Howdy to my communications friends & colleagues! It’s been a while since I’ve addressed any juicy PR / social media / blogging topics here on AngieAway, and since just returned from speaking at TBEX Athens and also hosted today’s PRSA teleseminar on the hot topic of press trips, I figured this is a perfect time to once again peel back the layers on this tender issue.
What exactly is a press trip? You may also hear it called a FAM or a familiarization trip, but no matter what nomenclature is used, essentially it’s a hosted field trip for journalists, bloggers and social influencers to experience a destination (or a product, in some cases) and then convey the experience (honestly & authentically, ideally) to their readers.
First I’ll answer my own question – no, the press trip isn’t dead. It’s just evolved into a nearly unrecognizable entity over the past 10 years. So let’s talk about what’s changed and then dive into some best practices for the modern press trip, shall we?
The Old Way in the Old Days
1. Quotas. I started my PR career on the very precipice of the social media age, so while traditional press trips were on the way out, I was still trained in the Old Ways. For my first press trip, I whipped up a boring invitation in Word, probably with ClipArt & WingDings font (I’m sorry!), and sent it to our massive MASTER TRAVEL list of strangers I’d never spoken to from Cision. (I’m sorry!) It didn’t matter so much who was invited as long as I could convince at least 5-6 of them to spend four days with me in my client’s destination. (And that’s how I ended up with so many folks on my personal blacklist.) It was a very cavalier way of doing things, and it did not always go well.
2. Assignment letters. Ten years ago, I required an assignment letter from an editor for any writer joining a trip. Given what clients spend on these trips, it was crucial to do what I could to ensure each attendee’s legitimacy, and to ensure that coverage would likely result from the trip. Assignment letters were a great way to weed out the freebie seekers and the hacks and the so-called “freelancers,” though there were occasional exceptions. Bloggers were unheard of, untested, possibly untrustworthy and certainly not invited during the Old Days.
3. Limited relationship. The life of our FAM-focused PR + salaried journalist-on-assignment relationship went like this: Invite writer. Writer accepts. Travel to destination. Writer sends print clip months later. THE END. There were exceptions for those few brilliant writers who could turn one FAM into years of stories, but those were the most rare of gems.
4. Site inspections and PR dinners. Publicists have clients to please, and in turn, clients have many partners (and possibly taxpayers) to please. Thus my first press trip itineraries were fraught with boring hotel site inspections and uninteresting stops at useless sites no one would ever want to write about. There were lots of arduous dinners with hotel general managers and back-to-back-to-back-to-back packaged activities. No time to relax, no wiggle room for stories to develop naturally – just a crazy busy, jam-packed, partner-pleasing itinerary.
5. Generic focus. In most cases, press trips back in the day were not a part of a large, focused campaign. Instead they often resulted from late afternoon boss brainstorms… “We haven’t done a press trip in a while. Go plan one!” The itineraries were similarly planned to include partners and hotels who pay into the tourism board, not necessarily following any grand scheme, interesting event or specialized niche.
6. Itinerary hell. Yuck. Remember the binders and print-outs and edits and constant updates to each individually copied-and-pasted itinerary? CRINGE. We spent so much time printing out press kits and coordinating this drudgery. All billable, of course, but drudgery nonetheless, and mostly useless once the adventure began and flights were delayed and the schedule changed upon arrival anyway.
As a publicist once tasked with planning these OG snoozefests (I’m so sorry!), I’m happy to say after a trip or two I saw the light and began to change my game plan, focusing on finding that magical combination that would satisfy everyone’s needs.
- A win for the writer.
- A win for the client.
- A win for the publicist.
That’s a lot of winning from three very demanding groups! But it can be done. And now, it’s a different game. So what’s changed and what’s on the horizon? Read on….
Welcome to the Modern Press Trip
1. Targeted invitations. When a destination or hotel client asks me to coordinate a media visit now, I know exactly who to invite based on personal relationships and knowledge of each invitee’s niche. There is no reason in 2014 to send out blind invitations to a master media list. Publicists today (should) have a much better idea of which writers are out there living in the travel space and who would be a fit for our clients. We should never, ever send a travel invitation that is not clearly directed to a specific writer for a specific purpose. (And if you aren’t sure who to invite, ask other publicists who’s great and who’s on the BLACKLIST, check out successful social campaigns on Twitter/Instagram, meet people at TBEX and subscribe to Blogger Bridge.) In this day and age, formal invitations are practically unnecessary. Once you’ve developed relationships with key bloggers, you can just DM them on Twitter with details. It’s so much easier than the Old Way.
2. We’ve gone digital. Forget about staples and binders and copy-and-pasting and printing itineraries until 3 a.m. the night before a trip. Now I use TripIt to coordinate travel for groups – big and small. I just send all travel info including train tickets, hotel and flight reservations, EventBrite confirmations, driving directions, etc. to [email protected] and they’re all added into one easy-to-read itinerary. Boom – I just saved 12+ hours! All travelers can participate in the itinerary online from a tablet, laptop, iPhone – wherever. It saves countless hours in the planning stage, and automatically alerts you when flights are delayed en route. (And for the staunchest fans of the Old Days, you can still print out a hard copy with all the information included – no need to copy and paste into Word.)
3. Breathable, functional, realistic itineraries. Instead of herding our journalists from hotel to excursion to site inspection to lunch to excursion… you get the idea… with no room to breathe or think or sleep or work, now we factor in time to find individual stories outside of our packaged group itineraries. Good publicists ask for feedback on the itinerary in advance in order to meet a writer’s needs, focusing on providing information & activities to create a beautiful, useful finished product rather than rushing around trying to satisfy every destination partner. This is ideal, though not always possible. Some publicists are more equipped than others to please all parties. It’s a challenge. If you work with a publicist who does this well, hold on to him or her.
