Monday, 3 September 2012

Blogging and Why There Shouldn't be Awkwardness Over 'Bad' Reviews

My children watch a lot of Disney movies. And, usually, when they get up half way through to play, I'm normally left on the sofa by myself watching them. But one day, alone in front of the television, something caught my attention. The film was Ratatouille. The character: Restaurant Critic Anton Ego.

In his big speech at the end of the film, he says: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read."

And it is. Giles Coren didn't become one of Britain's best-known restaurant critics for nodding enthusiastically at everything he was offered and praising it all joyously afterwards. When you search for reviews on Google you'll often find the more negative reviews at the top of the page - the most viewed. And whenever I've said I don't much like something, that post always got many more page views than anything else.

The thing is, many of us just don't like giving bad reviews. Chefs can spend their whole lives training professionally - we're talking decades of training and perfecting their dishes. Then someone sets up a blog, traipses on down to their restaurant and finds fault with something they've served (justifiably or not) and tells the world. You can see why some chefs have had a hard time with some bloggers in the past.

PR companies can also contact you and offer a free product, sample, free 3-course meal or even a weekend away for you to write about on your blog. If you've had a bad experience there it can lead to some kind of awkwardness, especially if it was complimentary. It shouldn't have to. We all are reviewing a product or service, not just agreeing to write an advert for it.

Readers come to blogs for honest opinion. They don't come to be fed padded-out reviews that praise a company that didn't deliver the best they could just because the blogger writing it felt 'awkward.' And, as I've learned over the last few years blogging, there really is no need for any of that awkwardness anyway. Here's why:

The company offering the review product knows they are taking a risk
When a company decides to send out samples or offer restaurant dishes they know they are taking a risk. Sometimes they'll email you and stress that they want you to write up an honest review. You would hope that by the time they get reviewers involved, they would have polished their product or service enough that they would expect a good write up about it. This could also work in the opposite way for restaurants, where sometimes you find you're being offered top up drinks, extra bowls of olives and the like, while the diners around you sit there, twiddling their thumbs with their tummies rumbling. (Tip: go anonymous).

Most companies don't mind that you've written a bad review
See? There's no need to feel awkward. But there's a way to go about it. When I've had a bad experience, I haven't just written up the blog post and published it, full of negative comments. First, I've contacted the company to explain the reasons why I didn't like what they sent. Then, they have a chance to either put it right, or at least state their reply. Then, you can go ahead and publish what you thought about the product, along with their response. And anyway, so the saying goes: 'There's no such thing as bad publicity'. All (bad and good) reviews spark conversation and might even get someone to try the product for themselves to see what they think.

For a product to do well, they need good and bad feedback
Very often, review samples are sent out so that companies can receive feedback before officially launching their product. They'll often ask bloggers to write reviews or sometimes just give their opinions to them directly so that they can make sure the product is ready for the mass market. If you thank them for what they sent, and just tell them it was great (and it wasn't) you're not helping anything move forward. Be honest, but also stay professional and constructive. 

Just make sure you're justified
There have been so many instances in the world's news about bloggers being punished or publicly thrashed for wrongly criticising a restaurant and its food. There was the case in Taiwan where a blogger was imprisoned for wrongly saying that a restaurant's noodles were too salty. Extreme, yes. But just because we shouldn't feel bad about writing negative (but constructive) reviews, it doesn't mean you can go and slag off everything you eat. You'll most likely annoy the restaurant owner and chef (especially if you don't give them a chance to reply in the first place). As the wrongly-criticised chef in Taiwan said, bloggers should be "objective and fair" in their writing.

So. If you try a product that really wasn't up to scratch, don't just sit there and say it was great for an easy life. Most companies will be pleased with the feedback and your recommendations might even result in long-term changes - for the better - to the product on sale. You'll win the respect of your readers who will come to you for an honest (but constructive) opinion, too. Just remember that you are responsible for your comments - write fairly and constructively.

Have you ever felt pressured into giving a good review of something when it wasn't that good, especially if the product or meal was complimentary? Is it important for bloggers to be honest when writing up reviews? Tell me what you think...



