As I've gained more readers on Travelblather I've noticed increasing numbers of people who work in the Travel PR industry following my tweets on twitter signing up to get my blog posts delivered by email or by RSS feed.
There's clearly a huge appetite amongst the PR community to engage with and understand the blogosphere. (Which I think is a good thing.) I imagine that for PR agencies, blogs are a bit of a new frontier - a wild west where all the work they do to try and gain their clients positive coverage can be competely unravelled by a vitriolic blogger on a mission. And, conversely, positive coverage could be exponentially valuable, given the way that for now at least people are increasingly turning to blogs for up-to-date, accurate and trustworthy information.
I have really mixed feelings about the role of PR generally. I see it as often quite insidious - attempting to undermine the objectivity of the journalist by pushing a particular angle or product or company at them. Of course, journalists are supposed to be pretty hard-skinned individuals, well able to make judgements of their own regardless of the attempts to influence them that will come from all over the place. But as the old saying goes "The mouth that shouts loudest gets fed first". And with remuneration for freelancers sprialling downwards no one wants to bite any hand that feeds them. (Oops... metaphorical overload there... sorry.)
Anyway... like it or not, PR is here to stay and it's massively influential in travel writing.
Recently I was offered a press trip to Sydney in Australia. The request from the PR company was that I blog about the experience. This for me was a watershed moment. I was invited solely because of this blog and the assumed value that the PR company placed on coverage here. That in itself is quite remarkable... particularly given the distance and expense involved. (This isn't the first instance actually - my previous post about new Aer Lingus low cost flights from Gatwick was completely driven by the fact that I went on a short press trip to Faro on the airline's inaugural flight on this route. But that was a far shorter trip and I was one of 80+ people on it.)
So... should I take the PR up on the Sydney offer?
A number of interesting issues:
Impartiality? The great thing about blogging is you have no editor or ad team breathing down your neck expecting you to write things up a certain way. Will I be under some obligation to give the experience a positive write up - even if it's not that great?
I think that actually this one is quite easy to resolve - despite the very heated discussions about this issue on Alex's Musings on Travel Ecommerce blog a few months ago. I make clear that I'm posting because of the press trip (as I did with the Aer Lingus post) AND I make clear to the PR that's inviting me that I can post whatever I want to. Just as a restaurant reviewer or car reviewer would do when presented with a new dish or the latest convertible.
I actually think that I'd post quite a lot about a trip to Sydney... (Let's face it... there will be lots of down time on planes... might as well do something!) Some posts would be descriptions of the trip and the services experienced - just like a normal travel feature in print (and presumably the sort of coverage a PR person would hope for). But other posts would be more like opinion pieces - behind the scenes stuff which I think people reading the blog would find really interesting. The life of the travel writer on the road - what it's really like.(Not all sunsets and pina coladas by the way...)
Pay? All very nice to get offered the trip - but in the real world of freelancing that's probably 5 days of my time with no remuneration. That won't pay the mortgage. Right now I'm on a short term contract so I am earning a vaguely OK amount of pay. I could take a few days' holiday and just go for the hell of it. But it's hardly a good practice to get into. I have ads running here on the blog, but they sure don't provide anything like the income needed to pay for five hours of my time - let alone five days!
What's the solution? Well one idea could be 'sponsored posts' - not disimilar in concept to promotional features in magazines and newspapers. I make clear that the post has been paid for - AND crucially, the tour operator/airline/tourist board that wants the coverage and is sending me on the trip pays me.
SO... PRs - would your clients be interested in something like that? Not only sending me on the trip, but also paying me for my time in return for a certain amount of coverage? AND would it make a difference to you if the posts relating to the trip were marked as 'sponsored'? (VERY interesting point this one.)
AND... READERS - how would you feel about the occasional post on Travelblather that is more promotional in nature? Does it completely negate the value of the blog or is it no big deal?
The idea raises all sorts of issues and making it work in practice would not be easy.