Food blogging and comps: my take on the revelations of Ian Harrison

Recently in Eater Montreal, Ian Harrison wrote a piece about comps (free meals) for food bloggers. In particular, the bulk of the piece describes the one time that Ian got a comped meal from a restaurant. From the article (I’ve snipped a bit for brevity):

Last summer I celebrated a family event with lunch at Maison Boulud in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was close to flawless. My wife was unable to attend so when the restaurant announced in August that Daniel Boulud was going to preside over a menu from his cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine, I saw it as an opportunity to try the restaurant together (and, truthfully, spend some quality alone time away from our energetic and relentless daycare-age daughter).

But first I wrote about the event on Eater. When Daniel Boulud comes to town, you do that. […]

Midway through our meal, we spotted Daniel Boulud hobnobbing in the dining room. When he eventually made his way to our table, he couldn’t have been more gracious. But he said something that gave me a twinge of discomfort: “It’s our pleasure to have you here tonight.”

There was a nudge, nudge, wink, wink quality to it. I don’t think it was intended as such but I felt it.


When the bill never came, we left what we hoped was a nice tip and [left]. On the way home we didn’t speak about the food or the excellent bottle of wine we shared. […] Our focus was on the freebie. A freebie in the order of $250.

I am guessing that’s $250 in Canadian, which is about $208.50 or so in US dollars (UK £137, €179.25) at the time of this writing. Even accounting for this, that’s still a pretty lavish meal for just about anyone in the 99% and maybe even a few in the 1%. It’s the kind of meal that some of us, including people like me, usually only dream of.

And apparently, that’s the going rate for good publicity. What’s alarming, though, is that this is clearly unethical PR, in that the food bloggers are implicitly expected to remain opaque about this. Worse than that, though, are this burning questions: How often does this happen in, say, places like Houston, TX? Dallas, TX? Columbus, OH? Jackson, MS? Memphis, TN? Atlanta, GA? (Just to name a few.) How many otherwise great restaurants are barely getting the chance to last longer than a few months because of unscrupulous and unethical behavior in what amounts to outright bribery of the press?

I don’t really rely on news coverage or food blogs to decide on new restaurants to try. Usually, it’s places I have heard about from friends and acquaintances (over a decade ago I found out what Fogo de Chao was all about from one of the companies I was working for at the time, and I have wanted to try the place since). Sometimes, it’s places I have seen while traveling around the city, or occasionally outside of the city. However, I know a lot of people do rely on traditional media or blogs and may go to a restaurant reviewed well in the local paper whereas they would completely ignore a comparable television or print advertisement. By the same token I know that the local television stations continue to publicize the city food inspectors’ violation reports for similar reasons (so people know where not to go to). The value of publicity cannot be ignored, either way.

Blurring the line between news/publicity and advertising is bad not only for the reporter/blogger, but also for those who would otherwise benefit from good publicity. It also potentially gives the entire businesses (PR and news reporting) a bad name, as well as undermining the trust that people place in bloggers and news media to be transparent. A few unscrupulous bloggers out there who take the comps and write what’s been paid for have the potential to ruin it for all of us long term.

That sinking failed publicity stunt feeling

The Dot Earth blog recently featured an interesting piece on the scuttling of a boat called the Ady Gil, featured in a television program called “Whale Wars” shown on Animal Planet. “Whale Wars” is about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and their ongoing harassment and confrontations of Japanese whaling vessels. If you watch the show (I don’t, and in fact I had not heard of it until now) you already knew of the confrontation which resulted in the destruction of the Ady Gil. It is what happened after this incident, however, that is the focus here. From the post:

The news doesn’t relate to the collision, but the aftermath. Pete Bethune, who was the skipper of the destroyed speedboat, the Ady Gil, resigned this week from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, claiming that the boat, donated by Ady Gil, the millionaire it was named for, was unnecessarily scuttled to generate better publicity. There’s quite a bit of coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the New Zealand Herald, Gil is quoted as saying that he believes Bethune. Watson denies the allegations. (Shortly after the first boat was damaged, Gil started raising money for a replacement.)