4. Clear expectations for delivery. We used to invite writers to our destinations, but due to the ethical gray area inherent in the press trip model, we could never officially require coverage. So press trips, which can cost a blue-a$$ fortune, could amount to absolutely nothing, the writer didn’t have to explain his/her reasons for not writing, and there was little to be done about it. Ten years later, the whole landscape has changed. Now, it’s absolutely acceptable to talk about expectations up front – and I prefer it. Everyone knows what they need to do, so there are no surprises and no one can claim ignorance. (Yes, there’s space to discuss options if the experience doesn’t go as planned. Obviously.)
5. There’s more to the story. The writers of today do so much more than write. They’re content creators, bloggers, videographers, Instagram celebrities and Facebook experts. The wordsmiths of today’s travelsphere have much more to offer than a hotel review or a magazine blurb about your client – so don’t be afraid to talk about how you can work together to get even more content from one trip.
6. Payment. This is a conversation for another post on another day, but payment was NEVER discussed for press trips in times past. Now, it’s a different story. Many of the influencers you’d like to invite on a trip are not on salary as were the assignment-letter carrying journos of the Old Days, and yet blogging/content creation is their occupation and they do need to get paid for their efforts and time in some way. The job description is different, the expectations can be very different, thus I believe it’s fully within the realm of ethical behavior to pay a blogger for their time, photographs, etc. (Paying for editorial magazine coverage is still technically frowned upon, but ad buys are a common way of circumventing that issue.) No matter what, both sides – the blog side and the PR side – are responsible for their own personal integrity. (And there’s another side – the reader – who must also decide if they trust the blogger’s opinion. Like I said, another story for another day!)
Ten years after my first trip and the FAM is all grown up. Much of the credit goes to the increased flexibility and versatility that bloggers have brought to the travel world, so… three cheers for the blogosphere!
Have you planned or attended a press trip in either the Old Days or recently? What changes have you noticed in the way things are done?
Up next… a birthday post!
66 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Modern Press Trip”
I’ve gone with groups who are all into print and don’t know what a Twitter handle is. I’ve also traveled with strictly bloggers who share and blog everything they do in real-time. Sometimes these two camps are mixed, but it’s very interesting to be squashed in the middle.
I love hearing the guys and gals from the Sun or the Times tell me about the good ol’ days of being paid $2 a word and jet-setting wherever they fancied. I also relish in the blogger stories of building websites out of nothing to have global followings in the millions. There’s incredible passion for both concentrations – it can be just as exciting to rub elbows with these types of talent as it is exploring the destination.
I hope FAM trips don’t die, as I find them essential to getting me material and getting me on the road. I can’t wait to see how they evolve even more in the future.
Thanks for your comment, Eileen! It is fascinating when bloggers and print journos are in the same trip – always makes for a fun exchange of tales from the road.
Coming from the PR side, I love seeing how much press trips have changed!
wow it’s so interesting to hear how it used to be! I’ve done one in India but there was no middle man, just me and the company talking and neither of us had done something like it before, so it was fun to test it out! I learned a lot 🙂
It’s dumb of me, but until this post, I didn’t realize press trips and fam trips were the exact same thing. As a travel agent in the late 70s/early 80s, my mom went on a handful of fam trips… and she still has some of those edited and re-edited itineraries in various scrapbooks. It’s amazing how much things have changed in the past seven years, let alone 35!
Hey Polly! FAM is definitely the term more often used by the travel agents of the world, but the concept is the same either way. I would love to see some of those old itineraries!
Sadly, I think there are still many, if not most, people running press trips who are stuck in the old way of doing things.
I consistently see trips with bloggers who have been blogging for less than a year, or even 6 months, on them. In fact it seems that many press trips are still trying to fill spaces. It doesn’t matter who is on the trip, just saying they had ‘bloggers’ is good enough.
Most people in travel PR I talk to don’t seem to really pay attention to what is happening online. The number of people in public relation firms who I actually know and have talked with I can probably count on my hands. When I am contacted by someone, it is usually a last minute contact by a low level worker just out of college. They usually have no idea who I am or what I do.
The funny thing is, those few people in PR who have bothered to talk to me and understand what I do, are the same people who I will at least listen to when they contact me. I know they usually won’t be wasting my time.
I understand that there are a lot of bloggers out there, but figuring out who’s who doesn’t have to take more than an afternoon. Outside of perhaps FourBGB in London, I haven’t really seen a PR firm really embrace the online travel community. There are not ‘relations’ in ‘public relations’ right now, at least online.
There are several very notable exceptions to what I’m describing, but for the most part I really haven’t been impressed with how the PR industry has adapted as a whole.
Totally agree, Gary. I probably should’ve prefaced this piece by saying this is how I do things as a publicist, and how a handful of others are doing it. Perhaps I was a little overzealous 😉
I know many PRs who are great at working with bloggers nowadays, but usually it’s because they realize the importance of such relationships – not because managers place any significance on it. Most of the PRs I know who really get bloggers have to fight to even be able to host one blog-centric trip per year. I could probably write a post on the other side of the coin here…
There’s value in new bloggers. It doesn’t necessarily categorize them as unprofessional or as lacking in quality simply because they are “green”. Some newer bloggers, with smaller audiences can also offer a more solid audience with solid engagement and measurable reach. Certainly more than some bigger bloggers can. There are bloggers who have been doing it for much less who are easier to work with because they truly love the work, don’t come throwing titles, awards, and claims of why they are owed something and also lack the entitlement and difficult tendencies that make working with them, much less travel with them, a nightmare. I think it’s important for those of us who have been around to teach them and help them so that they aren’t taken advantage of (because it hurts us all) but any publicist or brand that discredits a blogger simply because they have only been blogging for 6 months is failing. Any blogger who assumes they aren’t worth opportunities is missing the point. We all started somewhere. At some point, someone had to take a chance on us too.
