EthicalVoices

The Ethics of Press Trips, Reviews and Affiliate Links – Scott Tharler

We’re doing something a little bit different this week. Joining me is Scott Tharler, an award-winning technology journalist. I first met him when I pitched him for a client, and we soon discovered we both went to Syracuse around the same time and had friends in common and wanted to talk about ethics.

Scott discusses a number of important ethics topics including.

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

My career has been about technology and about helping people make better decisions. And so, I’ve been on both sides of the fence – editorial and marketing.

I started off in advertising sales for IDG. From there, I bounced back and forth between marketing and editorial. We met when I was writing for Forbes and Fatherly, which is what I’m doing now. And I have accolades from Newsweek and Maxim and a lot of other places I’ve written.

I’ve been going to the Consumer Electronics Show. I think I’ve missed it two times in the last 25 years. So, I have a pretty good track record there. But the other hat that I’ve worn is in email marketing and doing demand generation and that sort of thing. I feel like I have a pretty good sense of writing for either a marketing or an editorial audience.

Thinking about that, from your marketing side and from the reporter side, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I think a lot of them are baked into the everyday, but press trips are a big one. That is where you get invited and this sounds really fun and cool and hey, of course I’d love to go. And how does that all work? Because it feels like they’re expecting some amount of coverage, which seems to make sense.

I had one, in particular, a couple of years ago. I was on stage with Aerosmith. It’s fun to just be able to say that phrase. I’m not much of a guitar player. I don’t sing per se. I was there, on the side stage, because a headphone company invited me. They said, “Okay, so do you have an assignment?” And I said, “To be honest, I don’t have an assignment.” I didn’t want to make it sound like I did, or I could guarantee that.

I went on the trip, and it turned out that I wasn’t able to write for them at the place that I was at the time. I felt really bad. I was very upfront, but it still felt a little messy. I got this really fun trip out of it. I actually wound up spending more time laid over in the Detroit airport than I did in Vegas for that trip. But it was fun to fly to Vegas, see Aerosmith, and then fly back.

The point is that you brought it up from the beginning. You said, “I’ll come, but I can’t guarantee I have coverage.” It’s just like if somebody’s inviting you, they should be making clear, we don’t expect you to write. We understand. We want to give an opportunity if it’s newsworthy. We hope you cover it down the road.

I try that too. Press trips only happen every once in a while, but more commonly it’s with review units, people sending me things to test.

To address this, first I ask do I need a review unit, and do I actually need to test it? Then what happens to the review unit after I’m done testing? Is it sitting on a shelf? Am I selling it? I talk to friends, and we have these ethical conversations like, “Well, it’s yours. You can do what you want with it.” I reply, “Yeah, but then it feels weird because I don’t want to get into a position where I’m requesting things with the thought that I’m going to sell it.” As soon as that enters my mind, then I can’t do it.

There have been a lot of times when folks will say, “We’d be happy to send you this if you review it.” And there’s just a slight tweak in how they say it. And as soon as they say it that way, I go, “Yeah, so now I can’t. I can’t do that. I can’t have you send it to me with the thought that I’m going to review it.” It has to be cleaner up front. There has to be a very clean exchange.  Because who knows, the company could go out of business, the internet could fall apart. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can never really guarantee coverage, but I do my best to be upfront, which I think is the key to the whole thing.

I had this very discussion with a student of mine at Boston University last night because she’s a local influencer, and people want to send her stuff. She wonders does she have to do a good review? If she says no, they won’t send her more stuff, and she wants more stuff. We had an interesting conversation around that.

From a PR point of view, when I’m sending a review unit to a reporter or an influencer, I’m always clear, “Here it is. If you’re doing a review, just please make sure how you got it.” Make sure that its clear we’ve sent you a review unit, so it’s not people thinking that Scott or somebody went out and bought it and loves it. They understand the company sent it to him. That typically meets most of the ethical issues that people have.

One of the ethical things is it’s obvious that if you send me something, I will consider it because I’m going to be using it. But am I considering other things too? If I have a relationship with you because you’ve sent me something to test out, then I need to make sure that I’m looking into viable alternatives, and that maybe they’re not in a position where they can send me one as easily. I think there’s a lot of gray areas. It’s easier to say what’s super clean and what’s really wrong, but there’s almost too much gray area in this, especially with review units.

