Should PR Folks Expose Crooked Product Reviewers?

August 12, 2009

Unknown PR folks are often viewed by their media counterparts as spammy email inbox polluters. In cases of laziness, they are. However, the bridge to unscrupulous behavior goes both ways and there are myriad “media” who pass themselves off as legitimate product reviewers, even going so far as to sign product loan agreements, with no intention of returning requested gear. An industry colleague of mine is dealing with this right now and at a loss.

When a perishable or mass merchandised product is in play, most companies are OK with eating the cost since the battle to get it returned will cost more in people hours than the value of the product. In this case, PR reps often send out product without being solicited  so they have no recourse anyways. For those who deal with high-end products, loan agreements and make-or-break reviews, the stakes are a little higher. Granted, most legitimate press outlets would never play this game but the influx of new websites and blogs billing themselves as the end-all-be-all resource can give newbie PR minions delusions of grandeur. 

Firstly, any agency that values retaining its clients should have a detailed  loan agreement (reviewed by a lawyer) outlining the following: exact products being reviewed and cost, how long the product stays for, who is responsible for damage to the product under certain conditions, editorial expectations and a signature from the reviewer themself. Without all of this covered, you’re swimming in shark-infested water.

If you’ve taken the necessary steps to protect your client’s products contractually and you still have a “reviewer” who’s not responding to inquiries or refuses to return gear, here is a list of steps that should be taken.

Step 1 – Leave messages via every medium possible (phone, email, twitter, LinkedIn) giving the reviewer one last chance to post editorial or return the product

Step 2 – Contact a supervisor or the person’s editor if they have one

Step 3 – Create an invoice for the products sent and have a lawyer draft a letter to accompany explaining what will happen if product is not returned

Step 4 – Lodge a complaint with the BBBonline (internet Better Business Bureau) and consider posting a note on or some of the other user sites for reporting fradulent online behavior

Step 5 (optional) – If still no response, consider outing them publicly. This doesn’t mean mudslinging and calling names but a simple, “Beware of person or site, they sign product loan agreements but do not run reviews or return product, proceed with caution,” posted on a blog and/or twitter feed should suffice.

Fortunately, Caster has never had to resort to Step 5 because we only send product to reviewers we know and trust or those we’ve vetted carefully. But since Chris Anderson of Wired created his blacklist of PR email addresses way back in 2007, it’s only fair for a PR resource to exist under a similar guise. Be forewarned, outing ANYONE publicly is a creaky rope bridge over jagged rocks, so make sure it’s treated as a service to fellow PR brethren and not an opportunity to skewer someone you think is unethical. Chances are if they’re shady enough to steal product, they’ll have no problem slandering you and your client on top of it.

Posted by: Nick Brown


Journalistic Integrity Has Never Been More Important Than Now…

July 31, 2009

In the past year, Mommy Bloggers have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. The group of micro-bloggers have proved to be an influential army that have halted media campaigns (just ask Motrin), has become the target of consumer PR campaigns worldwide, and most recently launched a Content Integrity Organization. Interesting.

While some bloggers (and, I’m not trying to single out the MBs) are intent are maintaining the same journalist integrity as the traditional breed of journos, some are standing by their right to snag free swag. See Ad Age’s recent article “Don’t Hate Mommy Bloggers for Their Swag”. It’s an interesting read that likens the group of bloggers to the long-standing practices of of lifestyle, women and parenting magazines and basically says, there’s nothing wrong with with accepting free product and endorsing them outright via social media outlets.

As a PR professional, I don’t entirely disagree as the practice has forever existed and will undoubtedly continue. However, a bloggers voice is not hidden in the pages of Vogue or Maxim, it IS your brand. Isn’t your voice, and its credibility, worth protecting? Regardless if your readership is audited or not, I think so.

Here at Caster, we and our client’s maintain a tried and true policy for review units. The majority of traditional journalists and gear/tech bloggers we send product to are extremely professional; signing loan agreements, reviewing and returning product, and slating the review for editorial coverage. They practice full disclosure to their readership by positioning the review as just that and identifying positives (and negatives, sometimes to our client’s dismay) of the product(s). Even though we sometimes have the opportunity to respond and work through snags, these writers maintain complete professional integrity which their readership, and we, value. While social media continues to govern the future of our respective professionals, I believe that journalist integrity will only become more important. In the absence of today’s publications (as we know them), consumers will look for credible resources through the weeds of the internet’s informational over-load. Your voice could be just that.

So, to mommy bloggers simply looking for an outlet to share their voice, I say go for the free swag and enjoy! To mommy bloggers who are vying to become a reputable, knowledgeable resource, whether it be for friends, manufacturers, marketing professionals, or other consumers, I would be a bit more cautious to avoid a stigma attached to your name.

Posted by: Katie | follow me on Twitter

The Audacity of Desperation: Compensatory Journalistic Integrity

March 11, 2009

It has become a popular practice for some media folks to cut a switch and inflame the posteriors of certain PR folks for their wildly irrelevant or poorly written pitches and press releases. Hell, I even fanned the flames a bit when one of my fellow flaks was condemned for a cheeky exchange. While I agree public humiliation is often the best way to teach a lesson, it’s important to note that we PR folks are not the only ones guilty of uncouth behavior when it comes to the media game.

As the gatekeeper for product reviews between client and press, there is often a fine line when gauging whether a new site or media outlet will offer ROI that justifies shipping product. Every week there are new blogs and sites that promise to communicate our message to new audiences who are just waiting to be told what to buy. Recently I received such a “pitch” that introduced a new concept in the product review game that I will call, “Compensatory Journalistic Integrity” (CJI).

In quotes is part of the pitch I received (verbatim).
“…If you would be interested in getting your products reviewed on our site I would be happy to start off with a test review: you will send a product and if you would like it returned I would be happy to do so. This would be in good faith that if you agree with how the review was done you allow us to review more products and my staff gets too keep them for compensation (after the review is done and posted online)….”

Aside from the glaring grammatical errors, there seems to be something intrinsically wrong with the way this person is going about soliciting reviews. To be clear, the concept of manufacturers allowing reviewers to keep gear is pretty common, especially if it involves a reference system or the product is unusable afterwards. However, being asked up front to “compensate” a reviewer for doing a job the media outlet should be paying them for doesn’t exactly foster an atmosphere of impartial thinking.

I’m not naive, I know money is often at the root and most publications wouldn’t think of skewering their top advertisers with majorly critical editorial or reviews. That said, when the onus is put on manufacturers to compensate the press DIRECTLY, without any layers in between, it reeks of desperation and gives the impression that an outlet can’t afford to pay it’s writers.

In a perfect world, everything would be done in good faith, Walt Mossberg would be calling me daily to get the scoop on my client’s happenings and my 2000 Camry wouldn’t have a stupid cracked windshield or missing hubcap.

While it’s tempting to trade product for editorial, we Flaks must remain vigilant in determining who is there to inform readers vs. stock their home with gadgets. It’s possible to do both, but if anyone asks you to compensate their staff, it’s probably best to forge on elsewhere.

Posted by: Nick