I suppose if your goal isn’t getting the word your for your client, those things are fine.
Much of that would also apply to picking random people off the street with an engaged group of friends and family (which is often exactly the people who is reading a brand new blog).
Can you please show me examples of brand new blogs with “solid audiences”? How did they get this “solid audience” in such a short time, and why doesn’t whatever they are using continue to work as they keep blogging? Wouldn’t their audiences be even more solid after a longer period of time?
That defies everything I know about how the internet works and I can think of no examples of it being true.
I should add, that right now one of the biggest problems in the travel blogging world is people starting blogs for free trips.
Giving trips to people who haven’t been doing it very long, haven’t established a track record, or haven’t created an audience is only adding fuel to the fire.
Most blogs die out after a few years. This is just a fact. If someone hasn’t put in the time, there is no guarantee that they will be around within a year. Moreover, there are so many blogs now, that there is no reason to resort of inviting people on press trips who have just started, when there are plenty of established bloggers out there.
I was doing this for over 3 years before I was ever contacted by anyone in the travel and tourism industry. I had no idea that press trips even existed or that such a thing was possible. I did this because it was something I wanted to do.
Today people are not pitching trips before their blog is even launched. It makes no sense.
PR people who offer trips to bloggers with no track record are just asking for trouble.
Gary, you are spot on. I have been doing tourism PR for 14 years now, and admittedly struggle with the blogger press trip scenario, though I am getting better about it 🙂 In two previous jobs handling PR for upscale resorts in Pennsylvania — Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Hershey Entertainment & Resorts — the number of people requesting a “free trip” or tickets to Hersheypark because they had a website (usually a really, really bad one) documenting their family travels and would write about us in exchange for the trip, passes, etc. was mind boggling. That frustration on my part was further fueled by people writing books or having websites on “how to get your next vacation for free!” As the blogger world has progressed and traditional journalists are having to morph into the online world as well, I have seen a welcome uptick in the level professionalism. I still want to see history and a solid, established track record with bloggers who contact us or whom we pursue. A new blog is lovely for you the new blogger, but I have limited dollars for press trips that I have to stretch out over 12 months, and I have to be targeted and selective. I would like your thoughts — Gary and everyone else — on what the best standards are for evaluating bloggers …. one place I see it is number of followers, another place I see it is engagement, another place it is unique website/blog hits. Thank you!!
Put aside all the stats and everything else, and the one thing you can’t fake is time.
I’d expect someone to have been seriously blogging for at least one year, maybe two, before I extended them anything.
Once they’ve shown they can stick with it, then I’d look towards stats and quality.
I used to be in the New York PR world too, and the Cision master list comment made me laugh out loud. Great insight into the changing nature of press trips (or at least what the goal is for good PR professionals).
Always love reading your insights from the other side, Angie. You’re a wealth of information… and great gossip 😛
One thing that’s missing from today’s press trip arena is good writing. I could be wrong about the following observation (and I may very well be because I am in love with old-school journalism), but it’s my belief that today’s bloggers are travelers and social media mavens first and writers second.
While this skill set of blogging and SMM is essential, it is too easily lumped together with the word ‘writer’. I’ve browsed the blogs of countless influencers/travel bloggers and have found that accuracy takes a back seat to SEO, photos and page design.
Today’s bloggers, for the most part, are amateur writers who play fast and loose with facts, names and figures about places. This happens all the time with travel bloggers and Barcelona, the city in which I’m based.
Travel writing, consequently, has been devalued; travel journalism even more so.
We’ve found a way to make FAM’s more fluid and efficient, but have we found a way to make travel bloggers writers first and all else second?
I don’t disagree with you. There’s a ton of crap out there. From a traditional journalistic perspective, the downside of this whole new wave of bloggers is that many don’t have any training, and many don’t care about fact checking or AP Style.
Now, does it really matter? Not so much. If a blogger without a journalism degree is able to provide content that someone wants to read, then more power to ’em. Even if it’s terrible. No, I won’t read it as a consumer, and I certainly wouldn’t invite that blogger on any press trip of mine, but I think the responsibility lies with the readers to determine what they are interested in.
It should be noted, I’m a trained journalist, an AP Style stickler (most of the time), a solid fact checker and a spelling/grammar/typo psycho, and I’ve found that most readers don’t give a hoot.
To answer your last question, I think there are a variety of organizations working to legitimize travel blogging and equip travel bloggers with more journalistic skills. Given how new blogging is as a profession, I think it’s just going to take some time to sort to wheat from the chaff.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment!
Here’s the problem. Many bloggers are just that, bloggers. You would never ask a journalist if she wanted to get paid for a story her paper ran. I bet that isn’t the case with bloggers. I get media is changing. I get that many readers don’t know the difference — or don’t care — between a journalist and a blogger. Fine. Whatever. Still, there is a difference. I don’t know of a single blogger that doesn’t also engage in advertorials. I’m a journalist. We have a wall of separation between the editorial side and the advertising/business side. The blog owner is both blogger and revenue manager. I just don’t see bloggers posting trip reports as travel writing. It’s pretty much just a public version of a travel diary. It’s not journalism — and never will be. Sadly, too many publicists don’t cafe because they need clippings. Heck. I want to know about you Angie. You also write on here as a travel blogger. What is your editorial policy? Are you being paid to write what you say about your trips?
You would never ask a journalist if she wanted to get paid for a story? How do you think journalists pay their rent, Nick? They do get paid — it’s called a salary.
Whether you personally consider blogging journalism or not is a moot point. That’s just nomenclature. Blogging is a business, a career and a valuable method of getting the word out about a brand, destination, product, etc.
