Friday 29 May 2015

There’s no Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Do Bloggers Have Integrity?

I enjoy going to Jim Carroll’s food related Banter discussions and feel like I’ve been stalking him lately. The last one I attended a few days ago was on social media and Internet reviews with Niall Harbison (Lovin Dublin), Leo Molloy (social media manager at 777, SMS, Dillingers & The Butcher Grill) and Emily Cunnane (Yelp community manager in Dublin) on part of the panel.

The discussion was interesting and of course food bloggers were mentioned a few times with the question of them getting freebies or money in exchange for a review being raised. A woman in the audience asked a question to the panel and sounded like she firmly believed food bloggers were getting paid for reviewing restaurants. I was a member of the audience so I didn’t say anything but it’s a subject I’ve always wanted to write about.

I’ve been blogging for almost 3 years now and I’ve never been paid for writing a review on this blog. It may sound like I have a strange hobby but it is the truth. Food is a very big part of my life and I enjoy eating out and sharing my experiences the same way some people write reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp except than I prefer to have my own personal space on the Internet. When I started blogging I did it after a spontaneous decision one evening and didn’t think it would last. At the time I had many expat friends who gave out about Irish food, I wanted to prove them wrong and record my experiences. It was also for me to have a diary of my meals out and share pictures of food, as simple as that.

I have a disclosure policy in my ‘about’ section but I’m not sure if people ever read it. Basically, I always pay for my food in restaurants and cafes and if I ever blog about free stuff I put a disclaimer at the end of the post. I never announce on social media that I’m going to a place because then I think it looks like I’m looking for some freebies or special treatment. Sometimes I’d love to tell the owner of the place how I love what they do but I never do as I’m scared they might think I’m looking for something in return.

I actually stopped entering Twitter competitions under my FFID Twitter account because if I win it looks dodgy or it looks like all I want is free food ‘because I’m a blogger’.

Brands & Bloggers

I do often get invited to press events or launches but I only accept if they sound exciting (i.e. might be interesting to those who read my blog) and are organised by brands or businesses I like. Very importantly, I just RSVP and show up, there is never an agreement in advance to write about anything. I rarely blog about press events but if I do I put a disclaimer at the end in order to be completely transparent.

When I was starting out as a blogger I sometimes got carried away with the excitement and tweeted or Instagrammed at events a bit too much. But this is often why bloggers are invited, to tweet/Instagram/Facebook the hell out of everything. The first time I got an ice-cream delivery by courier to my place I got so excited that I put the picture everywhere which is a bit ridiculous when I think about it now, a few years on.

Some brands and businesses see bloggers as free marketing tools. I receive products sometimes in the post, they never make it to the blog and or my social media platforms but it’s tricky because you feel like you have to thank them and you see everyone (including journalists) doing it on social media. I was recently flown to the UK by a big brand with a group of journalists to attend an event. I didn’t agree to write about it and I wasn’t paid for it. Does that mean I don’t have any integrity? I don’t think so. I probably will write about it as it fits on my blog and I loved the concept. Of course I will put a disclaimer and say it was free. Envious people will think I sold out but I hope my core readers will be happy to hear about my experience and won’t overthink my motives.



You’d be surprised on how people want to offer me free meals, want to send me free products and how many things I decline. I actually have a separate folder in my inbox where I put all the emails of people who start by saying ‘I love your blog’ and finish by asking me to promote their business in a way that is ‘mutually beneficial’. Yeah right.

I have occasionally accepted invitations to supper clubs but never agreed to write a review and I’ve only ever shared my experience when I enjoyed the event and felt %100 comfortable recommending it to my readers. I do of course put a disclaimer in this case. What I personally think is even though I get a supper club meal for free, as it’s a communal experience and everyone is sitting at the same table I don’t get extra stuff. I ask myself if I would have been happy to pay the full price and if my readers would be happy to do so too. It is a tricky one but most of the supper clubs I attended for free so far were organised by young entrepreneurs and passionate food people who are very good at what they do and I was totally happy to recommend them on my blog. 

