Liveblog: Food Blogger Ethics in a Post-FTC Guidelines World

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Values - Blogger Ethics: What are your rights and responsibilities, especially in a post-FTC Guidelines world?."

Elisa Camahort Page BlogHer cofounder

Brooke Burton of FoodWoolf, co-author of Food Blog Code of Ethics

Kathy Strahs of Panini Happy

Carolyn Jung of Food Gal

ELISA- Carolyn, you come from traditional journalist background but you're also very committed blogger. Tell us about the halcyon days when there was less gray area and less citizen participation in writing about food?

CAROLYN - I was a career newspaper reporter. The newspaper industry has gone through tremendous dramatic changes and a lot of us have had to reinvent ourselves. We've been in the mentality that you write and report something, give it to your editor, gets copy edited by another editor, goes into a paper, the paper has ads sold by another department and the two never mix. When I started blogging that went out of the window. I am now my own HR, Marketing, Finance, Sales department. There was a big mindshift from that. As a reporter I got many things for free - fabulous trips to food festivals, $500 mixers, and I would say no and it pained me but those were the ethics of the paper. Now I juggle many different viewpoints because of my situation. As a freelancer I work for several online and print publications; each of them has its own set of guidelines -- not even across mediums but publication by publication.

ELISA - Have mags already been different from newspapers?

CAROLYN - Yes. Goody bags for mag writers at Fashion Week were huge and filled with clothes; goody bags for newspaper reporters were tiny because they weren't allowed to accept anything. So yes, mags always operated differently but all mags are different. And as a blogger I can decide now, which was hard. So now I decide - if I accept this, does it have intrinsic value? Will it teach my readers something of value?

ELISA - If you went to a restaurant or trip before, the paper reimbursed you. It's all about who's paying.

CAROLYN - I wasn't a critic, my face could be known and I interacted with chefs, etc, so I went to restaurant openings. But I always paid for something. Hosted media dinners -- I would ask to get some kind of check and leave a minimal amount plus generous tip, which the paper would reimburse me for.

ELISA - BlogHer 06 had a media lunch, the print papers came and paid for their lunch.

CAROLYN - Those rules have relaxed recently because print pubs are hurting so much. Advertising isn't supporting, your budgets are cut, you can't reimburse as much as you want.

ELISA - Does a comp subconsciously influence us?

CAROLYN - Yes, we're all nice people and when people are kind to you, you want to be kind back. I desperately try to fight that because of my training in objectivity. I tell compers up front I'm willing to try it but I won't guarantee that I'll write about it, and if I do write it I'm going to be honest about it. For the most part, people are cognizant and open to that. They want to learn too.

COMMENT - STEPHANIE O'Dea of A Year in Slow Cooking: If I don't like it, I won't write about it.

CAROLYN - In terms of restaurant reviews, the way they operate is that if they go to a mom and pop place and it's horrible they don't want to put a family out of work. If it's chain or high profile, they'll write about how bad it is with no qualms.

ELISA - The perception is that traditional journalists would never say "I won't write that" -- interesting.

CAROLYN - If it's mostly positive except for some few things, they'll write it. But if it's small and bad, why do that to them. Michael Bauer gave a 0-star review recently to the huge superexpensive chain Morton's Steakhouse - fair game. He roasted it.

COMMENT: Anne-Marie - to the criticism that bloggers always write positive, I go out of my way to point out the things I don't like. My community has pressured me a little to come out with negativity in my reviews. I don't take products that I don't generally like though.

ELISA - next up is Brooke at Food Woolf who pitched a panel about ethnics for last year. She is behind the Food Blog Code of Ethics. What's your background, why did you want to write about ethics, and how did the FTC Guidelines align with what you had been thinking?

BROOKE - I'm a restaurant professional, when my writing partner Leah Greenstein and I decided to write this, I was a waiter and she was a former resto manager, we found that whenever we announced ourselves as food bloggers to our restaurant friends they were very negative -- there was an odd connection they made between food bloggers and Yelp reviewers in our community. It was important for me to say b/c I am a restaurant professional who went to j-school, that I stand up for my own standards. We had one Yelper in mind who was the kind of Yelper that would go to a mom and pop restaurant and get excited about bashing them to get a buzz for himself. We felt it's OK to be hyper critical but you need to be accountable for the words you say and transparent about who your friends are and who's paying your check.