My editorial policy is clearly stated all around my site. I report sponsored travel & reviews per FTC guidelines. Readers know when I’ve received something for free or when I’m working on a campaign for a brand. I don’t find it difficult to be honest about my travel adventures, whether paid or unpaid, so perhaps that’s why it’s hard for me to understand the hysteria…
If you were treated as an average guest and not as a paid employee of a hotel or resort (which a travel blogger is), then there’s a good chance you’d have negative things to say about the properties.
If you continued to write negative, albeit honest, things about properties, you wouldn’t get any work via comped trips.
Hi JR –
As a professional content creator who does often receive comps, I must disagree with your comment. I’ve been writing good and bad things about hotels and destinations for years, and I’m still standing. Honest and employed.
Brands value bloggers & influencers with integrity and they know that while working with content creators often results in praise, it can also come with criticism. A free room and bottle of wine isn’t enough to sway an honest person’s review.
What’s wrong with photos?
I’d wager that photograph does more to influence where people travel than writing does. There is a reason why so many travel photographers have large social media followings and so few writers do. There is also a reason why every magazine has a giant image on the front cover rather than a wall of text.
I’m not a journalist. I’m not out to get stories, do interviews or uncover scoops. I’m a traveler and I share what I see and do with other people. There appears to be a huge market for that.
Too many people from the print world keep trying to shoehorn blogging into their worldview. Their biggest complaint seems to be “they aren’t us”. You are right. I’m not you. I’m something else entirely.
SEO and all the other things you deride are done by someone at a publication. Just because the writer can be insulated and ignorant from that part of the business doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. Someone is selling ads, someone is trying to boost circulation and someone is taking photos.
Blogging is its own thing and requires its own set of skills and talents. There are more and more travel bloggers every year winning major travel journalism awards. It is just as wrong to evaluate blogging by its lowest common denominator as it would be to evaluate newspapers based on tabloids.
Don’t get me wrong…when I mentioned photos, I mentioned them in the context of a jack-of-all-trades travel blogger who tends to be mediocre in the art of writing and photography but who is skilled in the art of marketing, page design and/or SEO and blog metrics.
I have no beef against quality. You are the shining example of a professional photograph who travels (or a professional traveler who is also a professional photographer).
My contention is that the majority of today’s travel bloggers are mediocre at the art of writing but are amazing at presenting that mediocrity.
All I want is quality. Accuracy. Artistry. Those are the kinds of things which are valued by real writers. Blogging necessitates writing, and, in my estimation, today’s travel writing within the context of blogging (which includes videos and photos) is low-quality, inaccurate and unartistic.
Beautifully done, Angie. THANK YOU for this and for addressing the “Pay for Play” issue. I covered this in length on my talk at TBEX and it’s something I am passionate about. My saying is, “There’s lots of money to be made from press trips, just not on the press trip itself.” Creativity and partnerships go hand on hand.
Thank you, Carol! Lots of interesting comments on this one – didn’t mean to open the can of worms, but I suppose that’s bound to happen anytime anyone discusses payment and press trips in the same space. I’m so glad we got to hang a bit in Athens!
I have never seen it explained with such clarity. Thank you. I think this will be helpful to many of us who are always wondering how it works, or rather how it should work. I have been on those press trips where you spend 72 hours running from one thing to another. I almost felt like I had to ask permission for a bathroom break because I would mess up the schedule! It was almost impossible to take in the experience, culture or flavor of the sights we were visiting. I would much rather the “Breathable, functional, realistic itineraries”. Plus, it also allows for better note taking in between. And I couldn’t agree more setting expectations up front. That way there is no questions or misunderstandings later.
Thanks for reading & commenting!
As a print journalist turned blogger, and who now identifies herself as a travel blogger rather than travel writer, I’ve seen both sides. I’ve seen bad print travel writing as well as bad travel blogging. I’ve also seen stellar samples of both. When I do read a blog, however, that goes beyond the obvious, shows real research and/or makes me look at a destination in a new light, it does stand out, and it’s these blogs I’ll go back to rather than the ones with high numbers. The unavoidable fact is that it’s not enough to write well – as you say, a blogger needs to engage in social media, SEO and so much more. It’s tricky, but an exciting time in the industry. I just hope we end of taking the best of the print world and the blogging world, and not the worst of both.
You put it so eloquently! “I just hope we end up taking the best of the print world and the blogging world, and not the worst of both.” Great statement and something all of us in the industry should be striving for.
Thanks for sharing some great info. Glad to hear the press trip is evolving beyond the obligatory crammed experience that no one can really either assimilate or enjoy. If you enjoy a place, your writing is so much more authentic! Sad to hear that PR folks are going to the same people again and again. It leaves those of us who haven’t previously made these trips a priority a bit out of the loop. There are a lot of great undiscovered bloggers out there. What has amazed me about press trips I’ve heard about in the past is that stats and not audience count. I’ve heard of popular budget bloggers being invited to luxury destinations. Makes no sense. They may have numbers- but are they the right ones? Here’s to the new paradigm- user friendly press trips!
Great comment – thank you! If undiscovered bloggers remain undiscovered, that’s their own fault! I recommend reaching out to publicists every January with an updated one-sheeter with stats & info – that way, they can find you without having to read every travel blog on the internet. Publicists are some of the busiest people in the world, so the more we writers can do to help them out, the better.
Great idea about contacting PR folks in January, Angie. Wish there was an easy list of relevant PR folks that I could plug in to!
Fascinating to read about press trips from the perspective of a publicist. I think a lot of bloggers don`t realise how much work is involved with organizing a press trip actually. I have done a few press trips in South America, but none of them were tailored tours. I was part of a larger group of normal tourists, as I find the experience much more real that way, if you know what I mean.
I agree with that. Just hopping on a regular tour makes the experience a little more organic. There are obviously upsides to having a publicist plan out a trip – it’s more efficient, you get to see more, you get a behind-the-scenes-look you might not get on your own. Both have pros & cons.
