The law, ethics & effectiveness of PR firms offering bloggers prizes-to-post

A PR firm recently invited me to review their client’s product, saying that if I did review it I would be entered into a prize draw with other ‘qualifying’ bloggers to win an iPad 2.

It was a product I might ordinarily have covered, but this approach made me reluctant.

Here’s reason number 1: I asked myself whether the PR firm will have made the same approach to print journalists. I doubt it. Why? Because it would have raised obvious ethical issues, and questioned the journalists’ professionalism.

So were they assuming that bloggers had different ethics? I doubt they thought that hard – more likely was that some bright spark thought that eager, amateur bloggers would jump at the chance to get anything for their hard work.

Here’s reason number 2: other bloggers will have been approached with the same offer. If they saw me review the product they would assume that I had done so in exchange for this prize draw ticket. They would see me as unprofessional, unethical, or both.

In PR terms, then, the approach was counter-productive: it actually made me less likely to give their client coverage.

And it stems from a misunderstanding of many bloggers: because they blog for free, their reputation is the only value they hold. The bloggers with the biggest reputations and the biggest audiences are the least likely to risk that in exchange for the chance to win something (in many cases those reputations lead directly to paid work).

But is it legal?

Beyond the PR objectives, there are real legal issues here. A prize draw like this constitutes a lottery, and as such needs permission from the Gambling Commission.

Likewise, blogging in exchange for entry into the competition probably constitutes payment (I’m not sure whether they felt a competition might avoid this issue) and as such should be declared by the blogger.

The Office of Fair Trading, for example, last year required blogging network Handpicked Media to declare whether content had been paid for. A key quote from the OFT states “We expect online advertising and marketing campaigns to be transparent so consumers can clearly tell when blogs, posts and microblogs have been published in return for payment or payment in kind.” [my emphasis].

Staff at the OFT refused to comment on specific cases or examples but their general advice was that any payment for content should be disclosed.

From last month the Advertising Standards Authority also extended its remit to cover online “marketing communications”, including those on third party sites such as Twitter.

Rob Griggs from the ASA’s press team confirmed that offering entry into a prize draw in return for coverage would constitute payment, but the ASA would only be concerned if the published content had been directly provided by the company that would come under our code.

If the blogger is writing their own review then this would not be covered by the ASA’s code. That said, the ASA have not yet had any complaints in this area and there is no precedent to go on. A test case may clarify the position further.

Of course I may be alone in thinking about all of this. Are you a PR agency who has found this tactic effective? A blogger who has been approached as part of a similar campaign? I’d welcome some other opinions.

5 thoughts on “The law, ethics & effectiveness of PR firms offering bloggers prizes-to-post

  1. Soilman

    I’m offered payment for ‘guest posts’ all the time. They usually come with specific instructions about the precise wording, what I may or may not edit etc.

    Other offers are even less ‘advertorial’: If I give ’em a plug (undisclosed, naturally), they’ll pay. Somebody must be taking up these offers, or I wouldn’t keep getting them.

    Trouble is, the whole web is infected with this stuff – to an even greater extent than print was/is. It’s even worse behind the scenes of the actual content: advertisers pay media companies to distribute cookies to users that track their web habits and IDs and ‘phone home’ to the advertiser… with all the predictable consequences for loss of privacy and misuse of personal data that are inevitable (and, BTW, incredible widespread).

    To be concerned about payment-for-content in this sort of environment feels like swatting mosquitoes while ignoring the tiger.

  2. Pingback: Freelance Unbound» Blog Archive Is offering bribes to bloggers any different from old-style PR sweeteners for journalists? |

  3. Laura Lou

    I know of instances where draws like this have been done and the reason for them is to simply boost SEO. The company would look at the prize, lets say an iPad as enough incentive for bloggers to write an article and include that SEO keyword in the article. If say 20 bloggers enter the competition then each SEO link only cost £20 but the impact had on SEO would be a lot more valuable.

    As far as I’m aware draws like this are common practice in SEO and are seen as a cheap way to manipulate the rankings.

  4. Karen Strunks

    “And it stems from a misunderstanding of many bloggers: because they blog for free, their reputation is the only value they hold. The bloggers with the biggest reputations and the biggest audiences are the least likely to risk that in exchange for the chance to win something (in many cases those reputations lead directly to paid work).”

    They say the only thing a man has is his reputation. There is no prize draw in the world worth risking that for.

    I’ll count myself fortunate not to have been approached with this tactic; it’s completely new to me. If I did receive that approach my instincts would scream ‘Shady! Stay away’.

    When you get into a game of ‘If you do this, you’ll get that” then you just hand over your integrity as a blogger.

    I take part in campaigns and blog about them. I’ll do my research, check out the company/brand and who I’m associating with. I’ll satisfy myself that their reputation is solid. I’ll think about what’s on offer and what I’ll get out of it. I have never been asked to favourably review something in return for xyz. The companies I’ve worked with have simply made my experience with them good so that I will naturally want to speak highly of them. If my experience went the other way and turned into an awful occasion, then I would be under my own moral guidance that would dictate that I would report the event as it happened.

    Although I haven’t been paid directly by these companies, I’ve been able to go on and leverage the work I have done; gained testimonials, made new friends and contacts, generated paid work, received recommendations for my services etc.

    Blogging for a raffle ticket….I’m surprised anyone has to gall to ask! Sadly I’m starting to see the rise of social media and moral/ethical dilemmas.

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