wsj article on food blogging

I thought this was a good read on food blogging in the Wall Street Journal. It’s an interesting topic, not just for food, but also for blogging in general.

As our society is becoming increasingly smaller, thanks in large part to the many facets of social media, people rely more and more on viral word-of-mouth and seek out blogger reviews more so than traditional media. This holds true whether it’s a recommendation for a new restaurant, a car, hotel or anything in between. People trust and seek out others feedback – even if it’s a total stranger.

As a food blogger, I don’t see anything wrong with a chef providing a free meal to a blogger, as long as the chef is not excepting a favorable review in return. The chef needs to understand that you can’t “buy” a positive review, much like you can’t with a traditional food critic, and accept whatever the writer posts.

The majority of my meals are paid for by me. Even when I am given a free appetizer or dinner, I do not allow the gesture to sway me. I post my honest opinions, whether favorable or not. It’s not in my nature to act otherwise. This blog isn’t my job nor am I being compensated in anyway. Food is just a passion of mind and the blog provides a nice outlet to discuss something I take a lot of interest in. The blog has even afforded me the opportunity to freelance for Cleveland Magazine and blog for Feast!. Again, not doing it for the money (I made more babysitting in my teens) but because I truly believe in the food scene in Cleveland.

In my real job, I work for a large advertising and public relations agency on the PR side of the business. As a PR professional, I regularly pitch both bloggers and traditional journalists. Over the years, I have built strong relationships with a lot of editors. As the industry is changing, I find myself totally engulfed (and loving it) in social media. Everyone has a voice and it’s my job to seek out that conversation and participate where it is appropriate for my clients. But like my blogging, I have (the agency has) strong ethical standards. I do not post on a blog unless I clearly identify myself and who my client is. I disagree with people fake posting/commenting to boost their awareness. When I see this happen on my blog, I delete it. Like traditional media, we (the agency) will send samples to bloggers when appropriate, always identifying who we are and acknowledging that the blogger is free to write whatever they want. I would not expect Real Simple to write a two-page feature on the latest craze in glassware simply because I sent them a new product from my client. Sending samples is a way to expose people to something and get them to try it first-hand. If someone likes it, great. If they don’t, let’s find out why and make it better. Likewise, if a chef expected a favorable review simply because they gave me a glass of wine or a dessert, don’t bother. I’ll happily accept the gesture, but it will not alter my post in anyway.

As a PR person, I can’t help but laugh when someone pitches me something in regards to my blog. I always reply that it’s smart on their part to include bloggers and to continually monitor what is being said about their client online – good and bad. A few times I have even replied with tips on how to improve their pitch for future reference. Mainly, if you are going to pitch a blogger, make sure you read the blog. I was pitched something a few months ago and if the person would have taken a few minutes to read the blog, they would have noticed I wrote about their client twice. I never pitch a magazine, paper or blog until I am really familiar with it.

I’m getting off subject. My point is that I think it’s okay to build relationships with bloggers. It’s smart marketing. But you need to draw the line at writing or saying something you don’t feel is accurate or truthful. I love working in PR, but unfortunately my profession often has a negative perception. I think this is partly due to the fact that people truly don’t understand what public relations is and assume it means putting a ‘spin’ on something (a word I have grown to hate). I’ve been working in PR for over 10 years and my family still has no clue what I do (my mom tells people I am in personal relations – I told her to think about how that sounds). I just hope blogging (and bloggers) continue to stay true to their blog and don’t eventually fall victim to the same bad wrap.

15 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    I love your blog and have learned a lot from you. It is great that you have thought about the relationship between freebies and objectivity.

    Perhaps you could add a policy statement to your blog that tells how you base your evaluations and your policy about accepting free food or merchandise. I don’t mind if you get some perks but I do hate it when I check into a hotel and all of the city guide restaurant information is based on their advertising.

  2. michelle v
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the post, I really appreciate it. And that’s a great suggestion. I know exactly what you are referring to…

  3. Allison M.
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    My mom still thinks I’ll be on TV one day. My dad acknowledges the fact that he doesn’t know what I do…then he says I’m in advertising – people ask less questions that way.

  4. Alexa
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Reason #462 why I love your blog.

    The last three paragraphs were spot on. I totally understand where you are coming from.