As a freelance writer for 22 years, I take issue (a tiny bit) with your casual tossing of freelancers under the bus. PR companies never hesitated to invite me on press trips, even without assignment letters, because they knew that as a self-employed writer, I had to make my time on any press trip worth it for me–and that meant selling a ton of assignments after the fact. I would like to think that this thinking around freelancers has changed.
Yes, the thinking about freelancers has changed! That’s exactly what I was getting at. After working with some of the best in the business during my agency days, my whole outlook changed. And of course now that I am a freelancer myself, I have a different perspective. My issues with non-assignment-letter-carrying writers came as a result of so many requests from “freelancers” each week who ultimately took advantage of my clients and never produced. I was burned too many times as were many of my colleagues. So we always had to be extra cautious with freelancers in general.
As an “old” PR person (close to 20 years and counting), I admit the blogger legitimacy is something I struggled with, partly because my seasoned travel journalist friends were losing their jobs. But here in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Alabama, we host both “traditional” writers and bloggers on our press trips. My personal approach is individual trips work better than group, but we do still host four small group trips (8 people max) each year. And you are spot on that press trips are all about TARGETING — target who to invite, target the trip to the writer’s interest and know the cool behind-the-scenes trivia/info that will help them with story angles. Hate I missed the PRSA session you were part of earlier this week; going to listen to the replay of that next week.
As usual, your comments are right on the money. Like Carol P. I am a print journalist and blogger. I am also APR-accredited (accredited public relations) so I wear many hats and remember well my days of being a timid PR intern tasked with creating media lists. Like Gary, I get frustrated with the entry level PR’s reaching out for client coverage w/o bothering to check out my blogs, but I also appreciate how much time it takes on both sides of the fence to create successful media/pr relationships.
As I specialize in equestrian travel, I always ask if it is possible to add horseback riding into my itinerary. The majority of the time my request is met with a positive response as they know this will result in more coverage for their client. It’s the classic, “help me, help you” relationship. The press trip is not dead, it is a changing landscape.
I know you are picking up what I’m putting down, Nancy! PRs need to target better and they’ll get better coverage for clients; bloggers need to know their niche and what they can bring to the table. If everyone can find a way to add value, everyone will go home happy.
Thanks for lifting the veil & a bit of perspective. I came into blogging from the ‘Author Platform’ days & over the past 4 years seen intense shifts in what’s expected, demanded, for reach & relevancy – then it keeps morphing. Working with PRs more recently I have to say having expectations clarified helps both sides and follow-up is welcome. Most of us with a passion for writing & business appreciate it.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Elaine! Glad to see you here =)
Very interesting article, thank you for sharing your thoughts!
I recognize myself in both sides as I am working in the PR for over 10 years now (organizing numerous Press Trips) and I am now also running a Travelblog.
I have seen the development in the form and importance of FAM and Press Trips and I totally agree: good publicists now build a great relationship with journalists over the years. It is a continuous and very fruitful cooperation.
If you, as a journalist, notice that the publicist just called you as a “space filler”, not even knowing who he is talking to, then I suggest not to accept the invitation as the trip will probably not be too interesting for you.
Talking about bloggers: this is a tricky topic. Many “products” do not identify too much with a younger Social Media generation and prefer not to invite any blogger. Bloggers are not “controllable” enough, as you cannot pretend every Twitter or Instagram post to approve… On the other hand I think that THIS is the future. Print journalists are not always seen as a trustworthy source of information. People want to see and read about realtime experiences of people they can identify with.
Let’s see where this all leads us to! 🙂
I would be interested in hearing your view on the ethics of the situation that you describe; ethics from the point of view of the writer/journalist/blogger/etc.
What you are effectively saying is that since you (the PR person and your client) are paying a substantial amount of money to organise a press trip then you are in your full right not only to expect but even to require that the writer/journalist/blogger/etc write something (presumably positive) about it.
In other words, you are paying (albeit in kind) for someone to write a piece on your client’s destination. (Or whoever you are acting for as a PR person.)
Does that not turn that writer/journalist/blogger effectively into a paid-for copy writer for you? How do you see that?
Secondly, your very last point on “payment”: that would perhaps even more underline this situation and make it even clearer?
A long and windy answer….
If the PR company is paying a substantial amount of money to bring writers to a destination, then short of expecting some sort of coverage, what other reason could there be for doing that? It’s a PR tactic that’s long been used and while it’s in the process of evolving to include bloggers and new media pros in additional to print journos, the fact remains that sponsored trips are the lifeblood of travel + tourism promotion. There are few people in the world who could afford to jet-set and cover all the destinations that today’s journalists cover… and probably even fewer magazines who could afford to sponsor all that travel out of their own razor thin profit margins. There would be little travel coverage available if not for this tactic.
Now, I don’t believe PR people have the right to demand positive coverage. The writers are invited to experience a destination and then share their opinions, good or bad. It wouldn’t be ethical for a publicist to demand or require a specific angle. That’s when it gets weird. I’ve never worked with a publicist like that, so I hope such incidents are unusual.
Copywriting assignments & partnerships come with specific direction, word counts, message points, etc. in exchange for a paycheck. That is not at all what press trips are like. When I’m invited to experience a destination on an organized trip, I have free reign to write what I please – it’s meant to be my own take on the destination. If the experience is not what it was made out to be, I’ll be honest in my review. It comes down to personal integrity… my readers know I wouldn’t lie or exaggerate a destination’s merits just because I was on a sponsored trip, and my publicist friends know that before inviting me.
Love these posts Angie! (Remember when we sat next to each other at the 1st TBEX in Chicago?!) As a broadcast journalist turned travel writer, photog, and blogger…I’ve been bridging these old and new worlds for awhile now. It definitely is a changing time which can be exciting, ground-breaking, maddening and frustrating. And I so relate to your comment above about “the downside of this whole new wave of bloggers is that many don’t have any training”. Sometimes that’s tough to reconcile…that now anyone can just ‘publish’. And while many self-taught content creators can be brilliant and talented, many are not. I believe there is still a need for some basic journalism and storytelling skills/education (as well as basic foundations to photography and video).