Let’s dig in on this a little more, because one of the things you said struck me. Selling review samples? What’s the ethical argument to be in favor of that? Because that one sounds over the line.

The argument in favor would be people send me so many different earbuds…I haven’t counted them all…but if I were to just take a random guess, just earbuds, not earphones, not headphones, earbuds, I would say I probably have 40. I only have one set of ears. If a friend of mine says, “Hey, I’m looking for some earbuds,” then I could say, “Well, what do you want?” And then try to get them to, what is it that you want and what’s going to be right for you? And then I start thinking, well, do I have something like this?

And if I do, then rather than them spending $150, if I say, “Well, I already reviewed these. These are the last year’s model. How about $75?” The part that I struggle with is I’m not looking to make a business out of selling stuff. For the most part, I donate stuff. My friend Glenn runs a golf tournament. I have friends who run poker tournaments, et cetera. So, I donate thousands of dollars worth of headphones and stuff to them. I’m totally on board with the donating part. How does that sound to you?

Selling does not sound good to me at all. You have been given something for an editorial purpose, and then you’re using that to monetize it. Giving it away, donating it, fine. I think that makes perfect sense. You’re getting deluged. Understand that completely. The other thing I think PR pros should probably do more often than they do is when they send the review unit, send a self-addressed, pre-made FedEx label and envelope, or whatever else, if they want it back.

To clarify, the only reason why I have stuff is because I’ve already had that conversation with people. The first thing I say is, “Hey, thanks for sending this.” And then also either, “Do you want it back?” or “I saw that there was a label,” or “I didn’t see that there was a label, but I’m guessing you want this back. Right?” There are certain things like shoes or electric toothbrushes that you just assume that they do not want back. It’s like, “Hey, I’ve tested these hiking sandals. Did you want them back?” “No, I don’t.” Why would somebody want that?

It’s a weird thing. As I’m talking to you, I’m like, “Yeah, it does sound weird.” And I can’t think of the last time I sold something to somebody, but it’s a thought. It’s like, should this happen? I’m looking to create my own site where I’m going to be having reviews, but selling is not my business. My business would be membership-based or subscription-based or something. But I don’t want to base it off of some weird ethical choice like that.

My biggest mistake in that area, and it has nothing to do with ethics. But it was when I was very young and starting out, I was sending software to a reviewer overseas, and I declared the actual value of the software I was sending. When he got it, they wanted to charge him $75 to receive it. And he was not a happy camper with us whatsoever. So as an ethical matter, do you disclose it and put the money in for him to pay for it, which then there’s a potential bribing issue? Or do you lie about how much it’s worth and let him get it for free, in which case then you’re lying? It’s a minor ethical quandary I had, but it’s definitely something people probably haven’t considered, and they should think about it.

Beyond just selling review products, the other thing that has become increasingly popular in the media today are affiliate links. And what are your thoughts about that?

I shy away from them. Where I break it off is if somebody knows me, then it’s a friend or a cousin or somebody says, “Hey, what headphones should I take to the gym?” or something like that. And I’m advising them, and they can tell that I’ve done some research or whatever, then oftentimes they’ll say, “Well, is there a way that I can do this that benefits you somehow?” And I’ll say, “Well, I guess I could give you an affiliate link or something.” But I haven’t really done that very often. But if somebody doesn’t know me, then I don’t like the idea of doing it.

My intention for creating this site, The Family CTO, is that I don’t want anybody to get the idea that I’m only advising you to get this because it could help me somehow. I just automatically think of advising people. As soon as somebody says, “I like to travel internationally. I’m a bicyclist. I’m whatever,” I automatically start thinking in my mind, okay, what are six things that would help them?

I love advising people. If I could just not worry about money, I would love to advise people about what gadgets to get into their lives and gear that helps them enjoy their lives. That’s just what gives me juice. It just does it for me.

I don’t want someone to be confused and think like, oh, well he’s only doing it for this affiliate deal. It seems like the affiliate thing is so much based on volume anyway, that it would be hard to make a good living off of it. So why jeopardize your reputation for that?

I’m seeing more and more of the larger business and consumer media are doing it. They’re making money off the products they’re reviewing, and there are some ethical issues and conflicts there unless there is disclosure.

