Offering Journalists Products for Review: Proceed at Your Own Risk

got-ethicsCompared to 1980, publicists now outnumber journalists by 6:1, according to research conducted by Jamil Jonna.

This is not really surprising, considering how the explosion of the internet and digital media has revolutionized the definition of journalism. No longer does being a journalist only mean attending at minimum a four-year university and working your way up the chain in a traditional print publication house, such as The New York Times or The Boston Globe. Rather, the line between bloggers and journalists is blurred, and seemingly anyone who has a web property is dubbing him or herself a “journalist”.

With the rise of digital publicists – especially now that the group encompasses not only traditional PR firms, but also search marketing “outreachers” and “link builders” – brands need to be more careful than ever. One wrong pitch and your company can be plastered all over a big media site, leaving a brand reputation nightmare on your hands when a journalist publicly digs into you for unethically tampering with the news.

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument and highlight ways you can avoid pissing off journalists.

The Issue

Journalists Follow a Code of Ethics…

Journalists take extreme pride in their craft, and as such, take ethics very seriously. Most journalists follow some form of an “ethics code”, which always includes a section forbidding journalists to accept gifts or bribes.

For example, here is an excerpt from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:

Act Independently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

…While Publicists Want to Leverage Product Reviews for Coverage

Publicists’ main focus is getting their clients coverage, particularly coverage that is favorable. Many of their clients have products and services at their disposal.

Pair access to these goods with the innate desire for free stuff, and you have a match made in heaven – publicists can motivate publishers to provide coverage while the publisher walks away with free gear. A win/win situation some would say.

This Causes Misaligned Motives…

However, notice the SPJ’s Code of Ethics above encompasses conflict of interest that is either real or perceived. In the strictest case then, this makes accepting product to review – whether the journalist plans to give a positive or negative opinion – forbidden. Journalists’ sole function is to report on the news because people have the right to know, and this reporting should be free of bias.

Publicists, on the other hand, are trying to do a job that is only a few steps above cold-call selling. Their job is to figure out how to get coverage, and fast.

Why wouldn’t they give away product if the success rate for earning coverage is extremely higher than just saying, “I work for so-and-so, hope you’ll consider writing about them?” Publicists are measured on successes, not whether a journalist is doing his/her job and being “ethical”. Most publicists won’t think twice about offering product for review if it means being able to report on more wins at the end of the day.

…But Where Is the Line Really Drawn?

What’s interesting is that, remember, the line between journalism and blogging in this digital age is extremely blurred. These lines have blurred so much, in fact, that most traditional journalism publications have blogs (example 1, example 2, example 3).

Some of these publications are even getting ousted for link building tactics, and some industries (like the food critic industry) as a whole struggle to keep journalists “honest” and not accepting free products for review.

Hell, the FTC even updated its guidelines to include blogger reviews and The Huffington Post (remember, it’s a blog) just won The Pulitzer Prize.

Why highlight the blogger vs. journalist debate? Because product reviews are a hit among the blogosphere. And with the merging of these two forms of media, so too are product reviews showing up on digital publications that you’d think the journalists’ code of ethics would deem unreviewable (example 1, example 2, example 3 – all of which are unclear if the author received the product for free or not).

How to Avoid Violating Journalists’ Code of Ethics

Research the Publishers’ Past Articles

First, ask yourself, “Does this person characterize him or herself as a journalist?” If so, the chance of him taking offense to your request to conduct a review is higher. If you’re unsure, check out bios, LinkedIn, and other social profiles that show publications and groups he has joined. If you notice a lot of traditional journalism newspapers and groups, you might want to steer clear.

In addition, and probably most importantly, check out his/her past articles. Are they opinion based, or more hard news? Do a quick search to see if he/she has done any reviews. If so, put that into your pitch so that there is some context to why you are contacting him/her in the first place!

Explicitly Say You Want an Honest Review

Your first pitch should make it clear that you are looking for an honest review. By clearly stating that you are not trying to blatantly influence what the recipient says about your client or brand, you are putting it out there right away that you are hoping this doesn’t influence their opinions. This can temper a journalist’s initial “how dare she!” reaction and maybe even get him to consider it.

Also, before you even begin pitching, manage your boss/client’s expectations and explain that reviews are risky. You cannot guarantee someone will write a positive review, and frankly, you shouldn’t.

Don’t Demand Links

Many search marketers try to use reviews as a way to build links. However, not only does asking or requiring links for the review come off as confrontational and like you are trying to influence the news, it also is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Just don’t do it.

Encourage a Disclaimer

Remember the FTC requires site owners to disclose any affiliation with a product they are reviewing. In addition, disclaimers align with the journalists’ interest in disclosing conflicts of interest. Thus, beat the recipient of your pitch to the punch and suggest he disclose that you provided him with the product.

When In Doubt, Get On the Phone

Remember, you don’t have to pitch via email. Pick up the phone if you’re unsure. This will allow you to gauge the journalist’s personality and stance on reviews quicker. It will also help you avoid a paper trail where you may unintentionally say something that offends the journalist enough to publish it.


Most journalists operate under a strict code of ethics that forbid them to participate in product reviews. As such, if you’re a search marketer turning to reviews for mass media coverage, you may be looking in the wrong place.

Reviews are typically best suited for bloggers who make it very clear via a disclaimer that they accept products for editorial consideration. However, whether pitching a journalist or a blogger, you should know these ethical standards and ensure to approach product reviews from an angle with the least chance of risk.

Photo courtesy of Bigstock Photo

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