    Great post Michelle.

  5. michelle v
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Allison – I know what you mean. I tend to tell people I’m in advertising sometimes, too. O hate that I do that, but sometimes you have to take the easy way out. Now I have a whole new battle trying to get them to understand what APR is… I should have been a teacher :)

    Alexa – Great compliment, thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

  6. Dave
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    “As a food blogger, I don’t see anything wrong with a chef providing a free meal to a blogger, as long as the chef is not excepting a favorable review in return.?

    Can you say NAIVE? Chefs, like business people everywhere, are not stupid. They’re as capable and eager as undermining your “objectivity” as anyone. There’s never a quid in business anyway without a quo.

    I’m surprised as a PR employee you think otherwise.

    I don’t think giving freebies or accepting them is necessarily wrong. It’s merely business. Good business in fact when it results in a favorable blog mention.

    It’s just that you have to tell readers you got something for free (while others must pay for it) and not expect anyone with half a brain to believe you when you now insist “I’m still objective.”

  7. michelle v
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Dave,

    The chef can expect a favorable return all he wants, but he’s not going to get one simply b/c I got something for free. I will be honest – always. That’s the point I was trying to make.

    For example, I was given a free appetizer at Wonder Bar – which I said I was given. I gave an honest opinion about the food and place and what dissapointed me.

    Since doing this blog, I have been given two things for free – that’s it, two. Like I said, I pay for the majority of my food. I was given a free appetizer at Wonder Bar and a free dinner at Carrie Cerino’s, and both times I mentioned it. Why wouldn’t I? So, read things over before you toss out accusations and accuse me of not being objective. There isn’t anything in this blog that’s a strecth. If I don’t like something, I say I don’t. And there are several things I’ve covered that weren’t so hot. I wouldn’t waste my time on a blog that was filled was watered-down reviews.

  8. Dave
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    You were given free food at two restaurants, Michelle? How come? Was it because you ID’d yourself as a foodwriting blogger? If not, stop reading now and accept my humble apologies.

    Such an annoucement in and of itself of course alerts restaurant owners (and wise employees) that someone in the joint can do it a favor. The nicer they are to you (free food and kitchen tours are nice) the more likely you are to write favorably.

    Otherwise, the next time you visit the restaurant or bump into these guys they might pick a bone. I, for one, wouldn’t want that to happen to me.

    To be sure, I appreciate your honesty but please don’t expect me to think you’re capable of objectivity — despite all protestations — when you take anything for free. You may offer us an informed opinion but I’ll never believe it’s a balanced one in such cases.

  9. michelle v
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    When we were at Wonder Bar a few weeks ago, I asked the server who was Chef Michael Walsh and she said she would send him over. Michael always comments on this blog and I do appreciate his thoughts and professional contributions so I wanted to introduce myself and thank him. We chatted for a bit and he offered to send over one of the special apps that night – that was the only thing I received for free. And if you read my post, I wasn’t overly nice about the place or food. It was ok, (the wine and cookies were my favorite) but it wasn’t great and I am not in a hurry to go back. I will eventually, but they need to work a lot of things out first. Don’t you think if I was swayed by the free app I would have been gushing about the place and omitted my true thoughts?

    The second time I received something for free was dinner at Carrie Cerino’s. Dominic let us try a bunch of things. Again, I was honest about what I liked and didn’t like. I even wrote about my very first meal there and how it was horrible. If it wasn’t for a freelance piece I was doing for Cleveland Magazine, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. But I did and realized that while I still don’t like the decor, the food was actually really good. So I contacted Dominic to see if he wanted to be the next chef for the q & a. He invited us in, gave a tour and we spent over 3 hours talking. That is how we received the free meal, which we did offer to pay for. I truly did love the salumi (if you tried it, you’d know what I’m talking about), carbonara, lentils and braised short ribs (outstanding). Everything else was ok, but nothing I’d rave about. And I told him that.

