Should you give journalists a gift?

I come to your press launch and get the story with a load of other journalists. You give us an Echo Dot, Echo Spot, a television, a rucksack, whatever. Should we be influenced by that when writing the story?

The answer is of course we shouldn’t, simple as that. And yet all of those items have been given to me or offered for attending an event. Someone on Facebook was asking what they should give journalists at a press conference and it’s set a lot of people thinking about ethics. So here’s my take:

  1. Think very carefully about whether you need to have a press conference at all. If it’s a good story rather than a put-up job, journalists and indeed bloggers should be inclined to write about it anyway. An email or phone briefing might get you the coverage you want.
  2. If you’re going to attract journalists to attend, it may seem reasonable to offer them something in return. I’ve attended launches of smartphones where you get to take the phone away with you. In order to write about it intelligently you need to use it for a while. So if it’s something strictly relevant, as in that case, I don’t see a problem.
  3. Likewise an event I intended to attend (but was prevented) last year on artificial intelligence, at which the giveaway was an Amazon Echo Dot. They’re not expensive and it was in the interests of the company involved to get journalists or bloggers using some sort of AI regularly.
  4. Sometimes it’s a matter of branding. I’ve had more laptop bags than I’d normally know what to do with and the family has been very pleased, but I get the need to have your brand out there. I have unused memory sticks coming out of my ears and that’s before you get started on the corporate branded biro.
  5. Moving into ‘more of a present than a help’ I’ve had two instances of small Android tablets with the press kit on them – which have of course ended up formatted and given to family members. In cases where everyone attending a conference is given the same thing and the journalists get the same package, fair play – it probably costs you more to put different packages together than to give everyone an identical bag.
  6. Pre financial crash, and particularly in the 1990s, journalists were offered all sorts of stuff. I attended one launch of a network router and was asked for my address so they could send a portable TV by way of thanks for attending. It didn’t make the router any more interesting. On the other hand, more recently, I was shown around a Portuguese site of a contact centre and given the corporate rucksack (of course), which contained a book on Portugal and some of those custard tarts they make over there. They weren’t strictly relevant but I could quite understand that as a foreign visitor they wanted me to have something local to their country, of which they were fiercely proud.

There are some hard and fast rules in the gifts-to-journalists business. First, if it feels as though you’re bribing us, that’s probably what’s happening. Relevant samples of your product are different (try publicising food and drink without allowing journalists and bloggers to find out what it tastes like and you won’t get very far). Second, there are publications that will decline gifts, limit themselves to gifts of a certain value and in some cases actively avoid events at which gifts are distributed. If you’re doing something international you should be even more careful; I did a panel in Turkey a few years ago and the Muslim journalists were actively offended by companies they perceived to be offering inducements to attend something.

The safest bet, to my mind, is to offer an excellent story we can’t get elsewhere. If it involves a product we need to try, fair enough; otherwise if you want to offer us some sort of memento, maybe don’t tell us in advance so it’s not an inducement to attend – and do what they do in the public sector, make it either very low value or perishable so we won’t just stick it into the office raffle.

That’s the theory, anyway. In the real world, competition for journalists’ and bloggers’ attention is fierce and the PR community will try a great deal to get us to turn up to things. Sometimes this involves gifts and inducements. We’re as human as anyone and if someone has thought to get us something nice, we’re likely to be pleased. Just don’t, whatever you do, think you’re buying positive coverage. An ethical journalist or blogger will be very careful not to be influenced by any sort of material blandishment; if you’re in PR and your client is talking about showering gifts on people offering coverage, make sure they’re aware that the best of us will remain independent!