And as with anything, it’s not fair to generalize writers, bloggers, and PR folks all in one bucket. There are good ones that “get it” and are evolving and there are not so good–on both sides. And still today, I’ve been on great trips where it’s understood we need time to not only get a unique story, but just TIME to process and absorb. But many still don’t do this and sadly it’s a disservice to all — the writer AND the client who won’t really get a compelling story.
I do remember that first TBEX – seems like a million years ago! And things have changed so much for bloggers, freelancers and PRs since then. Glad we’re both still here 😉
And this is precisely why you have always been my favorite publicist to work with, friendship aside. You have always “gotten” it! Great post, as always.
Great read, and interesting to see how things have changed, and why some things are the way they are. As a former news journalist and producer turned travel writer and blogger, it’s been really interesting to go on fams. I’ve been lucky and have experienced some wonderful ones, but other times things have been a bit more challenging. But you get to know who you love to work with, and who you hope will (and won’t!) be on the same trip as you 🙂
YES! I definitely ask who else is attending before I accept invitations now… I just can’t bear to be stuck with any divas for a whole week 😉
Great article. As a blogger, I really appreciate the shift you’re talking about here. The thing is, though, there will need to be an even further shift in the future, I think.
Traditional press trips – and even most of the more innovative modern ones – still don’t fit perfectly into a blogging world where the landscape is extremely fragmented and experiential travel is as important as facts and figures.
Most travel blogs become popular when a writer is doing their own independent travel in the style that suits them. The ultimate ‘press trips’ of the future will find a way to replicate that authentically.
Agree with you, Turtle. That’s why I don’t really take press trips anymore, unless I know the publicist has that flexibility to allow for stories to develop outside the itinerary. Independent travel will always be more valuable than something packaged – it’s just a matter of finding a way to marry those in a way where everyone can win. Travel safe, buddy!
Awesome article with detailed information. I never seen a post with such clarity. It can really help many of the people. It’s worth reading.
Thanks for your story, a topic in flux as witnessed from my base in Australia, to everywhere else where PR famil budgets still exist, the USA included.
Along with a few of my more proactive writer colleagues we find ourselves in a teacher/student situation with a majority (albeit slim) of our PR partners, most of whom appear tied to old-fashioned fluff stories that focus on pleasing their clients instead of enlightening considerate readers.
The times are changing thanks to a narrowing range of bloggers that have real talent and ex mainstream hacks (like me) who’ve embraced the exciting new world of clever monetisation without compromising principles.
I really hope the days of advertorial travel stories masquerading as authenticity are over.
isn’t that exactly what this is about “advertorial travel stories masquerading as authenticity”.
The author even points to what she sees as a logical step, PR people paying online writers for writing specific things. That sounds very much like “advertorial”, doesn’t it?
Or is there a different type of “writer’s ethic” for bloggers and for others who produce editorial contents (like e.g. “traditional” journalists)? Are bloggers supposed to write promotional pieces but “journalists” are supposed to write independent reporting?
I don’t believe I said that PR people are paying online writers to write specific things… that’s not at all what press trips are meant to be. Perhaps some are like that, but not the ones I lead or attend. Perhaps I was unclear.
The point is that each party is responsible to keep their own integrity intact. Writers must write what they feel is authentic, publicists must work with trustworthy writers who are capable of telling an honest story and readers must decide which writers they believe in — and I include salaried journalists AND bloggers in that statement. Just because a writer is on salary at a publication doesn’t mean their content isn’t supported by advertisers. It’s just harder to pinpoint the money trail and the relationship doesn’t legally have to be disclosed.
But that is *exactly* what you are saying in your last paragraph. Or do you mean that PR people will pay people for writing about their customers and then don’t want to have an influence on what they are saying. Hardly likely, is it?
That’s not how things work. If you are paying someone to write then you will have a very definite say (and decision power) on what they write.
You can hardly believe the scenario “I will pay a blogger to write but then I will not mind at all, or want to have a say about, what he writes”.
Your comment :
“It’s just harder to pinpoint the money trail [for a salaried journalist] and the relationship doesn’t legally have to be disclosed.” is just another way of saying:
“journalists are just as controlled by PR budgets as bloggers except it doesn’t show as much; they’re not supposed to be but that’s how it is”. Isn’t that really what you are saying?
And it would be interesting to hear your opinion about my previous question about the ethics in all this.
What I’m saying is: PRs are paying for a writer/journalist/blogger’s time. Yes, the good opinion & content is what everyone hopes will come out of a trip. I think that’s pretty obvious. But it is never meant to be a guarantee.
When I’m paid as a copywriter to create content for a website, that content is guaranteed to be exactly what the patron requires. Positive, factual information, guaranteed to be written in the style and tone requested – because that’s what copywriters do. Bloggers/journalists are not paid for their writing necessarily – they’re paid for their time in the destination. It’s a risk that the PR/DMO takes when hosting a press trip – it might not come to the result they hope for. That’s travel PR in a nutshell. There’s really no better way to get coverage for your destination than to invite people to experience it, taking the risk that they may not enjoy it and may write bad things.
I think I know full well “how things work”… I run press trips as a publicist and attend press trips occasionally as a blogger/freelancer. I understand it may be complicated to understand the ethics behind the system if you haven’t participated in it. But I am capable of attending a trip that’s paid for and still sharing my positive and negative opinions on the destination. I just don’t think it’s as difficult as you’re making it out to be.