We listed 5 things - be civil, be accountable, disclose who paid, disclose relationships, don't hide behind the veil of anonymity. We weren't going to use our blog as a weapon to get stuff. We wrote it, put it up on Thursday, on Monday I got a call from Leah saying, "Do you know we're in the New York Times?" It was a time when a lot of people were asking, "Who are we doing this for?" It went viral and was beautiful that we were starting this conversation. We got attacked by people who accused us of trying to take away their freedom of speech. There was a lot of fear -- "how dare you tell me how to write my blog?" But it was not telling them what to do, it was what WE did. At first we made a badge and people were infuriated that if they didn't get the badge they would appear unethical. So the badge was a bad idea and we just offered people to sign our petition.

ELISA - In 2007 Kathy Sierra, a prominent woman technologist, got harassed by troll commenters. She moderated her comments so it wasn't on her blog, but she was harassed in an evil way. She decided to blog about it which sparked the same exact conversation about a code of conduct for the web, with the same fallout about badging. These things recur, the food bloggers may not have known that the tech bloggers had gone through that. That's why we've never advocated one code of conduct at BLogHEr. There's obviously not one code of conduct on the Internet.

ELISA - Kathy of Panini Happy, you make panini and you need a panini maker. I'm curious about your background, what were you coming into it from? These two are journalist/food pros -- what is your background?

KATHY - I'm business background, I'm a marketer. I always did yearbook in school, not journalism. Why a panini blog? I got a panini maker, and didn't want it to go to waste and I wanted to make lots of sandwiches. I just made my 100th.

ELISA: When it became clear marketers wanted to give you Panini makers, did you give the same kind of thought about transparency, receiving things for free as these two did?

KATHY: About 6 months into doing my blog I realized I'd really love to give away Panini makers, I talk about mine all the time, wouldn't it be fun to start giving these $150 things away? I couldn't fund it myself. Put my marketer hat on, thinking my audience was a targeted group of people so I reached out and they were more than happy to work with me. I didn't even propose a review, just a giveaway; I have since reviewed a couple. To be entertaining on my blog was my main motivation.

ELISA - did the FTC guidelines change how you executed?

KATHY - No; I have always disclosed. T,here have always been rules for marketers about stuff like email; I don't perceive readers as customers but I have always understood how my words can be received an d that I needed to be accountable. I always said "X Company provided this." I was glad to see the guidelines in place; they shed light on the issue of freebies.

ELISA - It shed light that compensation doesn't have to be cash.

BROOKE - We're STILL the Wild West in blogging, a lot of people are still trying to figure it out. The FTC guidelines announced a speed limit and people are finally thinking about how to drive their cars. There are people who are just starting to understand their responsibility. Every time I disclose it's a high five to the FTC.

ELISA - Is every blogger a citizen journalist? How many of you really blog for yourself and aren't aware of your traffic? Is this for just a segment of the blogosphere?

BROOKE - The food blog code of ethics had zero readers on Thursday and a million on Monday. We didn’t intend to be citizen journalists -- you could be an influencer just by a good Stumble.

ELISA - who doesn't think all bloggers should act like citizen journalists?

COMMENT - I don't know if citizen journalist is the right way to do it but unless you are password protecting your blog people will find it. I think "Be Civil" from the Code of Ethics is something everyone needs to do. You brought up Kathy Sierra -- you can't apply the same code of ethics to every blog … but "Be Civil," you can.

ELISA - I used to follow Yahoo Finance message boards and they were…foul. Crazy.

COMMENT - I'll say this in a devil's advocate way -- Everyone should do the right thing. When the FTC Guidelines came out I thought, "Duh," why wouldn't I be transparent; my audience trusts me. But my daughter is 11. If she started a blog, what would be important is her learning how to write and cook. I have the don't say anything bad rule on my blog because I don't want to impact someone's livelihood. When I give something away and there's an implicit endorsement, THEN you have to do the right thing. That's nit picky.

ELISA - When the guidelines came out, I also thought "Why wouldn't you disclose?" I push back on this notion that every person has to live up to some code. Does "impact someone else" include hurting people's feelings with your writing?

