On Press Sampling—Giving and Taking and Ethics
I am absolutely fascinated by the initial discussions that have resulted from Rodney Strong Winery’s program of sending samples of a new wine to a selection of wine bloggers. The PR initiative is described here by Dr. Debs, here by Tim Elliot of ACAN Media, and here by Jeff at The Good Grape, and here by Mike Duffy of Winery Website Report.
What appears to be different or unique about Rodney Strong sending samples of its new Rockaway wine to wine bloggers is this:
1. It was sent to wine bloggers before the traditional wine review publications get theirs.
2. Bloggers would only get samples if they agreed to publish a review and to publish their review within a small window of time.
The first of these two things is notable, but I’m not sure it’s as groundbreaking for the credibility of bloggers as some have suggested. Anyone who hasn’t understood for at least the past year that wine bloggers will in time draw equal attention with traditional publications from wineries and wine companies that want to manipulate and use the media to the advantage of their bottom line simply hasn’t been paying attention.
As for the second point (bloggers agreeing to recieve the wine sample under the condition that they review it and do so in a particular time frame) I see the value of insisting on this in terms of trying to measure the impact of blogger reviews (and I hope that impact will be measured and reported). However, I’m not sure bloggers shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to these terms—assuming they want to be seen as part of the long tradition of independent journalism and professional criticism that strives to maintain a measured and necessary distance from their subject that allows them to entertain and inform their readers through the appearance (and reality) of not being unduly influenced by their subject.
That said, someone needs to give an award to Rodney Strong Vineyard’s PR department. If you know you have a wine that is better than average, it should only be a lack of resources and budgeting that prevents you from sending out press samples to anyone who will take them. The odds of getting a bad review are so low today that one risks very little.
I’ve overseen sampling programs for wineries for almost 20 years. Almost every list of journalists I recommend receive samples that I’ve sent to clients has been pared back by the client. I always make my case to them as to why they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeking 3rd party endorsements. But all too often that list of 80 or more journalists and bloggers and editors seems a bit too long to them.
However, one thing I’ve never done is offer a sample to a writer or blogger or journalist with the caveat that they must review the wine and must do it in a particular time frame. The reason I’ve never insisted upon this is because I wanted to get the wine reviewed. I’ve known hundreds of wine and food writers, wine reviewers and editors at wine publications over the years. I honestly can say I’ve ever known one that would agree to these kinds of conditions. That’s not to say that all of these people embrace the full load of ethics that that a writer or reviewer could possibly embrace. Rather, it’s an assumption on my part that the writer or reviewer does, at least, embrace the bare minimum of ethics and self respect.
I’m not sure the explanation for bloggers accepting Rodney Strong’s conditions for receiving samples is a testament to the brilliance and persuasive power of the Rodney Strong PR department, the gravitas and influence in the blogging community that Jeff at the Good Grape, who helped Rodney Strong organize this project, possesses, or the desperation among bloggers to want to claim legitimacy and parity with the traditional wine media.
But let me be clear about what I’m saying, from a publicists perspective. We (wine publicists) are required to do anything in our power to advance the bottom line of our client or employer. We don’t break the law. But sometimes we look for cracks in the system to advance this cause. We look for novel ways to overcome what we assume is the desire of the media to do their reporting free of influence from the object of their reporting. We don’t succeed at this very often, which is credit due to writers; and maybe it’s unexpected credit due to publicists too. This is me talking with my publicist hat on.
But to put my blogger hat on, I think it’s important to reiterate that while there are substantial differences between bloggers and the traditional media, there are also reasons for bloggers to adopt the conventions of traditional journalists—at least some of them.
The differences between bloggers and traditional media are obvious. We don’t have teams of editors to satisfy. We don’t have investors to take into consideration. We don’t have quarterly profit reports to issue. We don’t, generally, have advertisers that we don’t want to offend. We don’t, generally, make our living by blogging. Due to all these differences there is an perceived independence that accrues to bloggers that doesn’t so automatically accrue to the traditional media. This is an asset of extraordinary value that can’t be overestimated. Whether or not its appropriate for a wine publications to be accused of kowtowing to its advertisers, they will be accused of this because the circumstances for it occurring are all in place. However, this accusation can never legitimately be aimed at wine bloggers simply by virtue of the architecture of their medium.
But this isn’t a reason for wine bloggers to stridently disassociate themselves from the traditional wine media. There is a great deal in the traditions of journalism that should be recommended to the wine blogger. The most important is not just the appearance of objectivity, disconnect and distance from your subject matter, but the reality of it too.
While there is such a thing as an “embargo” in world of journalist/PR interaction whereby the journalists agree not to report a story until after a specific time, and while their is such a thing as agreeing to “talk off the record”, I’ve never encountered a reviewer who agreed to train their eye on a product under the condition that they write about it and that they do so within a specific time frame.
Do you know why this is?
Because it requires the writer to work on behalf of their SUBJECT, rather than on behalf of their AUDIENCE.
I have no doubt in my mind that the various reviews that different bloggers produced under these conditions were honest assessments of the Rodney Strong wine. None. I know most of the bloggers that took part and I can’t imagine any of them skewing their review of the wine just for the sake of being a part of the Rodney Strong experiment, to be on the inside, to assure future samples of wine or for any other reasons. And as I said above, I do appreciate the experimental quality of this program; the attempt to guage the impact of wine reviews in blogs.
I do think, however, that by agreeing to work on behalf of their subject they risk compromising the inherent independence that wine bloggers possess. I’m not sure I’m altogether qualified to make the points I make above. Lord knows, I’ve done unethical things in my life. My glass house is pretty damn breezy.
But I just might be qualified, sitting as I do at the juncture of PR and Blogging, and having sat in both places probably longer than most folks at any point at the intersection. So what I know is this: Compromise begins by tilting one’s head toward the devil on the other shoulder.