In a later post to the Dot Earth blog, Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherd campaign’s leader, responds to this allegation:

On camera, I say, “it’s Pete’s boat, it’s Pete’ call.”

On camera, Pete Bethune says that the boat cannot be salvaged and that his decision was to abandon it.

Abandoning it would have left it as a navigational hazard. It was Pete who went to the vessel to attempt to scuttle it and Maritime Safety Australia was made aware of this. I am not criticizing Pete’s decision. It was the correct decision to make. What I am saying is that neither Captain Chuck Swift nor I ordered Pete to scuttle the vessel.

So why has Pete Bethune decided to make such an accusation to the media and the public that I ordered him to sink the Ady Gil?

The answer is obvious. I fired him the day before for providing false testimony to the Japanese police. He threatened to make this allegation to me if I did not reinstate him. I refused. In fact I sent the threats to the media before he released them.

So what is this story about?

To put it bluntly it was the seizing of an opportunity to make a scandal out of nothing, based on the words of a man who had been fired from Sea Shepherd the day before.

The abandonment of the vessel and the failed attempt to scuttle it was a responsible decision and made known to the proper authorities at the time. What was not justified is the deliberate destruction of the vessel by the Japanese ship Shonan Maru #2.

Now, I admire a good publicity stunt just like most other marketing and public relations counselors/consultants out there. If true, the accusation that a boat was intentionally wrecked and then scuttled (intentionally sank) simply for publicity is pretty damning. However, instead this appears to be more of a case of a skipper fired from his organization for lying to the Japanese police, attempting to extort his way back to his job. It didn’t work.

It does put a huge black mark on the Japanese whalers collectively that the crew of the Shonan Maru #2 intentionally rammed the Ady Gil, an act which was reckless and patently devoid of scruples. However, Pete Bethune, the skipper of the Ady Gil,  deserves the same black mark for a pathetic attempt at extortion, and lying about events that were well documented on video for future use in a television program.

We can all learn from Mr. Bethune’s actions as an example of what not to do. Shame on you, Pete Bethune, and good luck finding a new job. You’re going to need it.

Controversy, timing, hockey, personal branding, and publicity

Dan Schwabel ( recently wrote a piece on the story of two different reactions of hockey players passed over for their respective 2010 Winter Olympics national teams. My interest in this story comes from two interests of mine: professional hockey and marketing/PR. (Yes, I know it may come as a shock to some, but I do have an interest in both.)

Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens, a former NHL All-Star, was passed over for the USA national team. Scott’s reaction was relatively mild-mannered and happy-go-lucky, acknowledging the realities that there are 23 roster slots but certainly more than 23 players that can be seen as qualified to fill those slots, a decision which is extremely subjective and certainly haunts some players passed over for years (probably the most notable example: Herb Brooks).

It is what it is. You get the call, you realize it, you move on and focus more on here. It wasn’t meant to be. Congratulations to the guys who made it. You just wish them the best of luck and hope the U.S.A. brings the gold.

Now, we move on to the reaction of Mikael Samuelsson, who played on the Swedish national team in 2006, and won a gold medal. Given this, it’s a bit more understandable his reaction isn’t exactly the stuff congeniality award winners are made of:

I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go [expletive] themselves. That’s what I really think. […] If [Swedish coach Bengt-Aake Gustafsson] doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me.

There is a time for controversy. I think Mikael picked a really good time to be controversial. The gold medal he already has, of course, means Mikael has a little more room to get away with what he said, and in fact may well be the sports equivalent of a “get away with it card” in this case. (Scott has yet to win any Olympic medals, having only played for the USA national team once before in 2006.)

While I generally disapprove of indecorum, Mikael’s reaction will definitely get people talking about him and may have little effect on his real chances of making the Olympic team. That’s not to say Scott Gomez’s graceful reaction was the wrong one. Not all publicity is good publicity, and Scott’s choice was likely a good course of action for Scott in his circumstances. In the proper circumstances, publicity about controversy can be leveraged to work to one’s advantage.