a few years ago). That’s not because I felt pressure to hold back or because a client got editorial control over my opinions…I just have not run into an example where I found myself feeling so strongly negative toward a product or experience that I wanted to take up space and reader attention with my complaints.

      I never (ever ever) give a client the opportunity to read or critique a post before it goes live. I have asked them to clarify some points or if I am going to post something negative, give them the chance to publicly respond in the post (or in at least one case, to correct me on a feature I thought didn’t work but as it turned out, I was using it wrong and I was able to share that in my post for others to learn from).

      And I don’t offer clients the chance to stop a post from going live if they think it might be too negative. The closest I ever came on that point was when I was reviewing a fitness DVD program. I decided to give a client back his product and money and not publish a post, despite the fact that I had already gone through the entire series and started the review process. The program really was not a good fit for me and was not a workout system I would ever use, and I would have had to say that in the post. There was nothing wrong with the program — I know that it’s a popular one and has lots of fans. I just didn’t think anyone got value from me saying “it’s probably a good program, and I liked it, but I’d never use it on a regular basis.” So I pulled the plug — not the client. And I did it because I just couldn’t find any value in that post for my readers.

      FINAL POINT (who knew I had so much to say?) — I think long and hard before accepting review opportunities and turn a lot of them down. In the end, I love that I can expose my readers to products that they might otherwise not know about, or be a good resource for them to ask questions and get honest feedback about their value. I had never heard about Altra shoes before I was sent a pair for review and now I’m in love with their product and shout about it from the rooftops. I was able to take the Polar Loop into the pool and shower and prove that it really is water resistant (a friend bought hers based on my review and said being able to see it in action on my blog helped me make her final choice). I found one of my favorite online fitness programs, FitnessGlo, because they contracted with me for a review. Two people emailed me just last week thanking me for my review because they now love the program.

      I respect your opinion and am really glad you shared it. It’s an important debate and for me, it comes down to disclosure. If you know what you’re getting, YOU choose whether or not to keep reading.

  9. says

    I missed this entirely… thanks for sharing and not only offering your opinion, but a BETTER way to approach it.

    I am compensated for some of my posts, either with product or “straight cash homey” to quote a famous football player. I understand the opinion that the blog post is “tainted,” but it really depends on who is doing the writing, right? If we say we are being honest, then it’s up to us to be honest. There are no official blogger police that will throw us in blogger jail or hold us in blogger contempt. The reader is easily able to dissect the blog post and call B.S. if it’s B.S.

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