COMMENT - Most people here are conscientious adults trying to put their best foot forward. My other job was creating YouTube videos for brands. YouTube comments are a free for all. What are we teaching the younger generation? That's a dilemma.

ELISA - in 2007 when we talked about should there be a code? There's not a code for the internet but every blog publisher should have a code. You set the tone for your blog, your site. YouTube is endorsing this behavior.

COMMENT - I was annoyed by FTC. I don't like being governed by the government. Let us set a bar and believe in us to do the right thing.

ELISA - Did this topic surfacing to the general conversation about blogging make people more suspicious of bloggers, or give the blogosphere credibility? I see tweets that say "not sponsored" and think that's sad.

KATHY - I think "not sponsored" is sad and I don't feel direct pressure but when I see tweets and I know someone has had a paid relationship with the company in the past and it doesn't say sponsored -- I'm put off by that.

ELISA - we had Stacey Ferguson from the FTC at BlogHer '10 and that came up - what if your paid relationship was done but the relationship with the brand started due to a comp and that's why she likes it so much? Stacey said it was a gray area -- you can't tell someone not to like something. That's why it's a case by case basis according to the FTC.

CAROLYN - I feared being perceived as selling out. I get invited to a lot of comped dinners and I state they're comped in my write-ups. I thought if people read this and saw that I was doing it they'd go, "oh, yeah, she eats for free everywhere." I'm not sure why, I guess people know my background, I've established a level of trust. When I look at other blogs I'm grateful when they reveal that kind of information. If you're just a regular person and reading about someone eating tasting menus with wine pairings every week and it's not disclosed, you wonder how that can happen. One thing that I personally don't like is when I read a story and people are quoting all these statistics and don't source them. You disclose where your information comes from and that gives it and you credibility. For people afraid of disclosing, I would ask them why.

ELISA - My favorite thing to say in internet debate: "Please provide your cite." If they don't have one, they go away and never come back.

ELISA - I'm a vegan and when I tell people that the first thing they do is look at my shoes -- they want to catch me.

BROOKE - I feel my own set of alarms going off reading my own writing and checking myself against my own code. I am getting pingbacks now by people creating their own codes as responses to our code. The stand we made drew a line in the sand that traditional media saw - "bloggers that stood up for the restaurant critic" said the Columbia Journalism Review, "maybe the future of restaurant criticism isn't dead."

COMMENT - I'm in PR, the FTC guidelines were great for our industry to know how to be clear when we're pitching. We have to be very transparent even with my personal Twitter handle. As a blogger reporter how do you all feel about branded items on a menu or in a recipe -- in a restaurant or a blog post?

KATHY - My other blog is Cooking on the Side -- on the side of the package. I have a whole blog of recipes from boxes. When I put the recipe on the blog, I attribute it absolutely but I take the brand out of the recipe directions itself. I'm not paid to put these on there, I figure that attribution is enough. I purposely use recipes that don't require an ingredient unique to one brand.

ELISA - I would assume a restaurant or blogger would be paid.

BROOKE - Cowgirl Creamery is an example. I create relationships with farmers and food artisans. I put them on the menu because the cheese has brand recognition.

ELISA - You're buying from them; they're not paying you.

KATHY - In a restaurant it's a selling point, like Niman Ranch beef.

CAROLYN - It's the snob factor too. Kraft announcing a new cheese is different than Cowgirl Creamery releasing a new cheese. They're local, artisan.

COMMENT - Penny Kitchen Coach - I've written recipes and about food professionally for 35 years, cookbook author and mag editor. The policy is you take out brand names but at times, like when I wrote a drinks book, I can't just say "orange liqueur" if they taste so different. You have to use a high quality brand. It seems awkward to say "1 oz high quality orange liqueur" -- some people think Triple Sec is high quality. In my experience I will make exceptions for clarity. Now I am concerned people will assume Cointreau pays me.

BROOKE - there are certain bourbons I think are better. I will say "use Brand X, my preferred bourbon, or a bourbon of your choice."

ELISA - Elana of Elana's pantry is gluten free and uses almond flour. She is starting a relationship with the almond board that came out of her stating her preference and now she does have that relationship -- that's unique to bloggers.

BROOKE - I think it's great. If you're open about it -- I only use almond flour; I am gluten free; I happened to build a relationship with the almond board. That's open, transparent, branded.

