We get a lot of emails trying to buy stories and articles at MediaNama, and my reaction to such emails (and occasionally, calls), is quite rude. There is always the temptation to publicly call out such requests, but “paid news” isn’t illegal in India, criminal defamation still exists, and there are always this problem of this being so common, that people don’t often realize that what they’re asking for is ethically wrong.There have been calls where I have sermonized on the ethics (rather lack of ethics) of such requests and the importance of disclosures. We’ve had advertising agencies, including some among the largest in India, decline to buy text ads (like these) just because we have strict disclosure norms.
Most of such requests that come to us invariably come from the electronics segment: handset, tablet and laptop manufacturers, and there appears to be a perception that, “blogs” will publish anything, especially if there is (and I hate this phrase), a “quid pro quo”. But how exactly do these things work? I remember struggling to illustrate how these things work for a submission to the Law Commission, which is looking at regulatory issues related to media in India, including “Paid News”, because MediaNama was requesting for formalization of disclosure norms for sponsored content.
A few days ago, on June 16th, I received an email from an advertising agency for one such “quid pro quo” deal on my personal blog, and I decided to engage with them for the purpose of documentation of how these things work. I think we’ll do this in the future as well, because documentation of such instances illustrate the existence of such issues, and this is one issue we want to ensure is addressed because of two reasons: firstly, without disclosures, publishing sponsored content amounts to cheating readers (and should be illegal), whether you’re a business (like ours) or have a personal blog. Secondly, this effectively takes money and budgets away from legitimate and ethical monetization practices.
We’ve chosen to redact identification information (emails and email signatures) from the mail, though we’re open to publishing identification details if we believe we’ll have legal support and are advised that we won’t get dragged to court (for which we don’t have the time or the energy). Please note that disclosure norms were specified in the mail trail AFTER we requested them. There’s no indication that they would have been suggested or mandated by the brand/agency if we hadn’t requested them to specify.
Quick overview of the mail trail and the issues
– A digital marketing agency wanted me to blog about a laptop, based on usage experience, and be open to future opportunities such as events. They also expected the blog post to be promoted on social media.
– The laptop (I checked) is worth more than Rs 140,000
– There were no direct demands regarding the type of review, only “suggestions” on what they would like the review to be like, and “it would be great if you could share the same with us before publishing”.
– A clarification regarding disclosures only came in after I asked if it was okay for me to write that I had been paid for reviewing the laptop by allowing me to keep the device.
I’m not sure of what happens next, but I’m sending them a copy of this post, and telling them I’m not going to review the unit.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are honest gadget reviewers and bloggers in India, but to question the practices being adopted by agencies and brands in the country. Disclosure norms are essential, and with the amount of traffic and readership gadget sites and posts get, and with the ability for anyone to write this, questions need to be asked of these “blogger outreach programs”, and their practices.
The emails (in chronological order)
1. The Initial Mail
Subject: Regarding the ***** Blogger Program
On Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 4:58 PM, ***** <*****@*****> wrote:
Dear Nikhil Pahwa,
This is ***** from *****. We are an award winning digital marketing agency with a global presence.
We were compelled by your blogging endeavours at bit.ly/1JT47Fa and as a result shortlisted you for participation in a blogger outreach program for one of our esteemed clients, *****. The initiative is aimed towards achieving syndicated content opportunities (blogs, event coverages and product reviews) with bloggers in the tech space.
Please let me know your thoughts about joining the program so I can share further details with you.
From: Nikhil Pahwa <*****>
Date: Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 5:01 PM
Subject: Re: Regarding the ***** Blogger Program
To: ***** <*****@*****>
2. The Product as the “gratification” (sic)
On Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 6:56 PM, ***** <*****@*****> wrote:
Thank you for showing interest in ***** blogger outreach program.
The primary objective for the program is to reach the audience through bloggers as an additional touch point and create further conversations around the brand and products.
As a pilot initiative under this program, we would like to work with you on a product review of ***** laptop: <***** product URL *****>
The above mentioned product unit will be provided to you. We request you to use it for your personal / business purpose, post which we expect you to publish a detailed review of the same, based on your user experience, on your blog and propagate the same through other social media channels if possible.
The gratification for this pilot initiative will be the product unit itself.
Going ahead, we would be looking at similar synergies with you with respect to blogs and event coverage as well.
Please let me know your thoughts about participation in the pilot activity so we can take it further.
On Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 9:50 AM, Nikhil Pahwa <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
what are your specific requirements? any do’s and dont’s?
3. The do’s and dont’s
On Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 12:02 PM, ***** <*****@*****> wrote:
For the review following are the expectations from our end:
- We would like you to describe the utility of the laptop through a customer centric as well as a corporate user based experience.
- If you could highlight the laptop’s utility from a corporate solution angle, it would be more aligned with the goals of this initiative (i.e. How it serves as a business laptop for an organization’s IT requirements)
- Once you receive the unit, use it and are ready with the review, it would be great if you could share the same with us before publishing just so we can make sure that the review is in sound form as per technical specification perspective and you have covered all the bases.
We will get back to you soon regarding when we will be dispatching the unit.
On Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 12:24 PM, Nikhil Pahwa <email@example.com> wrote:
Thanks. Can I write that you’ve paid for the post by allowing me to keep the device?
4. Finally, the disclosure norms
It took a few reminders (and two days) for them to clarify regarding the disclosure. In the middle, they asked for more time to respond.
On Thu, Jun 18, 2015 at 12:13 PM, ***** <*****@*****> wrote:
With regard to your previous query, you can mention that the ***** unit is being seeded by ***** as a part of its blogger outreach program instead of saying being paid for the post.