Interesting salvo of activity in the last couple of days. I got an email from Mark Hodson who knows a thing or two about travel SEO (there Mark you owe me a link) as well as being a respected travel writer. Along with another of the Sunday Times regular travel writers David Wickers, he set up 101holidays earlier this year.

It's a simple, clean site that aims to offer an easy to navigate list of carefully selected tour operators for people in the 'inspiration phase' of looking for a holiday. It's one of a new breed of websites that's evolving from the chaotic stew of on-line travel content sites that travel writers are creating or contributing to in the hope of somehow earning an income from their trade now that print is more or less dead. I reviewed 101holidays in an earlier post.

And it must be relatively successful as they've now launched companion site 101shortbreaks. (Bets on what will come next? Chaps I sincerely hope you have bought the domain names for... 101cruiseholidays, 101skiholidays etc.) Mark I think(?) would be the first to admit that the site makes money by charging the 101 operators an annual fee to be featured on the site. As I understand it this is the main way that Alastair Sawday makes his money - all the hotels featured in his guidebooks/website pay to be included. (If I'm wrong here, I'd be delighted to be corrected.)

At the same time, Matthew Teller posted on his blog about a way he is experimenting with to try and earn income as a travel writer. He suggested to two editors of online travel sections of newspapers that as they didn't have budget to pay him, he would ask the tourist board of the country he was travelling to if they would pay him instead. Both editors refused the idea, suggesting that it would undermine their credibility. I commented on Matthew's blog that I'd just do the deal with the tourist board and not tell the editor concerned. I fail to see the difference between the tourist board paying for a travel writer to stay in hotels, dine in restaurants (it often comes out of their marketing budget rather than the establishment absorbing the cost) and paying the writer some additional 'expenses' for his time. The editor remains totally free to edit and revise any copy submitted.

Interestingly the Federal Trade Commission in the USA has recently ruled that "bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service." (eg: you get a free night in a hotel, you need to make this clear if you then review it.) This has caused all sorts of debate in the blogosphere - both for and against. Does this suggest a future where every travel feature on-line requires a disclaimer at the end of it?

So - does the fact that content has been paid for by the company
featured mean that the integrity and credibility of that content is
compromised or not? 

And... are we so far down the line... with so much of travel sections these days being written off the back of press trips which are organised specifically to push a particular product from a particular company - that it really makes no difference anyway?

12 thoughts on “Can ‘paid for’ mentions ever be objective?

  1. No problem at all. Like paid listings in travel magazines and books or Adwords - they just provide a few tour operator choices that I might not have found otherwise.

    I think the people giving out awards have a credibility problem - "picked up a Travel Pioneers award from Travolution magazine for “outstanding innovation”."

    What are friends for eh?

  2. In my mind, its all about understanding the biases of who is writing. Paid for mentions aren't bad per se - and I do think can reveal choices you might not otherwise know about - but when sites are cagey about who is getting paid for what, I think it undermines user trust. Its also why I think people are increasingly turning to friends and user generated content because even if not perfectly written, its a genuine perspective free of bias.

  3. Everyone is looking for a new way now and maybe Matthew has spotted one.
    Most of the identikit group press trips are pure drivel. No story, forced camaraderie and written off the back of the press release while nursing a hangover the size of a Central American country. Most serious writers long since gave up on that one.
    Maybe, one day in the not-too-distant future, the tourist board/operator will pay a reasonable fee on top of trip cost, the writer will produce their copy with an informed edge and a compelling narrative, and the travel editor will accept/tweak/reject copy as normal. There is no copy approval, it's not an advertorial.
    Who loses in that scenario? Credibility? Read 80% of what's out there and then let's talk credibility.
    Yes, it's a new model but, right now, something gotta give.

  4. Whenever I go on a sponsored trip I generally disclose that fact when I blog about it. I think it is good practice to do so, even if I feel I can write objectively about the experience. I don't necessarily write about every attraction or hotel on a sponsored trip, nor am I required to do so. If I think I can't be objective about it, I don't write anything. My reputation is on the line and I guard my reputation regardless of whether the FTC is looking over my shoulder or not.

    Here's another angle: There are a great many would-be travel bloggers that generate a lot of content about places they've NEVER visited. Some of them are very talented writers and can easily convince the reader that they've personally visited all the places they've written about. They paraphrase travel guides and other websites and pull photos off of Flickr or Webshots to accompany their articles. That really steams me and is, in my opinion, a bigger problem than writers getting a free or discounted night in a hotel with the hope that it might generate a good (and possibly slightly biased) review.

  5. I don't do advertorials at all - when I read pieces that tell me where to stay or eat I know damn well they have been on some sort of famil. (And on the few famils I have done, I certianly say so)

    So, I just tell people about my experiences - if they want to go to Outer Mongolia - or wherever - I am sure they will find a place to stay or eat without my reccomendations .. are travel writers just becoming PR people? Or is if just a job?

    And with my travel writing courses I of course teach the ethics of travel writing too .. but these are different all over the world, whether in print or in blogging - I say disclose!

