Saturday, 7 February 2015

The controversy of food blogging

Something has been bothering me for a while, and that is how ethical and reliable can a blogger's restaurant review be when the meal is paid for and arranged by PR or the restaurant. Some bloggers are actually arrogant enough to command free meals from restaurants or write to PR companies to request freebies. This kind of behavior is unfortunately more common than people would expect. In March 2014, The Independent published an article "Gauthier Soho has ranted against 'food blaggers' - so can we really trust online reviews?" which documented a new wave of bloggers out there setting up their blogs purely trying to score some free meals one way or another. For me, this kind of attitude of wanting something for nothing has damage the reputation of food bloggers dearly. 

But is it just me or do the majority share my view? To try to address some of my doubt, I created a questionnaire and interviewed 200 people on the street on my lunch breaks, one single question and it was a simple yes and no: 

Would you find a blogger's restaurant review that was arranged by a PR company/ restaurant with a free complimentary meal less trustworthy than a blogger's review that was paid by the blogger and dined anonymously, and if it is a no, why?

Yes: 97% (194)

No: 3%(6)

And as expected, over 95% of the interviewees ticked yes and the remaining 5% stated that free complimentary meal reviews are only trustworthy if it is done by a blogger who has years of experience either in journalism or hospitality. 

Some bloggers stated that when it is a free complimentary meal review, to claim its honestly, they have a disclaimer to inform the readers that the meal was paid for by PR/ restaurants. But this raised another question, can you be brutally honest about your review? Would you not down play the negative and champion the positive to please the PR company that invited you in the hope of trying to get another invite in the future? Since I had my very first free invite two years ago, I figured out this could lead to a conflict of interest and decided not to give my complimentary meals any rating and sometimes I still feel that is not enough.

A common way for bloggers to disclose free meals

But let's assume if the blogger is professional enough and can come up with a totally honest review, is the average diner going to get the same cooking and treatment compared to the complimentary meals? From my experience, it would be a no. Some of my free complimentary meals, not only would I sometime be given bespoke menus, I even had the waiter inform me that I would get a better cut of a meat than what usual diners would normally get. Once I was taken to a tour of the kitchen, only to find out my order note to the chefs had a massive bracket written "VIP, please take extra care", gosh- part of me just died when I saw that, I decided that there was no way I would publish a review of that restaurant because clearly normal diners would not get the same kind of food so what is the point?

Lets look at the situation from the restaurant/PR point of view, the main agenda, to send out invites to bloggers is to gain positive reviews in the hope of the those reviews attracting new customers. As an account manager, you do whatever it takes to protect your client's reputation to make sure the client feels the investment is worthwhile. Running restaurants is a business after all, if you don't earn enough profit then you will fail to survival, one way to avoid this is to have as little negative reviews in the public domain as possible, so if that means instructing the restaurant manager to give out "special treatment" to bloggers to increase the chance of a positive review, so be it. 

There is a reason why most chefs in the world rate the Michelin Guide so highly, over any other bloggers and restaurant guides. The anonymous system ensures restaurants don't know when the inspectors are going to dine so therefore they simply can't prepare in advance or give out special treatment. Now I think about it, there seems to be one simple solution, restaurant owners, chefs, I encourage you all, to treat all diners as inspectors, no matter if they are bloggers, critics or customers who come in just for a set lunch. Treat them equally, win their hearts and turn them into repeat customers. It is hard work for sure but at the end of the day, it is the customers that pay the rent and wages, not bloggers who hunt for free meals. 

Inspiration and reference:

The Independent

Gauthier Soho has ranted against 'food blaggers' - so can we really trust online reviews?

London Piggy

When you’re a blogger, is there ever such a thing as a free lunch?

The food judge


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