    Look, I can tell you I’m objective until I’m blue in the face. If you don’t want to believe me, that’s absolutely fine. But the truth is -I am. You don’t know me but if you did, you’d know I’m just not that type of person. I come from a very big (read opinionated) family and have never had a problem telling exactly what I think. If someone doesn’t like what I have to say, or disagrees with me, that’s fine and they are entitled to their opinion. We all have them after all. I’m not being paid, it’s not as if I’m best friends with these people and I’m not trying to get in anyone’s good graces – and I didn’t start this in hopes of great perks. But again, appreciate when I do, but won’t let it sway me. I do believe sampling is smart marketing – but you should be ethical about it. Just like I don’t expect a reporter to write something great for one of my clients just b/c I sent them a sample. This is my hobby. I believe in Cleveland’s food scene and this is my way of supporting it. Like I said, I’m not going to waste my time writing bs reviews. The bottom line is I stand behind everything I have written. And again, since I started this blog, just two things have been given for free. Look back at the blog – there are a lot of visits in here. That should tell you something.

  10. Michael Walsh
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    As the giver of free food I think everyone should know that free food from a restaurant is not all that rare. We give people free food for alot of reasons, and to think of this as a bribe is wrong.

    As a chef, when someone comes to my restaurant that i have a relationship with and i know that they are interested in eating, culinary arts, and dinning out, i want them to enjoy the best i have to offer. This was the situation with Michelle.

    I don’t even remember what it was either a squash app or a shrimp app, but on that night i thought it was one of the most interesting things we had to offer and i wanted her to try it. that is all, it never really crossed my mind that this would be looked down upon.

    The wonderful thing about it is in the end the truth was told, and opinions expressed with honesty.

  11. michelle v
    Posted October 18, 2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Hey Michael –

    Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts on this. It was the butternut squash app :) And it was an interesting dish (but the cookies were still #1 that night – seriously, everyone needs to try those for themselves – never change that recipe).

    Giving things for free isn’t looked down upon per se (it’s actually smart marketing and a good way to learn and get honest feedback), but to me, it crosses the line when the recipient isn’t truthful and allows themselves to be swayed. As you know, I wasn’t – but certainly appreciate the gesture! I have no problem when someone gives me something for free, but will nevel allow it to sway me. Thanks again for the comment.

  12. michelle v
    Posted October 19, 2007 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I have a correction to make. I said above that I have only been given free food twice at a restaurant. While that is true, I was recently given a free cooking class ($35 value, free to me, we paid for my husband) to Loretta Paganini school. Just wanted I should clarify that. It’s in the post, but I didn’t mention it here.

  13. Becky
    Posted October 21, 2007 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Just came across your blog and am interested in this discussion. Ruth Reichel writes in her wonderful book, Garlic And Sapphires, about the issue of being recognized and therefore being given treatment, food, etc that is different from what the normal customer might get. Do you mention that you are known if that is the case? You might comment on that. That being said, your blogs on restaurants that I have read seem to jibe with my [normal person] experience. Thanks for championing our excellent Cleveland restaurant scene. We often find ourselves saying “Good, but not as good as …[fill in a restaurant in Cleveland] when we are dining and paying MUCH more in a highly touted place in another city.

  14. Michael Walsh
    Posted October 21, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    This whole thread has gone sour. Michelle is an independant blogger who visits restaurants, is interested and educated about food, and is passionate enough to share her experiances with the rest of us.

    Michelle does not need to explain herself, or detail what she pays for or not like a tax return. We are talking about experiences not expenses. If you have not been to any place Michelle has, then get out of the house, if you have, and you agree with her observations then you can trust her in the future, if you disagree, then explain your situation in a mature nature and move on.

    Michelle does a great job covering the dinning scene in cleveland. There is no other blog, website, newspaper section that does as good a job as she does. For the exact reason that this is a completely independant blog free from advertisment. Michelle holds a very level headed opinion on most/all subjects and by no means at all does she need to, “add a policy statement to your blog that tells how you base your evaluations and your policy about accepting free food or merchandise” like our first commenter posted.

    I appreciate this blog more and more everyday for exactly what it is: honesty, truthfull opinions!

  15. michelle v
    Posted October 22, 2007 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Becky: Thanks for the post, but I had to laugh at the part about being “known” – ha. Like I said, aside from the few times, no one knows me. I don’t share my last name and it’s not like you can really tell what I look like from the photo. When I go in, I’m just a regular customer.

    Michael: That was a very kind comment, thank you. That is a wonderful compliment and I’m so happy to hear how much you like the blog!