British travel writer Jeremy Head has a solid piece titled “Is PR helping kill travel writing?” where he asks if PR is actively helping to kill the trade by essentially offering lazy and/or slim-budgetted travel editors reams of copy to fill their pages at no cost.
I agree with Head, but I’d go further and say the situation is exacerbated by publications that don’t disclose that the material is advertorial fluff. Essentially the professional writers (other than those in the employ of PR companies of course) are getting done out of a job while the readers are lied to.
And people wonder why I don’t read the travel section anymore.
There’s one point in Head’s piece though that I want to bring attention to and relate to three experiences I’ve had recently.
In his opening par he says “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.”
While I understand this, I do think that the means some PRs use to achieve this are disappointing. Three examples:
1) Not our fault there was no disclosure
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a story tweeted by a Vietnam-based travel agent that I know. It linked to a piece in a local paper that was a neat historical wrap on some of Vietnam’s colonial-style hotels. I thought it was interesting, so I retweeted it, posted it to the Travelfish Facebook page and put it in the list for inclusion in that week’s newsletter.
Nowhere in the story did it suggest the piece was advertorial.
Shortly after I tweeted it, Steve Jackson, a Hanoi-based writer, pointed out that the piece was actually written by a Vietnam-based PR agency (who he had briefly worked with) and the properties mentioned in the story were all represented by the agency in question.
I felt badly mislead, deleted my initial tweet, removed the Facebook page listing and it didn’t go into the newsletter.
The PR subsequently got involved and said something along the lines of disclosure is the editor’s/newspaper’s responsibility. I guess that kind of buck-passing is strictly true, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Being a big fan of one of the hotels in the piece, next time I read something about them I’m going to treat it with considerable more caution and check the author name versus the agency. Or, more likely, as I’m generally fairly time-pressed, I just won’t link to — or read — it.
How is that good for the hotel? It’s true I’m in the industry rather than just a consumer, but I’m also a publisher — and their move means I’m unlikely to be disposed to publicising them (by tweets, FB etc — I’ll use my own discretion and consideration for our readers when it comes to listing them).
2) Forget using a PR, bring your spamming inhouse
I have two main sets of email addresses. One set are Travelfish.org related and the other are on a completely different domain name that I use for personal correspondence and other projects. If you’re among the minority of people who spam and do have a brain, you should know which of these two sets is more appropriate.
If you follow the travel blogging scene, you’ll most likely be aware of a prominent travel blogger who has recently done a travel clothing sponsorship deal. I certainly was, as I’d seen it mentioned in their Twitter stream and on their blog.
I’d heard of the company before, but hadn’t paid all that much attention to it, but it would be fair to say this blogger had raised my awareness of it somewhat. That’s what sponsorships are supposed to achieve.
For the company, it seems that wasn’t enough.
Last week they sent me a press release, announcing the deal. It wasn’t to my Travelfish address, but rather to my personal, non-travel-related address.
Where did they get my email address from? Given I’ve never been to the company’s website, I assume they bought it off some crappy spam list. Nice.
There was no means to unsubscribe from the email. Even nicer.
I contacted the blogger and they apologised (not that they needed to), lamenting that they have no control over what the company does.
But what was the company thinking? Beats me, but what I do know is that you’ll never be reading about their products on Travelfish.org.
3) Using a PR to turn readers against your hotel
Best for last. A US-based travel PR company represents a five-star hotel here in Bali. We’re very good friends with the marketing manager at this hotel, and we go there very occassionally for sunset drinks and so on.
As with the previous example, this PR company spammed my personal account with releases pertaining to this hotel.
There is no way to unsubscribe.
In the end I complained to our friend at the hotel and they got in touch with the company and confirmed that my email address had been removed.
The emails kept coming.
I complained a second time and this time around the emails stopped.
While five-star hotels are not a core part of our coverage on Travelfish.org, we do list a few, especially here on Bali.
We don’t list this hotel.
Only to reinforce the stupidity of this particular agency, last week a short interview piece with me ran on the BBC. Among the answers I gave was I mentioned Uluwatu, a beautiful beach area in south Bali.
The same PR agency picked that up and added a blurb regarding it to our Facebook page, Digg and who knows where else. Why? Because they rephrased the quote around it as a means to promote the hotel they represent (which happens to be a good 30-minute drive from the beach area I mentioned), with a link to their hotel. I deleted the post from our Facebook page.
In each of these cases the actions of the PR company have worked to actively diminish the brand in my eyes, and I fail to see how that is a good thing for the properties and products involved.
And people wonder why I don’t link to PR driven pieces — at least, of course, when I’m aware that they are — on Travelfish.org.