More transparency in Blogs

You might have read this article in the Straits Times last week about how the MDA might require bloggers to declare their interests. I was quoted in the article as saying that I always state upfront whether I paid for the meals. This is not accurate and needs a bit of clarification but it is understandable that it is difficult for the reporter to accurately summarize my position in two simple sentences.

I hope our long time readers feel that I have tried my best to be frank and objective about my reviews of the food stalls and restaurants that I visit. It has been my policy to write only about good food and so bad food does not get blogged. This is the underlying philosophy that drives the blog. I really don’t want anyone to waste their calories on yucky food.

You will notice that there are instances in the blog where the word “Advertorial” is placed at the top of the blog post. An “Advertorial” is where I receive payment either in kind or in cash for writing an article about a particular product. I have made the decision some time ago, on the advice of our kakis, that I should never write an Advertorial for a restaurant or eatery. This would compromise the integrity of the food reviews and is something that I have adhered to. However, I have written Advertorials about things like movies, handphones, cameras etc. These blog posts are clearly labelled as Advertorials so that readers know they are articles which have been vetted and approved before posting. An Advertorial is thus like those newspaper articles where they have the word Advertisement on the top of the article.

Another thing that I have done is to label some posts as “Invited Reviews”. Invited reviews are reviews which are written on the invitation of the restaurants. As is the common practice in the media industry, these tasting sessions are provided free for the expressed purpose of publicity. My stance on these invited reviews are that 1. I reserve the right not to write about the restaurant unless I feel they are good enough and 2. The restaurant has no say in whatever I write.

I get many invites nowadays, so I screen them thoroughly before I accept them. Usually, I will accept these invites only if there have been positive reviews and I feel that it would not be a waste of time and calories to review the eatery. There is really no point in eating and taking photos of something that is not worth blogging about.

I try my best to ensure that “Invited Reviews” are as objective as my other reviews. There is one big difference though, and that is that the Restaurant is specially preparing its meals for review rather than the general public, so the standard might differ. However, the advantage of the “Invited Reviews” is that I can often get more in-depth information of the eatery which makes for a better story.

The rest of the blog posts, which form the bulk of the blog, are really chronicles of what my kakis and I get up to in our hobby of discovering all that is good to eat in Singapore and beyond. It is our policy always pay for what we eat and even if offered, we would practise the Asian tradition of being “Kek Kee” and insist on paying. However there are instances where food stall owners would not accept our payment because they feel that we are doing them a favour by writing about them. We accept these gestures of goodwill graciously as I see these as a gesture of friendship rather than a bribe to write more positively about their stall.

I know there are differing views on this practice and that some people religiously insist on paying for everything they eat. I respect them for adhering to their principles. My position is that we are out there to make friends. However, friendship is a two way thing and involves giving and receiving. I feel that sometimes, by refusing a gift (in our case a free meal), we are saying to the restaurant owner that we are there simply to do business and we shouldn’t let any token of friendship get in the way. At the end of the day, the real acid test is whether the stall owner will happily welcome you back to the stall as a friend.

I welcome MDA’s plans to make advertising in Blogs more transparent. It signals that Blogs are being recognized as legitimate means for companies to market their products. With legislation and appropriate guidelines to adhere to, companies will be more open to working with the bloggers and that is a good thing.

However I think that these rules should be applied across the spectrum of the media. For example, if I were invited to a PR event together with members of the press, it would not make much sense for the blogger to have to declare that the meal was free when the same is not required of the members of the mainstream media. How often have you flipped to the food section of the Sunday Times and have read the phrase “This meal is provided for free”?

I am thankful that I have a group of makan kakis with whom I often get feedback on these issues. They are the ones who often tell me if something is not right and so most of how things are done in the blog is based on the advice and feedback of the kakis. This was how the blog evolved over the years and I think the kakis are a good representation of our readers in general.

So, we wait to see what the MDA are going to do in terms of the legislation. In the meantime, I think that we bloggers should continue to base what do on what is the current, standard practice amongst the members of the mainstream media and on what seems logical, practical, feasible and right.

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