Is PR helping kill travel writing?

How I think PR has helped devalue the quality of travel writing both in print and online.

Let’s call a spade a spade. A Public Relations (PR) company is there to ensure that its clients get maximum positive exposure – often at the expense of their client’s competitors (either intentionally or otherwise.) That’s what they are paid to do. I often feel that travel writers, editors and travel bloggers forget that. Ultimately a PR’s role is about influencing the supposedly ‘impartial' editor/writer/blogger to the advantage of their clients.

Right. Now we’ve got that out of the way… a little history. Fairytale or hardcore documentary? I leave it to you to decide:

A good few decades back, before PR really existed in the travel sector and way before the internet, the way travel cos got themselves into the travel sections of newspapers and magazines was advertising. They paid top whack to put ads next to relevant travel editorial. And in those days it worked. There were few other places potential customers could read about travel or find information about travel cos to book their holidays with. As a punter, I remember these days. You’d tear out and keep the travel section. Not for the features, but for the ads with phone numbers of travel cos. So you could call them up from work on your lunch hour and get quotes for your trip to Thailand or wherever. Anyone else remember?

In those days I don’t know how travel writers got their trips organised for them so they could write them up. Heck, they might have had enough budget to just pay and go on them – but I reckon that’s unlikely. I imagine that the all-powerful travel editor would choose a particular travel co whose products he liked the look of and call them and ask for a free trip so he could write about them. And with the sort of clout his publication had, I imagine they were only too happy to help. For travel editors and writers it must have been happy days. Good pay, nice trips, decent budget for creating really great looking travel sections. And they could write whatever they felt like about these trips too. (Is THIS the job that the wannabee travel writer/blogger aspires to? A dream that no longer exists?)

And then PR came along.

The new middleman (or very often, woman) sold in easily to the frustrated other travel cos who never seemed to get featured in the editorial sections of travel supplements. “Pay us and we’ll do the legwork hassling editors to get you published. And we’ll also make sure they publish the right kind of things about you too.”

Perhaps oddly, editors allowed themselves to be persuaded by the PR people. Is this testament to editors being lazy or PR people being great sales people? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

One way or another the PR pitch worked. Really well. More and more travel cos took on PR agencies to push their products at editors. PR people developed new tools – ‘press trips’; ‘press releases’ - ways to show off their clients' products in carefully controlled environments. They started to more or less write the stories themselves, doing more and more of the journalist's job. And all of it was about influencing editorial impartiality. Making sure their client got the right kind of coverage in the editorial space. Slowly but surely PR influence grew. And, nobody really took much notice. Eventually any travel co wanting to get noticed by travel editors needed to spend cash on PR. Otherwise they just wouldn’t get a look in.

And. If you were a travel co then - where would you spend your hard earned marketing budget? On really expensive adverts – which only ever seemed to get more and more pricey. Or on a PR agency who seemed able to get you the right kind of mentions in the editorial bits of the travel section relatively easily? Particularly as a mention in the editorial chunk of the paper was potentially far better - because implicitly it suggested endorsement by the publication. (It felt like a recommendation - from someone who really knew what they were talking about.)

There was no competition. PR won out over advertising hands down.

I think the net result was that travel cos switched their spending from traditional advertising to PR.

Now I’d be the first to admit that the internet has played the biggest part in killing the traditional advertising model for printed travel supplements and magazines which has led in many peoples' eyes to a deterioration in the quality and the breadth of travel editorial. But I think PR has really quickened the process.

- More money spent on PR by travel cos = less money spent on advertising.

- Less money spent on advertising = smaller editorial budgets.

- Smaller editorial budgets = travel editors all the more keen to take content written by or with help from PR agencies (because it's cheaper to do so).

- Smaller editorial budgets = less pay for travel freelancers, less cash for in-depth research.

- Ultimately… smaller editorial budgets = poorer quality travel writing.

Ever wondered why large chunks of travel sections are ‘charticles’ – Top 20 this, Top 50 that? Ever wondered why only a tiny minority of travel features are overtly critical? Ever wondered why some destinations seem to get written about time and time again whilst others hardly get a mention?

I think this is at least one of the reasons.

Do you agree?

Image: Flicker user lululemon

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