News & views | Does complimentary mean complimentary these days?

News & views

Does complimentary mean complimentary these days?

This week has seen the latest spat in the long-running restaurant critic v blogger debate with the Observer's Jay Rayner getting stuck into bloggers and bloggers revealed as asking for freebies in return for a positive review, according to this report in the Indy.

I’ve my own personal take on this having reviewed restaurants for years, some of which I’ve paid for, some not (but declared) and reckon it’s perfectly possible to write an objective review even when you’re not paying.

The interesting development though is that PRs increasingly don’t like it. They would much rather offer a free meal to a new blogger who might write a positive review than an experienced writer who’s not afraid to highlight flaws in the dining experience.

How do I know? Because I indavertently received this email about me from a PR to a client on which I was mistakenly copied in.

"Well, she [that’s me] can be tricky, I have to admit. Several PRs have told me that they have allowed her to come in early then she slams them and complains about food and service. [This seems something of an exaggeration if you read my reviews] She is so picky about teensy details. [Er, as I should be . . . ]

So am I now on some kind of PR blacklist? I sometimes wonder when I read that bloggers I haven’t even heard of have visited restaurants I haven't received any information about yet I have a regular restaurant review slot and a website that’s read by tens of thousands of people every month.

So why don’t I just pay myself? Well, sometimes I do - and perhaps I now should - but I’d always thought the fact that I was eating at the invitation of the restaurant didn’t carry a price tag in terms of a favourable review. Now it seems that complimentary needs to mean complimentary in both senses of the word.

(Don’t think by the way that professional critics don’t get special treatment. Even if they book under a false name they’re recognised immediately and you can bet the staff in a restaurant will bend over backwards to make sure they have a good time.)

The only way you can be sure of having a similar experience to the average punter is for no-one to recognise you which is why the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin so fiercely guards her anonymity.

Restaurants take time to bed in it's true - but as soon as they're formally open and charging full price they’re fair game for any of us - professional writers or bloggers (and there are good examples of both - see my follow-up post 'There are bloggers and bloggers . . . ') After all theatre critics don't hold fire until a play has been running for several weeks. And music critics judge performers on a single gig. Restaurants - and PRs - should be a little less sensitive.

Pic of Le Train Bleu in Paris which I haven't reviewed but can recommend for a cup of tea and a plate of macarons . . .

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Comments: 18 (Add)

Fiona Beckett on March 21 2014 at 11:21

@PR girl - good to have some feedback from a PR - particularly one who appreciates that criticism is seldom malicious merely an attempt to report what a customer might well experience and help them weigh up whether it's the kind of restaurant that would appeal to them.

@ishitaun - you're right. It's complicate. I think we all grapple with trying to get the balance right!

PR girl on March 17 2014 at 21:47

I work in PR (in-house) and have always preferred to receive an honest review rather than a fluff piece. If there is constructive criticism, it can often help the restaurant address a potential issue and try to avoid in the future.

Perhaps the pressure on agency PRs to please their client can lead to a different approach with press.

It's also worth remembering that negative comments can be left by the public too via Twitter/Facebook/TripAdvisor, so it's impossible to control opinions. Restaurants and PRs need to have confidence and work with writers in a truthful way.

IshitaUnblogged on March 17 2014 at 05:29

Many valid and interesting points raised here Fiona. And sometimes the boundaries are too subtle. I declare whether I have paid for a meal or not, but generally don't write a review when there are many negatives to write and I write back to the PRs. Probably that is because of the restrictive nature of the region where I blog from. And if I choose to publish my review, it would be because I have had a good experience mostly but I would write down the cons irrespective of who paid my bills. I am perceived as an independent blogger with a voice, and it is sad to see that slowly the PR companies are not liking that anymore. But I don't care because 1) my readers trust me and 2) I would have anyway gone to eat in that restaurant out of my own accord.

What saddens me is that if a few bloggers start losing their integrity, the whole community would be perceived as 'sold out'.

Fiona Beckett on March 16 2014 at 21:11

Absolutely. Important to be open and transparent - and to keep on asking yourself if you really are.

What Kate Baked on March 16 2014 at 19:20

I also reckon that most people look at a variety of sources these days before making up their mind, be it about a hotel, restaurant or a film. even if one review has the hall prints of a PR positive spin on it, hopefully opinion is drawn from a variety of (unbiased, truthful) sources. At the end of the day, honesty is imperative, bloggers should be fair to their readers, disclosing any connections with PRs, sponsored posts or freebies.

Fiona Beckett on March 15 2014 at 12:23

@nick Absolutely true but doesn't address main point of post which is whether you can legitimately review a comped restaurant visit. No reason why you can't be entertaining about it (if you have the skill - but that's another matter)

Nick on March 14 2014 at 17:49

A good review is not so much about the food as entertainment. People living in, say, York are not reading the review because they intend going to that hip eatery in Hoxton but because the best restaurant critics are writers first and food critics second.

Gill, Coren, Williams all being good examples. I'd read them if they were only reviewing the telephone directory

Fiona Beckett on March 14 2014 at 17:33

@Fiona Maclean Thanks! I also don't deliberately seek out places I suspect I won't like but often find places are uneven. Some dishes good, some not so hot. Some simply bad value for money I think it's fair enough to point out the defects

@Daniel Young - thanks, Dan :)

Fiona Beckett on March 14 2014 at 17:26

Well it probably isn't but I try to keep up the tone ;-) Rest of the comment was spot on!

Nick Harman on March 14 2014 at 17:20

Hah Fiona, I don't think gratuitously insulting someone is actually libellous. It's fair comment, legally speaking. And in this case, I would have thought it was also objectively true. But I appreciate the dilemma it puts you in.