Should we just agree to disagree? I didn’t write this post to convince anyone of the ethics of press trips so I’m happy to let you continue in your beliefs as they are =)
“I understand it may be complicated to understand the ethics behind the system if you haven’t participated in it”… I think I have been participating in press trips and the like for a fair bit longer than you have, but please be as condescending as you like.
If it is so complicated to understand, perhaps you could explain it to?
Press trips have always been a very delicate issue when it comes to writer’s ethics, and it seems to be getting more so with more and more publishing being un-edited self-publishing online.
At least your description makes it very clear from a publicist’s / PR person’s point of view.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune” is perhaps a good way of looking at it. The more that you as a PR person pays the piper the more you decide on the tune. Which of course is a good thing from a PR perspective. Perhaps less so from a writer’s perspective.
Didn’t mean to seem condescending. When you said “That’s not how things work,” I thought I’d just return your volley and let you know that I do know how things work. It may be true that some writers can be bought and surely there are publicists who work on that model. I’m not one of those folks – neither on the PR side nor the writer side. And I don’t recommend entering into editorial partnerships where expectations are such. As I said in just about every reply, it comes down to personal integrity on all sides.
I think you’ve made it clear that you feel there is no way to attend a press trip or receive payment for time without writing exactly what the PR person wishes, so your point is made and thank you for your comments.
I loved hearing about the shift in FAM events, Angie. As a new travel blogger that has worked in all forms of sales (PR, Marketing, Street Team, Sales, Customer Service, Teaching…) for different industries in the last 17 years, I always love watching the shifts that we have to take to accommodate the changing society.
I think it is important to look at a FAM in the big picture. Having been on the other side of the PR with the Sales/Marketing I can kind of give a different insight. With my experience, FAM (press events, consignments, or any other form of promotional events) are sales events. The PR’s job is to help build the relationship between the company and clients (in this case – travel writers). While in the meantime it is the staff/sales team onsite (destination/activities) to sell the adventure/destination to the clients (writers). It is up to the writer to share their experience and should be able to separate preventable and unpreventable events to form their opinion. (I once had a writer give a bad review because of rain…)
Should bloggers/print writers be paid? Yes and No. Personally I see the trips as a form of payment for my time. BUT I do think that once a writer becomes established, they should get paid. Not just for the purpose of “paying for time” but for the purpose of value. If I have been blogging for 3 years with 100k followers, I would expect pay for my time. It shows the PR that I value my time. That I am my own brand and I am here to work. That is not saying that new bloggers don’t value their time, I just think as a new blogger I would jump at any chance to get free content.
Angie, would you mind directing the sceptics to somewhere where a blogger has been paid “for their time” and produced content that isn’t gushingly positive? It might help.
This best practice “White Paper” outlines explicitly how angles and messaging are agreed between client and blogger to maximise client value, in the context of a Sweden trip: http://www.wtmlondon.com/files/best_practices_in_travel_blogging_white_paper.pdf. You appear above to deny this ever happens – have I misread the post?
Hey Theodora – can you clarify for me what I appear to deny? I want to make sure I’m addressing the correct issue before I respond! (And thanks for linking to the white paper – I hadn’t seen that!)
As for a paid opportunity that wasn’t gushingly positive, I have two notes: one, skeptics may check out all of my Ford posts from last summer, to start. I worked with them on a huge social campaign last year, and you won’t find much “gushingly positive” praise in there about the product. That was because expectations were outlined up front about what the payment did and didn’t cover. Payment NEVER buys my good opinion. (I can’t speak for all bloggers, of course)
Second, I think as far as blog topics go, destinations are usually pretty darn easy to gush about – that’s why people travel! It’s far easier to gush with 100% authenticity about Hawaii than it would be to gush about, say, a new electronic toothbrush or brand of sunscreen. Travel bloggers get a lot of flack about being “gushingly positive,” but I’d say it’s rather hard NOT to be gushingly positive at times. Whether I’m paid by a tourism board to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza or not, my awestruck reaction will be the same.
Are some bloggers overly effusive in their praise when paid? Yep, I daresay they are. And that’s where my point about trust comes in. It’s up to readers to choose whose opinion is worth trusting.
And there are plenty of bloggers whose personal brands hinge on negative experiences, but I am always looking for the good in every place I visit… so with that attitude, it’s usually easy to find positives to share. That said, I also write about the downsides – to hotels, destinations, tours, activities, etc. whether I’m paid or not. I think it’s a reader’s right to get the full story and I always do my best to shine a light where light needs to be shined.
In your reply to Per, you say: “Now, I don’t believe PR people have the right to demand positive coverage. The writers are invited to experience a destination and then share their opinions, good or bad. It wouldn’t be ethical for a publicist to demand or require a specific angle. That’s when it gets weird. I’ve never worked with a publicist like that, so I hope such incidents are unusual.” The White Paper I’ve linked to shows the selection of specific (and positive) angles for bloggers, plus pre-agreement of content, has been going on for a while and actively promoted as best practice by bloggers and agencies, hence my query.
Thanks for directing me to the Ford posts. There’s plenty of mention of the product, and shots of the product, and indications that you had a great time with the product. No mention of any downsides – in most organic copy on long road trips you’ll find mentions of the occasional frustrations these produce, be it only rest-stop bathrooms – but, you’re right, it’s not gushing: did I miss any posts where you identified downsides to the client’s product? If so, do link me to them.
What would be great would be to find a travel post on a paid campaign that says anything negative about the destination. That would support the notion that what’s being bought is not positive coverage – otherwise, it does feel as though you’re expecting people to believe that folk who are being paid to promote a destination happen to write the exclusively positive entirely coincidentally.