Well, I see it in places I’ve written for and am writing for, that they say essentially, “We will include good content, whether it’s an affiliate or not, but we do like to see affiliate stuff.” Because they have a business to run. They have to figure out how they’re making money. The ethical thing is I always look for, what’s the decision point here? The decision point is, would we give preference to an inferior product with affiliates over a superior product without, or the other way around?

What other ethics challenges are you seeing facing the media, public relations marketing today and tomorrow?

There are some folks that I follow on YouTube that I thought were just reviewing random things but are actually requiring, not just a sponsorship, but to be paid. “I will review these headphones if you give me $500.” The only disclosure given is “The product was sent to me. I didn’t buy it.” There are a few people, in particular, where nowhere does it say, “I actually got paid to do this.” It doesn’t say it’s a sponsored video, and it’s really unclear.

For years there have been satellite media tours and stuff, which most people would just assume, oh, Scott’s stopping by the Today Show, and he just happens to be talking about these things and hitting these exact points. Well, it’s not necessarily that random.

It’s very much planned ahead. And I know basically what I have to say about which ones, and I might have editorial control over a few of the products, but there’s usually one or two anchors that pay you to be there to say this thing. So, I’m not just stopping by. So, I think those sorts of, is it paid, or is it not paid, is it paid or earned is really the big ongoing thing.

I’m seeing a lot more TV news disclose these are sponsored segments when it comes to the traditional, “what’s hot for the holidays segments.”. I’m surprised you’re saying that about some influencer not disclosing because I thought the FTC was pretty stringent in terms of enforcing that. If you’re being paid in any way, shape, or form, you need to disclose, whether it’s on Instagram, the affiliate partnership or the partnership tag with them. Same thing with YouTube. Otherwise, it’s not giving consumers the information they need to make an informed decision. And they’ve cracked down on some people.

That’s that gray area that I’m talking about. It’s out there more than you would think.

I spoke with Troy Brown, who is a former coworker of mine who does a lot of work with celebrities and athletes. He was saying with a lot of them, who shall remain nameless, they’ll have some of their other celebrity friends, “Hey, let’s go review these sorts of things.” And he’s like, “You’ve got to disclose it.” He’s like, “I don’t want to deal with that.” And they’re like, “Well, the FTC’s going to fine you $50,000.” And he’s like, “I don’t care. Fine. It’s just not worth my time.”

It does get to be an issue that you have to pay attention to. Is the enforcement enough? People will talk about certain industries where they assume almost most of the content is paid for, whether or not it’s disclosed, whether you’re going on travel and tourism or things of that nature.

And that’s why I’ve seen so much more action towards being transparent and disclosing these things. Because again, we assume, as you said, if you were rich, you’d do this for free. Most reporters aren’t rich enough to travel the world. The cost of their flight and hotel have got to be covered.

I’m actually considering going on a press trip right now that would be in a couple of weeks. And it does make you think, well, what am I beholden to say? I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like I had to say something good or I couldn’t criticize it, because that just seems ridiculous to me. But I know it’s out there. You can tell by the way people say things, that they’ll take things that are detractors and make them sound like benefits. And you can just tell, this person seems like they’re avoiding saying anything bad.

I had Yeti send me a cooler. And they said, “Just let us know what you think.” I didn’t tell them how I was going to review it, but in the article, I said, “Here are three other coolers that are in the same category, and here’s how they fare, and there are some good things and some bad things about all of them.” I want people to read those things because that’s what feeds not just my reputation, but the integrity of the piece.

Ultimately, the thing that’s gone through every part of my multi-pronged career is helping people make better decisions. You can’t do that if there is a bias. So, I try to eliminate as many biases as I can. You can’t eliminate all of them.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I learned a lot from my dad, who is a direct marketer. The big thing is transparency. I was raised to just be open and honest about stuff. If you ever get that little feeling that says, “I’m not too sure about this,” it means that you’re getting that feeling for a reason.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

It’s really just about transparency and being really clear up front. Half of my LinkedIn contacts are PR people. So, I really value my relationships with PR people, yourself included. It’s what allows me to do what I’m doing. Approaching those relationships with honesty and integrity. That’s what makes my little world go around.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here

 

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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