ELISA - That's what celebrities do. They're endorsers.

BROOKE - maybe "Citizen journalist" is the wrong word. Maybe it's "citizen publisher."

CAROLYN - the world is changing so much. When I left the paper I wondered if the restaurant publicists would not consider me legitimate but they told me "oh no, there are so few staff food writers that publicists are purposely reaching out to bloggers." Those are the people with the audience.

KATHY - From the almond board's perspective, makes more sense to align with a passionate existing blogger with audience than to start a blog of their own. Word of mouth is more trusted than brand sites.

ELISA - We're releasing new data on shopping and the internet. What sort of messages have the most influence -- every choice from a regular person, even a customer testimonial on a corporate website, ranked higher than company language. This is what people report they believe, when it comes to how they act (if everyone's ignoring email marketing, then why am I getting so much email?). But this is how people self-report as behaving.

COMMENT - Steph O'Dea - with disclosure and blogger vs traditional journalist. When I write it's as if I write to my friends. I'm going to tell my friends OMG I got this refrigerator! Because I'm psyched I got it for free. I have a nitty gritty question about accepting things -- how do you report in taxes? I have been sending everything to the tax person -- are there percentages you need to follow?

ELISA - Don't know, you'd need a tax person. But I know it's taxable

COMMENT - Steph - Also, do I need to disclose Amazon affiliate links in parentheses?

BROOKE - I link to Amazon but don't get money for it.

COMMENT - Steph - I have an affiliate account, assume everyone else does too. You can't make money on your own account so you may as well help your friends.

BROOKE - how about putting it on your about page instead of parenthetically disclosing?

ELISA - From the FTC's perspective it's a gray area. But I know their real goal is to maek sure that brands especially, and sometimes marketers, are acting transparently. First case was Ann Taylor; they didn't take action. Second was a company called Reverb in which the employees didn't disclose. Their goal is not to go after bloggers.

BROOKE - just the announcement puts people on notice; just the awareness brings up questions like "isn't that wrong?"

KATHY - email to bloggers now says "if you choose to participate please be aware of our blogger guidelines"

COMMENT - MyBlogSpark and TwitterMoms reach out to bloggers, they both have very specific dos and don'ts and specific language they want you to use. Local food purveyors and restaurants DON'T have language about transparency. Happily most of us are in social media and remind one another, but I don't think people on the small business scale yet understand that we have to say "I was fed for free."

ELISA - MyBLogSpark is owned by General Mills. Also, though Kraft sponsored our BlogHer lunch today, you don't have to say Kraft provided the lunch if you tweet about liking it. The FTC cares about a material relationship in brands are targeting specific bloggers for comps.

COMMENT - I'm in PR, new guidelines have come out - many bloggers now ask first, "Will you pay me?" That's a huge trend. I rep big brands that can afford this and small brands who can't. I've been doing media relations for 15 years. You've always sent mags products and they always write about them and never return them.

ELISA - they get paid by the publisher.

COMMENT - yes, but what's the right way to approach bloggers who don't get paid by the publisher? Advertorial and editorial has always been church and state. But there is product integration, placement on TV. Martha Stewart's famous for it.

ELISA - and people are not aware of that either, I don't think. And if Martha gets paid big bucks for this stuff why can't bloggers get paid $50?

COMMENTS - there was a great event that bloggers couldn't blog about because they were under contract to other people and prohibited from talking about competing brands. You should be able to blog about whatever you want to blog.

ELISA - we all have a job where we don't get to do whatever we want. If they signed a contract they signed a contract, right?

CAROLYN - Personally I get a lot of stuff offered for free but I'm not going out and asking for things for free. We all struggle to make money on our blogs and it would be great to get paid what the writing is worth. But when people are demanding $100 for product writeup, that's advertising. That's different than a free sample for review.

ELISA - there's a difference between sending samples to media where they have a choice to write it. Some bloggers are promoters, not journalists, and if that's well identified, what is the problem except that we're not used to it.

CAROLYN - you need to say advertorial.

ELISA - and so does Martha and they get to say "special consideration provided by …" at the very end in small print. I don't think that's transparent at ALL. The FTC needs to address that.

I'm your liveblogger, Julie Ross Godar -- Email me with any questions!

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