Your example of the pyramids of Giza is a good one. (I’m assuming you haven’t been, so my apologies if you have.) Lots of travellers who aren’t on paid press trips find the pyramids at GIza disappointing or actively unpleasant because of the sheer volume of hassle from sellers and camel ride vendors, and associated scams. Here’s one of a gadzillion examples: http://placesileftmywallet.com/2011/03/egypt-the-pyramids-and-the-hassle/. Posts about Giza by bloggers on the press trip that Egypt did ignore the hassles and unpleasantnesses in favour of the exclusively positive. As well as independent bloggers, you’ll also find journalists and guidebook writers mentioning the scams and hassles, because they are (correctly) legendary and a very, very striking part of the experience. The typical theme is “Yes, they’re amazing, but OMG the hassles.” I think you’d find it hard to visit them without noticing men physically grabbing you and forcing souvenirs on you, while, if you knew some Arabic, you might also be displeased by the language directed at you.
Here’s the thing. Most destinations DO have downsides and you’ll find in most unpaid/uncomped blogs that those downsides come up. (One example? Petra is expensive for most nationalities. I think it’s worth it, but one blogger who covered Petra on a press trip without deigning to mention the cost threw a very public tantrum about paying 1/4 of that price to visit Borobudur, here in Indonesia – also an iconic UNESCO-listed site. I’ve also yet to see any post from that campaign mentioning the persistent donkey boys.) The – to my knowledge – total absence of any downside in any paid-for post, coupled with the actual evidence that angles are negotiated on these trips, does leave the ethics rather open to question.
Ah, yes, now I see where the confusion is. There is a difference between a publicist & writer agreeing on angles in advance – frankly, why visit a place on a press trip if you don’t know what’s on offer that would be relatable/valuable to your audience? – and a publicist demanding positive coverage regardless of experience. I could’ve been more clear about that in my response to Per, so I apologize.
Demanding or requiring positive coverage is advertorial, not editorial. Creating a campaign, communicating the goals to bloggers, hosting them and working to provide a quality experience in the hopes of conveying that message to the bloggers and then their readers is public relations. Bloggers should make it clear that it is their right to not write about a destination if the experience is horrible – but on a carefully crafted group trip, the experience is rarely bad. I should point out that I’m not arguing that press trips are equivalent to traveling on one’s own, I’m just outlining how trips have changed since I first started.
Egypt is a great example, because I visited in 2011 on a comped trip. Here are all my posts, negative & positive.
I was borderline assaulted in Egypt and yes, I talked about it. The groping, the catcalling – it’s all in my coverage. So I guess there’s one prime example of a blogger writing about the negative and the positive. Yes, the touts were annoying, yes, I was groped, yes, I speak enough Arabic to know I should be at least mildly concerned everywhere I go — but it’s still Egypt! My wonder and amazement at the history & architecture couldn’t be stomped out by the expected speed bumps everyone experiences there. And I wrote about those downsides because I think others should know what to expect. Same as when I was pick-pocketed in Athens. I was sponsored, but I still wrote a post about how to avoid the same fate.
As for the Ford trip – yes, I took photos with the product, the Ford car. Yes, there were indications that I enjoyed my road trip… why wouldn’t I? The car worked just as a car is meant to work. There wasn’t anything negative to say about the experience. I believe mentioning & photographing the product is quite different than gushing, obviously purchased praise. Saying I drove a Ford is not the same as claiming the Ford changed my life and I’ll never be the same – right? I didn’t delve into upsides and downsides of the car (or the rest stop bathrooms) because that was not the assignment. And that’s why I took the project. My job was to drive the vehicle and take pictures having fun across the US – not to provide a gushing review of a car. If I wrote for Consumer Reports, I’d have a different take.
I will admit, whether sponsored or not, downsides are not my focus unless they’re a huge inconvenience, a funny story or something everyone will experience – like the touts in Egypt. There are plenty of other bloggers out there (plus all of TripAdvisor) who can harp on lack of fast WiFi in every cafe or the fact that there are too many stairs in Santorini. I’m here to provide helpful tips, funny stories and honest, inspiring content, not complain that room service took too long one night.
It may seem like because I’ve taken a stance on this I get paid for every trip I take and should probably point out for all those reading – that’s just not true. I think I took maybe 3 or 4 sponsored trips last year? Not a ton in the grand scheme. And the majority of my first year on the road was financed by my savings account alone. Flights, most hotels/hostels, activities, etc.
My point with this article is that things are done differently now than they were when I started in PR – I’m not here to proselytize on the morality of press trips. I do what I do and others do what they do. All comes down to personal integrity and the trust between readers and individual bloggers.
Great post! I’ve gone on a few press trips and love them. As a travel blogger, I appreciate having so many of the logistics taken care of so that I can focus on the experience. For me, it’s a win-win every time.
Oh my goodness! I kept hearing about how hotly debated “free” press trips and the like are, but haven’t actually came across any arguments until this post. Of course, I am one of the new bloggers. Not going to lie, I was surprised at how things became about “payments” when really, this purpose of this post was about how things used to be and what they’ve evolved into!
Angie – I do like getting a better understanding on the way things work, as I do a lot of research on things beforehand (and when I return home, for clarification). Between this post and the one you did on how bloggers get Blacklisted, I think overall, I’ll be fine.
The blacklisting thing, though… Now that is some crazy stuff! Obviously, you’re supposed to be there to work and that requires major attention devoted to your leader(s) & guide(s), collecting every stinking piece of paper that provides prices, hours of operation, and all that other stuff in order to properly inform your readership.
I’m currently working on a piece that I’m reconnecting with the businesses I came across during my getaway. Glad I did because my AirBnb apartment has received an upgrade in the bathroom (which was part of a laughable experience for me but could have been a deal-breaker for others). Knowing about this upgrade should help my readers determine if they want to use the same accommodations as myself.
I plan to be taken seriously without it just resorting to a pretty travel diary, with a bunch of “And then we did ___. And then we ate at ____.” Needless to say, I appreciate POVs that are part of my niche but on the other side of the fence at the same time.