Unhealthy relationships: PR, bloggers and the media

  • Samsung apparently strands two bloggers in Berlin for not toeing the company line
  • Brings up disturbing insights into how companies engage bloggers, and the media too

Unhealthy relationships: PR, bloggers and the mediaTHE big news on Monday (Sept 3) was from TheNextWeb (TNW) which broke a story on how Korean tech giant Samsung had stranded two bloggers – Clinton Jeff and another who had requested anonymity -- in Berlin for essentially not drinking the company Kool-Aid.

It makes for interesting, if disturbing, reading. The gist of it: Samsung had flown the two India-based bloggers, part of the company’s ‘Mob!lers’ blogger outreach program, to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer electronics trade show there.

The bloggers had informed Samsung that they would go there as “reporters” and not promoters. When they refused to don a Samsung uniform and participate in some of the fanboy-ish activities, a PR-challenged flunkey threatened the two,

According to TNW’s report, Jeff said, “We got a call from Samsung India saying ‘You can either be a part of this and wear the uniform, or you’ll have to get your own tickets back home and handle your hotel stay from the moment this call ends …’ ”

Unhealthy relationships: PR, bloggers and the mediaThey were stranded in a foreign land. Samsung rival Nokia has come to the duo’s rescue.

Oh, what a public relations disaster! TNW updated the story later with a Samsung response: “Samsung Mob!lers is a voluntary community of active Samsung mobile device users, who are offered the opportunity to participate in our marketing events across the world. At these events, all activities they undertake are on a voluntary basis. No activities are forced upon them.

“We regret there was a misunderstanding between the Samsung Mob!lers coordinators and the relevant blogger, as we understand he was not sufficiently briefed on the nature of Samsung Mob!lers’ activities at IFA 2012. We have been attempting to get in touch with him.

“We respect the independence of bloggers to publish their own stories.”

What is truly disturbing however is what the incident has unearthed, especially if one reads the conversation that follows in the comments section. It has shown up an unhealthy relationship between large corporations, in trying to tame and harness that web and social media animal, have with bloggers – and how bloggers are generally okay with it. [Don’t worry, bloggers – I also have a few choice words for my fellow journalists as well later in this commentary!]

TNW reported that Jeff went to Berlin under the impression he was free to act as a “reporter,” but it turns out that the Mob!lers initiative has two categories of bloggers, “Reporters” and outright “Promoters.” Another India-based blogger, Amit Bhawani, writes that even “Reporters” have certain obligations under the Mob!lers program, including wearing Samsung t-shirts and what-not.

They’re not reporter-reporters, if you know what I mean. Jeff was not flown there as an independent “reporter,” but as a “Reporter” under the Mob!lers program. It was just a question of what promotions he would undertake for the company while there – it was a matter of degree, not kind.

Bloggers are individuals. They don’t have a media organization funding them, so the only way to cover some events, or to get the latest products for review, is to agree to take part in such ambassadorial or seeding programs.

The problem really arises when the companies, in trying to guarantee a return on their investment, impose conditions – You must post about this feature. You must attend the dinner. You must take pictures using our camera, then write about your experience.

And the bloggers feel they have no choice but to do so – how else would they get to travel to faraway places like Berlin, to cover a major trade show; or get their hands on that cool new product so that they can run it through its paces?

Can you blame the bloggers? Can you blame the companies for trying this? On whose shoulders does the burden of ethics and integrity lie?

And, more importantly for my own profession, what happens if it’s not a blogger but a journalist involved?

Ever since my colleague Karamjit Singh wrote his commentary Are journalists so special? questioning the practice of some companies in providing media prices and discounts, as well as special treatment for journalists, there have been a lot of conversations about media ethics and objectivity, especially when it comes to technology journalism.

We even discussed it with Freda Liu on the Digital News Asia (DNA) segment in local business radio BFM’s Tech Talks show [click here for the podcast]. Yes, he and I don’t see entirely eye-to-eye on this – we both agree on the need for more ethical conduct on both sides, but I also note that, as with the situation above, it can be a matter of degree, not kind.

A small media organization that does a lot of reviews, for instance, may need media prices because it could be the only way it can afford those products. Since they are small, the company concerned may not offer them a unit on loan for review purposes.

DNA does not do product reviews, so we can afford to make a stand and refuse media prices. Other outlets may not have this luxury.

What about a cadet reporter working for a cash-strapped organization who gets a smartphone – fast becoming an essential part of the reporter’s arsenal? Can he afford to say no?

What about door gifts or freebies? Is accepting a notepad and a pen at a press event okay? How about lunch at an exclusive restaurant with that CEO? What about a thumb drive which contains the media kit and other material that would help the journalist do his or her story? At what price-point do we draw the line?

What about trips? We’re not talking about junkets, which are already questionable, but when a company flies you to cover a press conference or even a convention overseas.

In fact, in the wake of Karam’s editorial, Singapore-based tech journalism veteran David Chieng cheekily tweeted @DNewsAsia asking whether we bore the cost sending our colleague Edwin Yapp over to cover VMworld 2012 in San Francisco.

He has a point, actually. I know that many media organizations in the West refuse such invitations. If that conference or convention is worth covering, they will bear the cost of flying and housing their own journalist there.

However, most media organizations in the developing world can ill-afford to do so. The exchange rate itself will kill you, even without taking into account the fact that the entire exercise may cost more than what the average reporter makes in one year. Declining such invitations means missing out on the story – something that riles up any journalist, I can tell you!

So, are we journalists then any different from the bloggers who are asked to act as company shills?

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