  6. OK then, how's this for a possible way round it?

    PR company hosts travel writer on trip.
    PR company pays travel writer a fee to write a blog post about the trip for their company blog. Said fee is rather generous.
    Travel writer is free to sell their story/ give it away to whomever they wish.

    Thus, it's separate commissions, and less of an ethical poser.

    Of course, as happens already, the PR companies in question may require the writer to have a commission elsewhere lined up.

  7. Hi Jeremy,

    I'm the director of 101 Holidays, so I handle the business end.

    Whilst we've always been transparent about our business model whereby recommended travel companies pay a fee to appear on the sites, I should point out that membership is strictly by invitation only.

    I get approached pretty much every day by travel businesses (and PR companies!) who want to be featured on the sites - and they are almost all turned down.

    Each recommendation is there because Mark and David rate and know the people and places they are recommending.


  8. @ David M. Completely agree. The web is stuffed with pseudo-features compiled by students and spam-hacks. And telling the difference is very difficult. Ultimately you do get what you pay for. I'm glad there's so much junk out there. Eventually people may realise that to get really useful, properly researched info they need to pay for it.
    @ David W. Nice idea in theory. Any PRs reading this? Would you/your client ever agree to this kind of deal? AND... it feels like you're giving even more power to the PR people. It would be a very enlightened PR person to get their client to pay you AND then allow you to write whatever you wanted for the National that you are giving your piece to for free. After all... THAT's ultimately what they want... not the piece you write for their company website or whatever.
    @ Catherine. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Hi Jeremy, I'm a PR and find this debate very interesting. Personally, I think what David Whitley has suggested has potential to work. To arrange a press trip costs money - either from client direct or through allocated agency budget. Especially for an overseas trip the costs can be 1000s - the addition of a fee would just slot in on top. I think its a win win situation. Rather than a travel desk assigning a random person who works at the paper, PR's get an experienced travel writer to come to their client/location. And obviously getting paid for writing the review on the blog solves the ever present problem of getting blog revenue and low newspapaper budgets for commissions. But for this to work for PR (clients to please and all!) the writer would need a confirmed commmission from a national. And as for bad reviews - well, as a PR I think you need to be confident that your cleint/product will deliver. If you don't think it can deliver (or you've overhyped it) then you shouldn't really be doing a press trip with experienced travel writers.

  10. Ive been approached twice in the last couple of days by tourist boards to be paid to go to a destination and blog about it/sell stories on as need be... so I'm all for it being the way forward.

    As for the integrity of it all... we all provide factboxes for print that give out details of the hotels/airlines/tourist boards that helped out, so what's the difference when it's online? That's right, absolutely none!

  11. Can paid-for mentions ever be objective? It really goes back to what's been discussed before a press trip in even just a general way between the writer and the publicist or organizer of the trip. If the writer made explicit undertakings beforehand to give glowing reviews to the new Fungi & Mold Resort, then arrived to be confronted by a mosquito-ridden pit that would thrill Paul Theroux or Graham Greene but not so much the upscale readers of Town & Country, then said writer has only him/herself to blame for giving up too much objective journalistic leeway. The best approach a publicist can take is a soft enough sell that won't corner a writer into delivering a bill of goods that will probably haunt him for years. If they don't ask...then you don't have to tell more than you need to tell. Which in my personal experience, only ever happened once to the extent of being hosted by a mosquito pit I refused to even list as a stayover.

  12. Firstly, is travel narrative ever objective anyway!?

    Secondly, I can't help but think we're bringing old-fashioned ideas of travel narrative to this debate, ie, let's keep doing what we've been doing bit but get the tourist boards to pay for decent writers instead of newspapers and then declare (or not) the sponsorship interest on the eventual editorial.

    But newspapers are a dying breed (not just the travel sections), and magazines will likely follow in that decline.

    As someone who does both travel writing and client blogging, I think there is another way. (At least this is the way I am going, bringing my part-time travel writing and blogging/socialmedia interests together since I enjoy one but earn a proper living at the other.)

    So what is my way forward?

    It is to step away from the traditional travel narrative review and offer to tell wider, deeper stories of the travel product or offering - directly for the client, be that tourist board or travel company, and for hosting on their website.

    Lift the veil on what they do - who are the characters of that cruise ship, how is that trademark dish cooked, what do the hotel owners recommend you do when staying in their town, interview the bar man about the entertainment, etc. Be useful. Be engaging. Look for the things that people don't get to see in the brochure but are likely to ask questions about. Create multimedia content to illustrate it. Blog about the different aspects and just tell the journalistic facts rather than the travel writer's experience - then the reader can decide if they like what they see. It's transparent because essentially you are just blogging your usual research.

    The return is decent, the content interesting, the client gets its business messages amplified, and if you do a decent (non-puff) job, the blogosphere and social networkers out there will link to the content.

    The only issue is who gets sign-off. But a decent travel content creator with a good rep for creating 'objective' content could likely insist on it.

    Of course, they'll never let you film anyone spitting in the soup... but when similar things have happened to me with travel editorial, what you write is still a judgment call - was it a one-off or endemic. If endemic, this would be an ethics issue for supplying content. So bring it up with the company instead, give them a chance to explain or change it, and if not go write the truth about appalling service elsewhere.

Comments are closed.