17 comments:

  1. Interesting blog. I agree that writing fawning reviews for things in order to 'be nice' is misleading and pretty pointless. I also find overly critical and harsh reviews make uncomfortable reading, sometimes things are better left unsaid.
    generally, on my blog, I don't write about negative experiences eating out (unless they are particularly note worthy).
    I wouldn't just say nice things for the sake of it, but I find writing about lacklustre meals depressing, and would rather focus on the good stuff that I think deserves to be praised. Having said that, I do report disasters that happen in my own kitchen!

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    1. Hi Amy, thanks for this - yes sometimes overly harsh reviews are uncomfortable reading. I also report when something's gone wrong in the kitchen - it might help the next person who tries it :) Thanks for your comment!

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  2. My viewpoint is slightly different from yours, but I look at it from a different perspective maybe? I think that all bloggers should have disclosure statements on their blogs if they are going to review products or services. Once you build a readership of people who like and trust you to be honest about a meal you have made or a cake, then the knock on effect of that is that they will trust you about a restaurant review. That is why companies approach bloggers and offer them freebies in return for product placement, reviews etc. There are many approaches to marketing after all and many of them are simply about getting their brand/name/ etc in as many blogs as possible to get a word of mouth buzz, recognition, familiarity thing going on with the hope of their brand going viral.

    Bloggers should always say if they were given them for free or gained any advantage, financial, media exposure etc. Bloggers come in many shapes and sizes and though a seasoned blogger can easily see where other bloggers sit on the spectrum, a casual browser might not pick that up. Journalists can be sued, so it follows that bloggers can be too. You are publishing after all, not writing a private journal and must keep to the law. Journalists follow rules, blogging groups come up with statements and rules, but they can't be sacked like a journalist can for not following them.

    Anyway those are some of my thoughts, hope not too off topic. best wishes, Jo

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    1. I totally agree with you there - brands have so much more to gain than just an internet full of 'good' reviews. And it's also important that we always disclose any free meals or samples - informally in the text or after the post. We've also got to be accountable for anything we say, so you're absolutely right - blogs aren't a personal diary, they're published for the world to see. Thanks for taking the time to comment, you've made some really interesting points.

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  3. I saw recently quite a few bloggers posting reviews and giveaways for chocolate. I won some of them and they looked really nice. However the taste didn't live up to the reviews. They really were nothing special (and have since been found to be 'nothing special!).
    I have done a couple of reviews of films, shows and bits and bobs I've won and hopefully given a balanced view! (one review for a show is my most read post :-) )

    I agree with you that reviews should be honest and not fawning. If the product or service you are trying out is dire then it would be best to feedback first.
    Being a trained people manager it reminds of a course I once took about giving feedback. You say something good, then bring up what needs to improve followed by a positive reinforcement - we used to call it the 'shit sandwich'. Which is basically what bloggers should be doing with their reviews.
    I've recently done my first 'official' review and I hope to do some more as I find it interesting. Your views here will help me remain objective!

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    1. Great points! I suppose another thing that might come across in here is that our tastes are all different and maybe some of those bloggers did really like those chocolates - however I think you can tell when a review is 'woolly' and doesn't hone in on pluses or negatives. I like that idea about negative, then positive and then negative - I'll try and remember that!

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  4. One thing I have always promised my readership is that I will be honest. If a recipe (and sometimes it's my recipe) that I've talked about with high hopes falls flat, then I'll say so - and why, but I won't pass on that recipe. If it works and it's brilliant - then it gets passed on. Where reviews are concerned, I'll be as honest about the product. I use the same approach as you to reviews that contain negative feedback, in that I'll contact the PR company first to give them an opportunity to respond. Whenever I blog a review, I always try to find something good to say about the product. There has only been once when I just couldn't find anything good to say about it, so I contacted them to say I wouldn't be blogging it as my review would be so negative that, even if an improved product were to be released, the words would still be out there and potentially damaging. We talked about the problems that I experienced with the product and the PR company fed that back to the product's makers. I like to think that I helped, somewhere along the line.

    Personally, I hate "ethical statements" appearing on blogs. If you can't make it clear in the body of the text that you were sent an item "for review" or just plain old bought it and loved it and want to share, then it's a pretty poor show.