A well known restaurant critic once told me that he/she actually sought out places that were terrible because it was obligatory once every few weeks to write that kind of review. To show 'teeth' as he/she put it.

Fiona Maclean - London Unattache on March 14 2014 at 17:15

Nice piece, as always. It's very convenient for journos to forget that the bill is not actually from their own salary and that their 'fame' might actually buy them different treatment to the general public.

It seems to be assumed that all papers and magazines pay their own bills every time. In many ways bloggers, most of whom disclose any comped meals, are more ethical than those magazines who accept comps and never disclose (I know of many online and at least one print). Personally I like to be critical, but only accept hospitality if I think I stand a good chance of enjoy the experience. If a comped meal is resoundingly dreadful I will generally contact the PR before writing. So perhaps my blog reviews look too positive? It's a tough call - but since as a blogger I'm not paid to be there, I don't want to accept something I think I won't enjoy...

Daniel Young on March 14 2014 at 16:04

Very intelligent, thoughtful post, Fiona.

When not admiring themselves in the mirror the holier-than-thou paid critics bash the bloggers. The bloggers, in turn, turn their wrath on the 20-something PRs. The PRs then go after, well, you.

Fiona Beckett on March 14 2014 at 15:37

@Kavey - great contribution to the debate - thank you so much. As you say it's all about the readers. You try and give them an honest insight into the meal you've had so they can make up their mind whether it's worth spending their money there.

Fiona Beckett on March 14 2014 at 15:21

@ Sally. Interesting questions:

Do you think bloggers are in general less professional than those who write for conventional media? Not all by any means but many are less experienced - and less willing to be frank about any flaws

PRs are accountable to their clients and under a lot of pressure to get positive coverage - Fair point - I'm sure that happens

I wonder if they ask bloggers how many visits they get?
Am guessing not!

@ May "You don't always get the best service or food even when you have been invited to review" Another good point.

Kavey on March 14 2014 at 15:18

Really glad to read your measured and sensible response, Fiona.

I found Jay's comments somewhat petulant and not a little juvenile and wondered a the time if he wasn't trying to stir up an argumentative discussion, for a bit of profile building? Controversy sells, doesn't it and it's not like this debate hasn't been raised (by him and others) again so many times before.

As for the points you raise - as a blogger who prides herself on writing honest, fair reviews I do, of course, agree with you that it is perfectly possible to write objectively and honestly about a complimentary meal as well as one you pay for.

I am not so desperate for freebies that a misplaced sense of gratitude for a comped meal causes me to lose my sense of judgement, nor convinces me that something I would criticise if I were paying is actually alright after all, since it's free!

My loyalty is to those who take the time to read my blog, and who put value in my recommendations. It is not to the restaurants or their PRs. I would never wish a reader to spend their hard-earned cash visitnig somewhere on the back of my review, only to be utterly disappointed, because I failed to be honest about the flaws and they got a better impression of it than it merited.

I agree with Nick on the rule to be honest but not spiteful or cruel. I'm not a fan of the growing tendency for reviewers to exaggerate such that everywhere they write about is either the most amazing place ever or almost comically poor. This doesn't often reflect my reality of eating out at all! It's the dreaded drive to entertain above all that is at play here, I think!

I must also agree with your experience that some PRs have started to favour inexperienced bloggers, and that the level of influence or size of one's audience doesn't seem to be taken into account. Certainly there are PRs who have talked the talk when it comes to being accepting of a negative review I've written about one of their clients, and that of course they encourage objectivity and honesty, but their ongoing actions make it clear that they'd rather chase a gushing review where they can find it.

Like you and many other blogger and journalists I respect, I'm not going to modify my morals just to court those PRs. If they find my reviews too picky, so be it. Let them go elsewhere for their client coverage!

Lastly, the idea that the (professional) journalistic body stands as one, peopled solely by ethical writers who are never swayed by comps, friendships or other factors as opposed to bloggers who are wholly a group of blagging, unethical PR-whores is frankly laughable.

I'm not suggesting that there are not those bloggers who lack ethics, who fail to declare comped meals or review samples, who seem to fawn about every free meal. Of course there are!

But there are also journalists who fall into the same category. Even those who may not accept comped meals often fail to declare interests of family or friends working for the restaurant being reviewed, or other issues that impact on their objectivity.

And as we've seen, there are journos who blag just as much as the minority of bloggers do.

Oh and one more thing - it's considered an industry standard in many fields of journalism for journalists to write about comped experiences - just look at the majority of travel mags, newspaper travel supps and other travel content to see that in action! I'm not sure why it would be any different for the food industry?

Fiona Beckett on March 14 2014 at 15:16

Have edited the following comment from Nick to make sure he doesn't get into trouble with the lawyers. Here's the cleaned up version!

I have eaten 'free' meals for Foodepedia and I have met you (and the Observer Food Editor and his family) on free hotel visits. None of us have written anything after that is not the truth, I don't believe and I have never had a PR complain about my review.

The only rule I follow is to be honest but not spiteful or cruel. That is the only obligation I feel under. But I feel that way even when I have paid for the meal myself.

Any restaurant critic who has his or her photo next to their piece will never review anonymously. Pointless to pretend otherwise.

May on March 14 2014 at 14:58

Jay is on his high horse again.

I've done numerous reviews, both as a guest and on my own dime too. I always write about my own personal experience and unless it's very bad, I will let the PRs know beforehand.

You don't always get the best service or food even when you have been invited to review.

Sally Cox on March 14 2014 at 12:33

Good piece. Do you think bloggers are in general less professional than those who write for conventional media?

One must surely pity those prepared to sing for their supper i.e. prepared to write a positive review in exchange for food instead of money. On the other hand, PRs are accountable to their clients and under a lot of pressure to get positive coverage. I wonder if they ask bloggers how many visits they get.

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