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13-10-2011, 10:34
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As beer blogging matures as a medium there are an increasing number of discussions on what constitutes ethical blogging. Is it OK to write about a brewery's beers if they've taken you on a tour or sent you free product? Or if you've done some kind of consultancy for them?

I'll come back to these in a minute - different bloggers have different points of view, and there are many shades of grey.

But I've recently been approached and asked to participate in one activity that, by any standards, is not OK at all. It's ethically wrong. In fact, it is probably illegal.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a man called Barry Sonders who works for an agency called Translation, some kind of PR/communications agency based in New York. Barry's email read as follows:

Hey Pete,


I'm working with a beer brand that is looking to "seed" some stories
on blogs like yours about a new beer that is being released.


I was wondering what the cost would be for me if I wanted to seed
1 story a week for a month. Basically, what I mean by seeding is
that you'd blog or someone would write something saying... "I heard this
beer is X% alcohol content, etc"...


Let me know if this is something you'd be interested in doing and again,
if so, what is the price tag associated with that.


Thanks!


Barry

Now there was no way I was ever going to agree to this, and I immediately decided to write this blog post about it. But before I did so, I wanted to be better informed. Firstly, I wrote back to Barry to see if I could find out what brand was trying to persuade me to sacrifice my integrity in this fashion:


Hi Barry,


It kind of depends on the brand, to be honest. Are you able to reveal which beer or brewer?


Pete

Barry, seemingly, could not be drawn that easily:

To be honest, I can't right now. It's a major brand, definitely not in the craft beer arena
or of a mass audience, middle america appeal.

However, there was a link to Translation's website at the bottom of his email. I followed this link, and found a client list that included Coors among a list of reputable companies such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson.

So I contacted Kristy at MolsonCoors UK, who immediately replied that she was 'appalled' by this proposal, and contacted MillerCoors in the UK (Coors is in a different JV over there) to see if this was something they knew about. She got this reply from Pete Marino at MillerCoors HQ:

The good news is that this has nothing to do with MillerCoors or any of our brands. Translation does not do any work for MillerCoors, nor have they ever. They did at one time work for legacy Coors Brewing Company and they have the Coors logo on their website under the title “brands they have influenced…”. This doesn’t mean those brands are active clients and I can assure you we don’t work with Translation. I am not sure who they are representing here, but... we don’t have any association with Barry or Translation and we do not condone this behavior.

Further down the email trail between Coors people, someone suggests the whole thing might be a hoax, as there are certainly no plans for a new US beer launch by MillerCoors.


I wanted to make all this very clear before moving on, because this is serious shit, and it's important to state that whichever brand it is, it's nothing to do with MolsonCoors or MillerCoors, who object to such practices on both legal and ethical grounds. (I only mention this in detail because if you Google Translation's website, you would think it was Coors).


Personally, whatever your views on free beer, hospitality etc (and I will come back to that) what's happening here is that I am being offered money to blog views and opinions about a beer as if they are my own, when they are not. By taking money it becomes advertising, and I am being asked to present it as though it is not advertising - clearly misleading my readers, and being dishonest in my writing.


I would never do that, for three reasons. One - integrity - I have some. Two - career practicality - if I did this, and someone found out that I'd done it, no one would ever trust anything I wrote ever again. My writing career would be over. And three - it is probably illegal. It certainly breaks any general journalistic and blogging standards of behaviour.


To get a clearer picture on this, I contacted both the national Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Advertising Standards Authority.


The NUJ admitted that it's still early days for standards in blogging but the rules generally - and there's no reason why they shouldn't cover blogging - are very clear. Writing paid for by a brand should be clearly identifiable as advertising or an advertising feature so the reader understands that it's not under editorial control. The NUJ’s code makes it clear that payments, threats or other inducements should not affect what you write. Chris Frost, Chair of the NUJ Ethics Council, said:


“I’m shocked to hear that a company is trying to bribe a blogger who’s a member of the NUJ to write material that is not necessarily his honest opinion. Whether a journalist is a blogger or works in more traditional media, trust in what they write is central and the NUJ does all it can to protect that with our code of conduct.”


The ASA took a little longer to respond, but I got their reply yesterday. There's a new code, recently extended to cover online advertising. Here's what they had to say about it:


In short, yes, this practice would represent a breach of the CAP Code (marketing communications must make it clear that they are so) However, we know that the Office of Fair Trading are also interesting into looking into this area as this type of practice represents a serious breach of consumer legislation.


This last point relates back to a test case last year when the OFT investigated a company called Handpicked Media who were paying bloggers to write for them. The company was co-operative with the investigation, but it was judged that their activities may be operating in breach of the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and was engaging in unfair commercial practices. There will be more test cases to establish whether that 'may' actually is an 'is' or not.


But either way, whether this turns out to be technically legal or not, it's morally and ethically wrong. The whole point about blogging is that it is a subjective medium, that writers write from interest and passion. I do write paid for commercial stuff, but I write it in a very different style than I blog, and it's always very clear that I am doing so. I have never taken a penny from anyone for anything on this blog. If other people, who don't get as much paid writing as I do, choose to take money for paid-for ads on their blog that's fine - so long as it's very clear that this is advertising. But what Barry and his agency is suggesting undermines the whole principle and foundation of blogging.


So is this the same as accepting free booze or hospitality from brewers? There are different views on this, but I don't think it is the same at all. Fiona Beckett wrote an article for the Guardian recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/jul/01/critique-of-wine-criticism?commentpage=1#comment-11401598) about accepting payment for wine reviews, and much of the ensuing discussion was about free samples rather than payment.


I get sent free beer all the time, and it comes down to one's own personal ethics. I've got so much beer I'm constantly trying to give it away to people before it goes stale. If someone sends me free beer and I like it, I'll say so. If I don't like it, I probably won't say anything at all unless the brewer is really insistent. But I certainly won't say I like a beer just because someone has sent me some for free. Hilariously, earlier this year someone sent me one bottle of a very well-known beer brand, and seemed to think that having done so, I would of course be including this brand in my Publican's Morning Advertiser rundown of my fifty favourite UK beers. Needless to say, it wasn't there and never will be.


It's trickier with trips/hospitality. If someone takes you on an all expenses paid trip around Belgium, it's kind of expected that you'll use it to write a piece. It doesn't mean you have to write a glowing report of every beer if you didn't really like it. If someone shows you a good time you are more likely to feel warm towards them - that's human nature. But a combination of full disclosure and personal standards should mean you avoid saying things you don't really believe and misleading your readers.


As for consultancy - I do some of that. But I always tell brewers that while I'm working for them, I won't be writing about them, and I won't be promoting the work we've done together from a journalistic point of view. If I ever do write about it - like I did with the launch of Martson's Fast Cask (http://petebrown.blogspot.com/2010/03/exclusive-martsons-redefines-cask-ale.html) - I will do so with full disclosure of my relationship, so readers can make up their own minds as to whether they can trust what I'm saying or not.


I know there are some bloggers who would see my standards as too lax, and others who would read this and say, 'What's the fuss about? If you can get free stuff, take it'. I'm happy to agree to disagree with both.


But I would hope everyone would see that taking payment in return for lying to your readers goes against everything that beer blogging is about. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been approached by Translation. If you have too, I hope you're not tempted - you might end up being the next legal test case.
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