Once (a while back) I accepted to review a hotel stay but had complete editorial control, wasn’t paid and put the disclaimer at the end of course. I don’t have ads on my blog and I have never written sponsored content but who knows maybe one day I will because I have to pay (restaurant) bills. If I ever do I would be careful and of course be transparent but this isn’t something I’m doing right now.

One day I posted something on Instagram and got a comment about ‘a commission I must be getting’ and another day I was told by someone that a lady she was talking to said I must be paid for writing all the reviews on my blog. Some people can be very judgmental, but I like to think that good people know how to spot if someone is acting with integrity or not.

I can see the number of people reading the blog every month so I feel that I have a responsibility but also I think it’s important to keep my integrity. I don’t believe that free food tastes better, I don’t want to look cheap and think it’s important to maintain high standards for this blog. I hope that people who regularly read my words trust me and know that I am honest.

Sometimes when I meet people in real life and they know I have a blog they assume that I eat for free everywhere and I have to kind of justify myself and tell them ‘No actually I pay for my meals, read my disclosure policy!’. There is no magical link on FFID that sends me a commission each time someone goes to a restaurant I recommend.

After paying for my bills pretty much all my money go into food and drinks, for cooking or eating out and I don’t have much left for anything else because my life revolves around food, but this is the lifestyle I chose. I don’t have kids, I don’t have a car, don’t own a house, can’t afford a big Irish wedding and I don’t wear designer clothes but I’m happy to eat delicious food and holiday at my parents’ place in the French countryside twice a year. I don’t blog much about fine dining places, I write mostly about cafes or restaurants that I believe are good value for money. I don’t go to places to review them, I go to have a good time with Mr. FFID or catch up with a friend over lunch and afterwards I decide if I want to share it or not.


Transparency is the key

Some of my favourite blogs are actually written by ‘professional bloggers’, girls like The Londoner, The Cherry Blossom Girl or What Olivia Did, live from their blogs and I don’t really mind if they have sponsored content or ads as I enjoy reading them. I don’t question their integrity, I know they spend so much time blogging and work with brands to make a living but I don’t judge them, in some ways I admire them for it. I’m happy to read about their luxurious lifestyle that I will probably never have and I’m not bitter about it because I like their voice, pictures and enjoy their blog.

Of course there are bad practice, ‘cheap bloggers’ criticised for their lack of integrity or who don’t tell their readers when they get money or free stuff. There are also cheeky brands and businesses who want to take advantage of them too; bloggers aren’t the only one to blame. Wanting to blog for freebies isn’t a good reason to start out I doubt those people end up with successful blogs in the long run as the the majority of people sniff out their true motive. On the other hand, if you sometimes receive products or go to events for free it doesn’t make you a bad blogger (or bad person) you just have to be clear about it and just be honest.

Very little if any food bloggers live from their actual blog but do make a living from working opportunities that come along with it, such as cookbooks, food writing and food photography.

Blogging changed my life and I decided to start working freelance thanks to it, created my own job. It’s not easy and I earn less than I used to when I was doing a crappy office job but I do what I love and I am much happier now. I write elsewhere, give talks, do ghost social media management, give workshops, run tours and I also recently started a part-time job in the food industry too. The reviews on FFID aren’t a source of income and they will never be.

I have big plans and I’m working (very hard) towards my dreams. A few times I have actually wondered why I kept reviewing places as I’m doing a big amount of ‘work’ on this blog. I’m my own editor, photographer, social media manager, marketing person and actually promote places who possibly get some business thanks to me when I don’t get anything from it. It’s a lot of ‘free’ work but the blog has also brought me so much in term of opportunities, encounters and personal development.

Most of all, each time I receive a lovely email from a stranger, get a comment or a genuinely nice tweet from someone who trust and appreciate my recommendations I am reminded of why I keep blogging and why I love it.