Freebies policy

I’ve written plenty about freebies, comped meals, “influencers” (I hate the label, mainly because it’s so rarely accurate) and the like – both on Twitter and at various points on the blog. But I thought that for the New Year it would be good to spell out my policy on comped meals for once and for all, so here goes. I hope it makes for interesting reading.

In the last couple of years, in Reading and elsewhere, we’ve seen an increase in blogs and Instagram pages which accept comped meals with varying degrees of regularity (and transparency). Sometimes they write a review about the meal on their blog, sometimes they just put some pictures on Instagram. Usually you can find the tag “AD” or “GIFTED” somewhere – sometimes it’s prominent, sometimes it’s hidden at the bottom of the post in a smaller font (and italics, usually in italics).

I’ve given a lot of thought to the effect this has on trust and reliability, so I want to explain why ER has a no freebies policy.

I don’t accept comped meals because of my values and the values of my blog: I aim to give readers a fair, representative view of whether a restaurant is good or not and, crucially, whether it’s worth spending their own money to go there.

Comped meals compromise that in two ways. First of all, if the restaurant knows you’re coming (on a PR trip) you’re unlikely to have a representative experience. The service will be a little slicker, the staff will be that bit keener to impress. But more significantly, if the food is free, however hard you try I don’t think you’d be able to have a clear and unbiased view of whether your meal was good. I’m sure you think you would, consciously, but subconsciously I think the influence would always be there.

And often when I look at reviews of comped meals the writer hasn’t even seen a bill: I’m not sure it’s possible to write convincingly about value for money when you can’t even tell the reader how much the meal would have cost. Guidelines now state that influencers have to declare comped meals, but that’s a comparatively recent thing. Prior to that they never had to, and many only started doing it because it became compulsory. That tells its own story, I think.

So does the defensiveness of many influencers when this behaviour is called out. I asked one Instagrammer whether a meal she’d eaten had been comped. An innocuous question, you might think, but she blocked me on the spot without answering. A hotel in Woodstock Retweeted a glowing review of their food last year, so I asked if the meal had been comped. They blocked me too. I was also blocked for pointing out to a blogger that her disclaimer was hidden in a tiny font right at the bottom of her review. She felt her integrity had been impugned, but after she’d blocked me she moved the disclaimer to the top of her review – still in a tiny font, mind you.

It’s not just bloggers, either. The Reading Chronicle recently published a glowing review of an Oracle chain. When I and a number of other people on Twitter asked the writer if the meal was comped, she simply refused to reply, instead Retweeting all of our questions. When pressed, she equated asking the question with harassment. “I’m allowed to write them as I please” she said, missing the point, presumably on purpose.

But the effect of comped meals is more corrosive than just making the individual review unreliable. Here’s why. Your wider perspective is skewed for a couple of reasons. First of all, those blogs or Instagram feeds will feature have a disproportionate number of reviews of restaurants that can pay for PR. That generally means chains. It’s all well and good to make noise about supporting independent restaurants, but when you take free meals from chain restaurants to support them that feels disingenuous.

But there’s another reason why this gives you a false view of the world – many influencers are on record as saying that if they don’t enjoy the meal they simply won’t write a post about it. So they don’t publish negative reviews. This is dangerous stuff, because they’re literally in the pay of the restaurant. They had a bad meal, but they won’t warn potential diners because they’ve been bought. I totally get that the best bit of reviewing restaurants is celebrating the positive, but it’s important to be honest when a restaurant isn’t good. Who knows how many bad meals are out there, unpublished in reviews, and how many iffy meals people could have been spared?

I think we also need to be honest about who “influencers” are and what they are doing. Their priority isn’t the reader, it’s the restaurant for which they are doing marketing work. Marketing work, incidentally, which the restaurant is invariably getting on the cheap. Wouldn’t you sell yourself for more than a meal for two at the new branch of Las Iguanas? L’Ortolan approached me recently (unaware of my policy) offering me a comped cocktail making workshop – far cheaper than offering an actual meal at their restaurant. I turned it down, obviously: other bloggers jumped at the chance. Just as they’ll jump at the chance of reviewing a restaurant nowhere near their home territory – not because it’s good, not because it might interest their readers but, sadly, because it’s free.

But this is legitimised by a mob mentality, because the influencers are all at it. That’s why you see lots of talk about the blogging community and how bloggers should all support each other. It’s why you see multiple reviews of the same restaurant in a short space of time. Influencers don’t like this being called out plainly for what it is. I can understand why it would make them uncomfortable, but what they do does anybody looking for reliable restaurant recommendations a disservice. Dispassionately saying so doesn’t make you a troll, it just makes you someone with a different sense of priorities.

So just to restate: the ER policy is not to accept comped meals or PR invites under any circumstances. I have worked with a few Reading restaurants when they have just opened, but where I do any free meals are offered as competition prizes to my readers. If in the course of that work the restaurants find out who I am, I don’t review them (as happened with Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen and Namaste Momo). If I retain my anonymity, I then go and review them (as happened with Honest Burgers and Pho).

Those are my priorities. Of course, bloggers with other priorities are always available.