    If a blogger has good personal ethics, they should shine out from the text, not have to be stated in capital letters as a sort of "get-out clause" at the end of the piece.

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    1. I've seen that you talk about recipes that haven't gone to plan on your blog Jenny and that's brilliant because hopefully it helps someone that cooks the dish next time - great stuff. And I agree that the ethical statement thing can be off-putting. I suppose I never thought about it until I read your comment, but it is - mentioning it in the text is a lot more informal and friendly. The only exception I think would be a sponsored post, when you're publishing what someone has sent you and want to disclose it (which we all should :) ) Great points, Jenny!

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    2. Ah, yes, a blogger should never pass anyone else's writing off as theirs. Agreed. Mind you, I think that point comes down to your own personal ethics too - if they are straight, then you won't have a problem as you would never dream of doing any such thing in the first place!

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    3. I just meant really when they are paid sponsored posts - but yes you're right :)

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    4. Ah! Understood. I don't ever accept paid posts, so I'll have to bow out on that point!

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  5. Unfortunately most of the recipes that don't work on my blog are my own... I don't write negative or vicious reviews for cheap laughs (which I think some professional reviewers do) but I do believe in being honest and I ABSOLUTELY believe you should always make it very clear when something has been comped to you. It doesn't have to be a direct ethical disclosure statement, (although I usually do) but it does need to be absolutely explicit.

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    1. Yep, I think that's really important so that readers can make their own mind up too. Thanks Alicia.

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  6. I have never had a problem with either a PR or a supplier (restaurant/hotel/food manufacturer) when I've written negatively about my experience of their product or service.

    Why? Probably because I don't resort to hyperbole, but simply state what I think and why, in polite and straightforward language.

    Indeed, I've often had suppliers come back to me on the back of my review having made changes, or invite me to discuss further, and then made changes. I'm not a big shot blogger, so my feeling is this is down to providing feedback in a polite and, where possible, constructive way.

    I prefer to always disclose any free samples or meals. Whilst I don't feel any need to give freebies an easier ride, I do aknowledge that service in particular will be different when a restaurant not only knows you are coming but staff have been told by managers/ PR to look after you well! I have faith in myself that I write objectively either way, but I still think it's fairer to give my readers the information and allow them to decide whether to give the same weight to the resulting posts or not.

    Accepting a freebie is an invitation to review, and review honestly. The free service or product in no way merits the easy ride/ free pass nor any editorial control over what I choose to write. The vast majority of PRs and brands/ suppliers understand that.

    I do come across blogs that seem to present puff pieces everytime they get a freebie. They are worthless to me as a reader, and are very quickly removed from my RSS feeder.

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    1. Well said Kavey - and I agree that PRs and suppliers normally do not even try to control what you're going to write. There are some posts that are so advert-ish that you sometimes wonder if it's a paid sponsored post in the guise of a review. Great points Kavey, thanks for taking the time to come and share them.

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  7. Kavey puts it really well.

    I don't do lots of PR/freebie stuff on my blog as I honestly don't think it's what my readers want to read. If I do feature something it's because it fits in with my lifestyle/blog already and often I have paid for it myself (like lots of the travel posts of mine). If it is a freebie I declare it and I don't accept anything and everything.

    Once I was sent something from a brand I highly respected,but once it arrived I was deeply disappointed as it wasn't their usual standard and I told them that. PR only wanted positive reviews so I said I was unable to do that. That blogpost never saw the light of day. I have also been asked to leave 5* review for books on amazon. I don't work like that, but know that some people will. When I'm offered something I always say I will never promise that the object will be posted on the blog, most PRs are fine with this.

    I'm a honest blogger and one who is rubbish at talking up something if it is rubbish.


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    1. I have been asked to write a blog post and then a quick review on Amazon, but I've never been asked to mark it 5* or similar - to be honest, when they send me something for review they don't really know what they're going to get told! :) What I have been offered (and declined it every time) was a paid sponsored post as long as I didn't mention the fact it was sponsored. Naughty. Thanks for your comments Jules!

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