Pitch Perfect: So are PR gifts considered ‘bribes?’

There are varying opinions on this, but those often thrown in the mix include review items, press trips and general gifts

Jill Downie

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One of the most debated subjects within the media industry is the grey area of gifting. How is gifting defined, and at what point does this constitute bribery? If a product is offered to a journalist for review, can this really be seen as gifting?

In my personal view, the answer is very simple. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bribery is defined as ‘dishonestly persuading someone to act in one’s favour by way of a gift of money or other inducement’.

So this is a transaction of sorts – an agreed deal where one side offers something in return for another, in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t have. However journalists are, by definition, tasked with gathering, assessing and creating content – and to do so they need to have full knowledge/experience of what they are reporting on. Whether that be attending a political conference or a music concert – without material to write about, a journalist’s role would be redundant.

So what is considered a press ‘gift’?

There are varying opinions on this, but those often thrown in the mix include review items, press trips and general gifts – sometimes sent for special occasions, sometimes to highlight a new launch or sometimes, for no particular reason at all. While a PR’s aim is to get their client’s message to press successfully – effectively to sell experiences, destinations, products, services and people – the journalists’ role within a trusted media title, is to filter and carefully select what they report and recommend to their audience.

It’s a journalist’s responsibility to filter out the good from the bad and report on only the most relevant stories for their readers. Of course, every marketer or PR is going to tell you their brand/product/experience is the most exciting new launch in the market – it’s often ‘ground-breaking’, ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘life-changing’ and nearly always a ‘must-have’.

However a press release (often sent without market research statistics) is not evidence of greatness, and certainly does not give the journalist any proof that the fancy wording lives up to expectations. For a journalist to give their honest opinion, reviews are an essential part of the role.

What counts as a gift?

So let’s look deeper into review items. Journalists cannot be expected to recommend a perfume by smelling a press release, or a new restaurant by tasting an image. Should a tech journalist be ‘gifted’ the latest Samsung S7 Edge for review? In my opinion, absolutely! A true tech journalist has a responsibility to give a full and thorough report on the product to their reader, and for me, that includes a full drop test to check the durability, right down to break point. So does this count as a press ‘gift’? The answer really lies in the journalist’s integrity, and what level they are prepared to go to, to give the most complete review to their reader.

Journalists cannot recommend a perfume by smelling a press release, or a new restaurant by tasting an image.

So what about work trips? A travel journalist of course has to travel, just as a war correspondent has to report from a warzone. While one, of course, is more glamorous than the other, neither journalist would gain credibility by reporting from behind a desk in the newsroom.

While I am not trying to compare a war correspondent to a travel journalist, I am simply saying that just like a builder needs their tools of the trade, a journalist – no matter what their subject of expertise – needs their source to write a story. Can this be seen as gifting or bribery? Definitely not, in my opinion.

When it comes to product reviews mixed with press trips, this is where things go grey. Let’s just say, for example, an international gaming giant invites a journalist to a gaming conference in Los Angeles, with the objective of getting a review of their latest console.

The brand spends a considerable amount of money flying the journalist across the world in business class, puts them up in fancy five star hotel accommodation and treats the journalist to three days of fine dining and excursions.

When the editorial appears, the PR is horrified to see a less than positive review of the product, despite this being the journalist’s honest assessment of the console. Is the brand entitled to a positive review just because they assigned a large portion of their marketing budget to the trip? Of course not! The brand possibly did not apply their best judgment when offering such a trip, when sending the product for review would have sufficed.

In this scenario, the trip, while a great perk for the journalist, was not relevant to the review and I think can easily be seen as a blatant attempt to sway opinion. While in my example the journalist’s integrity was intact, would all journalists do the same or fluff over the negatives?

Common sense and artistic license

Finally, let’s look at genuine gifts sent with the intention of catching the eye of the Editor. PRs often send items to journalists to build brand awareness, in the hope that the brand gets noticed and is, at some point, featured in the magazine. Is this really bribery? Is there any transaction or dishonesty involved? Or are PRs simply leveraging the rule of reciprocation? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

A certain amount of common sense and artistic license has to fall into play when it comes to press gifts and defining what falls into that bracket. To write about the launch of a new credit card, a journalist does not need to try out the card, loaded with a generous pre-loaded cash entitlement, just as a motor journalist does not need a car for keeps to perform a review. All gifts and cases are unique and cannot be treated as one.

The vast majority of Editors are professional enough to not allow their judgment to be swayed by recommending products that are not right for their readership, or accepting blatant bribes in return for features.

One question, however, that sits uncomfortably close to all of the above and should surely be answered if editorial judgment is being brought into question: where does advertising stop and editorial begin?

It is well known in the industry that advertisers get a certain amount of guaranteed editorial coverage, which is a clear transaction of service exchange, intended to sway opinion. Has the editor pre-agreed that the content is worthy of their media title or are they being forced to cover a brand that they would otherwise ignore? Should this too be seen as bribery?